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?
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 […]
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. […]
I just ran across an article from Canada’s Globe and Mail about efforts to fund and build a major new work by Jeff Koons, the American “post-modernist” sculptor. It’s intended, as I understand it, to be a memorial to the victims of the Bataclan assault in 2015…and it’s certainly become controversial. The motivation is pure enough — it’s seen as a tribute between friends just as France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty was in 1886 , an act of recognition and remembrance from Americans to their French allies. The mayor of Paris says the sculpture will “bear witness to the irrevocable attachment between our capital and the United States.” Still, some people don’t like the fact that France will […]
From the feedback some of you have given me, I know the idea of exploring France outside of Paris can be a little overwhelming. After all, Paris is perhaps the greatest single tourist destination on earth, and you could go there dozens of times without exhausting all the incredible things to see and do in the capital city. (Believe me – Karen and I have tried!) The idea that there are thousands of other possibilities, some more interesting than anything you can find in Paris, can really be intimidating when you’re organizing future trips. And it’s certainly true that, for most people in the world, Paris is the single image that comes to mind when someone says “you should see France”. […]
Although I usually prefer to visit these places at my own pace, many of the small chateaux in the deep heart of France require you to take a guided tour. They’re proud of their history (most of which is never reported in mainstream books); they often have original furniture and family heirlooms to protect from curious visitors; and (I suspect) they want to give their caretakers an opportunity to make a little extra income from gratuities and gift-shop sales. In any case, it wasn’t surprising that the only way to visit the Chateau d’Anjony in Tournemire – one of France’s official “most beautiful villages” — is in the company of a guide. And what a guide! Monsieur Martin took more […]
Vic-sur-Cère is a good example of the places I find most interesting as I travel around the deep heart of France. It’s not on the official list of France’s “most beautiful villages” – although it probably could be, if residents made the effort. It’s not a tourist mecca during the August vacations, although it gets a 1-star recommendation in the Michelin Green Guide for the region. It’s the kind of place that, when you do a search for “things to do in Vic-sur-Cère”, you get a list of all the nearby towns where there really are “things to do.” In fact, this little village appears to live quietly with its rich history, proud of the role it played in the […]
As the debate over immigration rages across the front pages of newspapers and in the nightly TV talk shows across France, it’s easy to forget that modern France – our concept of Paris and the country it represents – is itself less than 250 years old. It’s easy to forget, too, that what we think of as “France” today was built in large part by massive waves of internal migration. And one of the largest of all these “immigrant” populations…came to Paris from the Auvergne, in the Deep Heart of France!
Most of the stories of great castles in France hinge on the actions of knights and noble families. I just visited a place, though, where the key moment depended on the actions of … the Electric Company? That’s the great irony in the history of the Chateau de Val: It was only a hair’s breadth away from disappearing forever at the bottom of a lake – and frankly it might not have been seriously missed. But the waters stopped just short of the castle’s walls, and gave it a romantic setting that turned this minor château in the Auvergne into a serious attraction for tourists. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yfe5HwSx4qw
Color is not the only signal that autumn has arrived in central France. The smell of wood smoke becomes pervasive in the areas just outside town, early-morning frosts form on the windows. At work, the first chilly day means a cold day in the office as the radiators clank and wheeze their way back into action after the long summer. People in the street shiver in winter clothes (even though the temperature is still in the 50s or 60s [12 – 18 C]) , woolly scarves wound around their necks up to the bridge of their noses, heavy layers of sweaters and pea-coats covering the rest. It’s harvest time, too, and as people have been doing in this corner of […]
In August – while everyone (including me!) is away on vacation – I’m posting a shorter article each week with a look at a specific destination or aspect of life in the deep heart of France. This week: a look at some of the country’s most picturesque farmlands. Regular “feature-length” posts will resume in September. I grew up on a farm in southern Oklahoma, but in no meaningful way am I a “farm boy.” And yet…when I drive through central France, there’s something about the agricultural landscape that really calls out to me. You might think the Auvergne is nothing but extinct volcanoes and sharp hills – but it’s also one of the great “breadbasket” regions of France. So this […]
First — a quick “thanks” to all of you who helped celebrate the first anniversary of the blog last week. (If you missed it, please check out this recap of the best central France from 2016 and 2017.)This week, we look forward to the summer months ahead — the months that bring out all the best elements in the deep heart of France. Whether you’re interested in the rich medieval history of the region, a brisk hike through the natural wonders of the Parc des Volcans, or dancing in the streets with your neighbors, there’s plenty to attract you to the country’s center. Here are 8 especially cool things to do in the Auvergne this summer: Take a ride to […]