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 […]
There’s very little more interesting to me than reading authentic historical documents — there’s an immediacy and an “every-dayness” about them that can transport my imagination back in time to understand what life was like for people living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.
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?
We watched Season 2 of Victoria on Amazon last week. One of the episodes was especially interesting to me: in it, Queen Victoria’s husband (Prince Albert) gets tremendously excited from meeting Charles Babbage, inventor of a great mechanical “difference engine” designed to perform complex calculations.
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 […]
I’ve written elsewhere about the persistent stereotypes that French people have in mind when they think about the Auvergne – that gorgeous, wild region that dominates the deep heart of France. Auvergnats are isolated, people say; they mash their words so you can’t understand them, the only eat cheese, they’re stingy… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxdsBM5-n7Q&feature=youtu.be So I was particularly amused to see this new video, “The Truth About Clermont”, online last week. In it, a young woman announces to her friends that she has decided to go to the Université Clermont Auvergene. They scoff – “mais, c’est super nul!”, they say as they mock her choice. Then they trot out all the specific stereotypes French people think of when they think of Clermont-Ferrand, […]
Karen and I just watched all five episodes of Lupin, the French series that is dominating the Netflix popularity charts around the world. We love a good “heist” story – and Lupin starts with a very good one – but it evolves into something even better: a story about a “gentleman thief”, a hero who operates outside the law but is driven by a bigger sense of justice and “doing the right thing”. (Think The Equalizer but with some elegance and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.) The series also makes for a good opportunity to practice your French, if you’re inclined that way; you can watch it dubbed in English, or reset the language to French and turn on English […]
As I walked into the little village of Orcival on a bright autumn morning, I was momentarily distracted by a dog standing in the 2nd-story window of an old house. This alert little guardian interested me enough to stop to take his picture. As I started to put away my camera, though, I was startled by a loud voice in the upstairs window behind me. “Hey, you – you that likes taking all those photos of my house.” Uh-oh, I thought; he must be offended that I might be invading his privacy. So I was surprised when he went on. “Why don’t you turn around and have a look at my door, too?” What followed was one of […]
As I write this, the 107th running of the Tour de France is underway, just having finished the 3rd of 21 daily “stages”. Assuming the riders really will make it to the end in the midst of the COVID pandemic, this year the fabled bicycle race has a special interest to those of us who love the ancient volcanic mountains and gorgeous landscapes of central France. Stage 14 of the Tour will begin in my old hometown, Clermont-Ferrand, where riders will set out on the 197 km (118 mile) trip to Lyon. But the day before (Friday, September 11th ), they will first have to tackle one of the Tour’s famous mountain passages, starting in the beautiful spa town of […]
Given the number of old churches that show up on this website, you might think I’m Catholic. I’m not – I’m not even conventionally religious — so why do I love the ancient basilicas and medieval abbeys scattered across the landscape of the deep heart of France? I found myself thinking about that question again when I parked a few blocks away and made my way through a dense leafy walkway to the great abbey of Mozac. It’s surrounded these days by houses and school buildings, so your imagination has to work overtime to reconstruct what this place must have been like at its origins. (The whole town is now folded in as a suburb of Riom.) As I […]
Now that le déconfinement is underway, tourist bureaus across France are encouraging people to plan vacations closer to home rather than taking trips to more exotic places. The Wall Street Journal today has an article claiming “[t]he French are venturing into unknown territory: France.” Coronavirus border closures mean the French have the Eiffel Tower and the Chateau de Versailles to themselves. They’ve decided to see what all the fuss is about. (Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2020) The risk, of course, is that the well-known “greatest hits” of French travel — the incredible chateaux in the Loire Valley, for example, or a day trip to Giverny — might still be overwhelmed or frustratingly inaccessible if crowds surpass the new capacity […]
In any other year this would be the time when patriotic celebrations, grilling in the backyard, and summer vacations would top the American agenda. And in more ordinary times, this would be the perfect opportunity for those of us with an affinity for France and the French to remind ourselves that we likely would not have won our independence without the massive support of France in those earliest days of our Republic. This year, though, Americans can’t even (safely) get out of their backyards or to the beach, much less fly to France for a visit — so we’ll have to make do with a more “virtual” remembrance of the occasion. And while we’re at it, I’d argue that it’s […]