Murol Chateau Castle Auvergne Cantal France Medieval Renaissance

Is Murol the coolest medieval castle in the deep heart of France?

A user on Quora recently asked me “What are the best castles in France?”  I listed some of my favorites — Beynac, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Polignac, Les Tours de Merle – with a focus on places removed from the “standard” touristy sights of the Loire Valley.  But as I worked on my answer, it struck me that I have never actually written about my favorite chateau in all of France — the massive defensive fortress of Murol, in the mountains of the Cantal. Today’s post is meant to correct that error and introduce you to one of the best overall tourist destinations in the deep heart of the country. I’ve made several visits to Murol just for the pleasure of photographing it.  […]

ASM Clermont Auvergne Rugby Vercingetorix

It’s ASM Rugby Season in the Deep Heart of France!

My heart beats a little faster every year as September approaches – I don’t regularly watch any other sports on TV the rest of the year, but when college football season starts every autumn I am there for hours every Saturday!  So on a recent September Saturday in the deep heart of France, I was excited to see first-hand what gets people there excited:  the opening game of the Top 14 Rugby League’s season in Clermont-Ferrand. The team is called “ASM Clermont Auvergne”.  “ASM” stands for “Association Sportive Montferrandaise” (it used to mean “Association Sportive Michelin” in honor of the company that founded the club, but the name was changed in 1922 when the governing body of French rugby got […]

Turenne Corrèze France Auvergne Dordogne Chateau Castle

TURENNE is officially one of the “most beautiful villages in France”

When you travel around the countries we call “France” or “Germany” or “Italy”, it’s easy to forget that these national entities are fairly recent constructs in the grand scale of history.  As Graham Robb points out so well in The Discovery of France, 80% of that country’s population still lived outside towns and cities even as late as the Revolution; even with a King as the “head of state”, the country was still a collection of old provinces and fiefdoms far from the government of Paris.   “Being French was not a source of personal pride, let alone the basis of a common identity.  Before the mid-nineteenth century, few people had seen a map of France and few had heard […]

Pascal Paris Auvergne Clermont-Ferrand Computing Calculatrice

UPDATE: Blaise Pascal was a towering genius from the Deep Heart of France

      Even after more than 40 trips to Paris over the last three decades, Karen and I always find something new and wonderful to see there.  On our most recent visit, the winner in this category is the restoration work going on at the abbey church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the Left Bank.  It’s only half finished at this point, but the work already done has painted the church in rich colors and gold leaf showing how gloriously beautiful it was centuries ago. But we also found two other “new” sites (new to us, that is), both with a connection to one of my personal heroes from the deep heart of France – Blaise Pascal. The incredible thing about […]

Place de Jaude Bartholdi Clermont Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne Vercingetorix Sculpture

The Secret Life of Clermont’s Place de Jaude

La Montagne – the daily newspaper chain that serves most of the villages and cities in the deep heart of France – recently put together a list of “things you don’t know about the Place de Jaude” in Clermont-Ferrand. Some of the historical tidbits cited by Simon Anthony in his article were already familiar to me:  the fact that the statue of Napoleon’s General Desaix is not much appreciated by locals, and the fact that the city’s Opera was deliberately built in white-colored stone mostly to combat Clermont’s reputation as “la ville noire” because of all the black lava stone used in so many public buildings.  I had heard before, too, how a great ‘urban renewal’ project had been undertaken […]

Chaine des Puys Auvergne Volcano UNESCO

Big News from UNESCO for the Deep Heart of France!

