Saint-Nectaire is not just about that world-famous cheese

My first impressions of Saint-Nectaire formed during a freezing, dark winter week I spent there several years ago – and those impressions weren’t necessarily all positive. For obvious reasons: the place is remote, 50 minutes southwest of Clermont-Ferrand, and the town relies heavily on summer tourism. We were there for a series of meetings with my company’s business partners, and by the time our day had finished everything except our hotel’s restaurant and a single pizza place was closed, and none of the other local attractions was available to visit.       Last summer, though, I finally saw Saint-Nectaire as it is meant to be seen – and this time around I was charmed.  The shops and tourist sites […]

Hérisson village in Bourbon region of France

Hérisson is high on the list of “Villages Preferred by the French”

To be fair, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came to Hérisson last summer.  For a few months I had seen clips in the French press ranking the town on the list of  “villages préférés des Français.”  But France is among the best in the world at creating labels to promote tourism in towns of every size in every region of the country.  There’s the official list of “Most Beautiful Villages,” for example, but there’s also a designation for “Small Cities of Character”, “Cities of Flowers,” and so on. So what might I find in  Hérisson?  Would it be a place ready to receive thousands of tourists, like so many towns in France where the medieval charm is […]

Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon – a “Righteous City” in the Deep Heart of France

Most of the places I cover in this blog have something concrete that evokes an emotional response in me – old buildings in which I can feel the weight of history, a festival or a market that makes me feel connected to a place’s daily life, or some spectacular natural site that overwhelms my senses.  My visit to Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon was not like that, though. This is a town that moved me profoundly, not because of its “touristy” attractions, but because of the power of its reputation.  It’s a reputation for kindness and care in the face of great evil – a reputation that places Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon among the rarified company of places known as a “Ville des Justes Parmi les Nations” […]

Saint Flour is a “Town for All Centuries” in the deep heart of France

Cet article est dédié à Marie-Thérèse, Sanfloraine exceptionnelle et le professeur qui m’a appris à parler français et à profiter au maximum de notre expatriation en France. There are several towns in central France that are famous mostly for “being medieval”.  Many of them are immaculately restored; they give you an idea of how they must have looked in the 13th or 14th centuries.  (Think of the incredible ensemble of medieval architecture in Sarlat-la-Caneda or the settings right out of The Three Musketeers in the “most beautiful village” of Pérouges.)  They exist now primarily as tourist attractions where the curious traveler can have a window into life as it might have been in the distant past.   And on first […]

Is Vichy a destination? Or a regime? (Part 2)

On June 22, 1940, a somber caravan of cars and trucks arrived in Vichy, a spa town in central France.   They brought with them the principal political luminaries and the mechanics of bureaucracy for what remained of the French government after the Nazi army occupied Paris.  Eight decades later, the town still struggles to restore its image as one of Europe’s most historic luxury resorts. In last week’s post, I talked about all the great reasons to visit Vichy in the deep heart of central France:  it’s a resort town with a rich history, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its amazing thermal spas, a city full of remarkable examples of Belle Epoque architecture and first-class recreational opportunities.  On […]

Is Vichy a destination? Or a regime? (Part 1)

On June 22, 1940, a somber caravan of cars and trucks arrived in Vichy, a spa town in the deep heart of France. They brought with them the principal political luminaries and the mechanics of bureaucracy for what remained of the French government after the Nazi army occupied Paris. Eight decades later, the town still struggles to restore its image as one of Europe’s most historic luxury resorts.   Karen and I have spent a lot of time in Vichy over the years, but I’ve hesitated to write about it because it’s still hard for me to understand all the real complexities that make up the character of the place.  On the one hand, it’s the lovely and luxurious spa […]

It’s great (but strange!) to be traveling in France

We’ve had plenty of second (and third) thoughts about traveling in France during this second summer of the pandemic, but in the end, the weight of scientific data about the effectiveness of our vaccines and the restrictions that continue in place overcame those worries. So here I am (Karen will join me later) bouncing around the “D” roads in the deep heart of France again, and it makes me very happy.  But it’s obvious that things are NOT what they used to be, and there are still some aspects of traveling here that make this the strangest trip ever in this country.  Some of my first observations: Arriving in Paris is completely weird. We landed at Paris CDG – and […]

Usson – the scene of Queen Margot’s 20-year Exile – is officially one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

We were having lunch in Usson – officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages”.  Our table was on the terrasse of the Auberge de Margot, hanging on the edge at the top of the hill that gives Usson its spectacular views across the plains and stretching to the blue chain of extinct volcanoes 30 miles away. And as we finished our meaty cabbage rolls, I looked around this little village and was reminded once again that Sarah Vowell** is right: “The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories.” Usson – this quiet little village in the deep heart of France – is overflowing with stories from its rich history.  Without them, it would be a […]

These Historic Newspapers Tell the Story of that Weekend When Clermont-Ferrand Was The Capital of France

There’s very little more interesting to me than reading authentic historical documents — there’s an immediacy and an “every-dayness” about them that can transport my imagination back in time to understand what life was like for people living through huge historical events. So, when I found a site online that sells old French newspapers… well, I had to get a few for myself! Thanks, then, to the people at CadeauRetro.com for a fresh look at one of the most interesting periods in the recent history of the deep heart of France:  that incredible weekend in June 1940 when Clermont-Ferrand became the capital city of France.  

What makes a village “One of the Most Beautiful” in France?

If you spend much time bouncing around the French countryside, at some point you may come across a village with a distinctive sign at the city limits: “L’un des plus beaux villages de France” – one of the most beautiful villages in France.When you see the sign, you know you’re in for a treat.  Among other things, you’re likely to find ancient buildings, quaint medieval streets, elaborate floral displays, and pleasant gathering places where people meet for drinks and meals.  But have you wondered what makes a town “one of the most beautiful”?  Who decides?  Where are the other “plus beaux villages” in the country?

At Parentignat – a chateau that feels like a comfortable family home

I’ve had the good luck to visit more than 100 castles and châteaux in our travels around France over the past 24 years (and I’ve written about more than 20 for this blog).  Most of them fall into one of four categories:   The famous castles that line the Loire River’s valley and the great royal châteaux like the ones at Versailles and Fontainbleau.  (There’s a slightly smaller one of these palaces at Hautefort in the deep heart of France, the region I cover here.  They’re called châteaux, but many of these really seem more like palaces.) Serious military fortresses like Castelnaud, Beynac, and (my favorite chateau in the Auvergne) Murol.  These are closest to the popular image of “medieval […]