They’ve waited over 11 years and been denied twice before, so Auvergnats were understandably excited when the big news finally came on Monday:  the Chaîne des Puys has officially been named a UNESCO World Heritage natural site. As regular readers of the blog know, this chain of 80 volcanic peaks is one of my favorite parts of France.  The chain is about 45 km (27 miles) long, and forms the backdrop to Clermont-Ferrand, sweeping up dramatically from the flat Plain de Limagne that stretches off to the east.  We’ve always looked forward to the moment when, after a long drive through flat wheat fields and low hills, the A71 autoroute from Paris climbs sharply and the whole Chaîne des Puys […]

Lafayette Hamilton Chavaniac Auvergne Haute-Loire France History Revolution

A July 4th Memory from the Deep Heart of France

Karen and I got to see Hamilton in London last month – and it was as dazzling as we expected!  (It’s also a bargain compared to the usurious after-market prices for tickets in places like New York and Chicago – we had seats in the 16th row for about $75 each, and we even encountered people who found it cheaper to buy an economy airfare to see the London show than to get comparable tickets in the U.S.  God bless Ticketmaster UK for their “no scalping” system – I only wish they could teach their American counterparts how to do it!) Of course, one of the many reasons to love the performance was to see James Pennycooke playing the role […]

Montferrand Clermont Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne Puy-de-Dome France

5 Reasons to Visit Montferrand in the Deep Heart of France

It would be easy to understand if the people of Montferrand carried some kind of grudge.  Its name has all but disappeared as an independent entity from maps of France.  When people talk about Montferrand these days, it’s mostly considered a quartier or neighborhood in the larger urban context of Clermont-Ferrand.  But buried in that hyphenated name is a rich history of conflict and royal intervention — and some modern-day attractions that make Montferrand worth a visit all by itself. The first thing to know about Montferrand is that it was a deliberate creation, not like other French towns that grew over time because they are at an advantageous bend in a river or on some natural defensive placement.  No, […]

Polignac Chateau Castle Auvergne Velay France

4 Things We Learned at the Great Chateau at Polignac

When I wrote my first post for this blog back in 2016, I focused on the choice we made for our very first weekend after we moved to the Auvergne for our initial expat assignment, now more than 20 years ago. Our plan was to take a daytrip to Le Puy en Velay but we got so distracted by the extraordinary sight of the crumbling ruins of a great castle, the Chateau de Polignac, sailing like a clipper ship on a plateau of basalt near the highway, that we took a detour to explore it first.   The sun’s brightest rays seemed to settle on it, and we could see from miles away how unassailable this powerful fortress must have […]

The surprising secret at Saint Menoux – could it be a medieval cure for a modern problem?

Karen and I will see Hamilton when we get to London in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been reading the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the hit musical.  Among many new discoveries, it’s reminded me over and over again that nothing in history is ever really new or original.  Think the idea of “fake news” is something modern?  Thomas Jefferson said of the press in early America, “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”  And if you’re distressed by the crassness of public discourse in the age of Twitter, you might find some comfort in knowing our forefathers routinely engaged in the kind of invective that would make a Russian bot blush. […]

Le Puy en Velay Auvergne Haute-Loire Compostella France

You must see Le Puy en Velay – a Medieval Treasure on the Pilgrim’s Route to Compostella

The broad stone steps are still slippery from the rain as I start up the side of the rocky needle toward the Chapel of St. Michel d’Aighuile.  I pick my way carefully as I climb…97…98…99….100.  The building up at the top is tiny, meant for dozens of people, not a crowd.  It’s 269 feet in the air, overlooking the city of Le Puy en Velay and the valley of the Haute-Loire.  The Romans probably came up here to worship at an altar dedicated to Mercury, and the original Christian shrine was likely much smaller than what we see today – a graceful little 12th-century chapel with a claustrophobic Romanesque vault and several ancient frescoes still visible on the wall.

Beynac Beynac-et-Cazenac Dordogne France Castle Chateau

8 Cool Things To Do This Spring in the Deep Heart of France

It feels like winter has fought to hold on longer than it should this year in France.  There’s been snow from Paris to the Mediterranean several times over the last few weeks, and the temperature tonight in Clermont-Ferrand will likely be close to freezing. [caption id="attachment_3058" align="aligncenter" width="726"] Photo by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia via Wikimedia Commons[/caption]   In fact, the arrival of spring in France this year reminds us of a lesson we learned the first time we moved there.  We arrived in the Auvergne in early March 1997, and the weather was glorious – warm, brilliantly sunny, and welcoming.  “Wow,” we thought, “we are REALLY going to like it here!” A few weeks later, on Easter Sunday, […]