Salmon Brioude Cantal

Searching for Salmon in the Deep Heart of France

A surprising place for a museum about a fish The ocean is 450 miles away (by river) from Brioude.  The mighty Loire River, known to every tourist who ever took a daytrip out from Paris to see the fabled chateaux of the Loire valley, begins as a trickle in the Allier River up in the mountains just 60 miles away.  Odd, then, to find a monument to the salmon, one of the world’s most popular ocean-going fish, in this town in the Haut-Allier, part of the larger region of the Auvergne in the deep heart of France. But the Atlantic salmon has a long and distinguished history in this part of the country, and that’s why it’s worth a visit […]

Souvigny

Destination: Souvigny, a medieval gem off the beaten path in the deep heart of France

Coming into Souvigny I roll into Souvigny on a hot summer afternoon and it seems the whole town must be taking a siesta.  The funk of rich vegetation moldering in the sunlight reminds me of an August afternoon on a farm in Virginia.  A couple, murmuring in German as they walk toward one of the old houses, seem to be the only other tourists in town.  A woman, formally dressed in a business suit and white starched blouse, comes out from the church to a public fountain in the village square, pumps just long enough to fill a small plastic pitcher, and ducks back into the cool of the church’s interior.  A car door slams somewhere on a side street; […]

Usson - Deep Heart of France

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

We’re having lunch in Usson – officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages”.  Our table is 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’re finishing off our meaty cabbage rolls, it hits me 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 delightful sunny spot, almost like a town […]

Cantal - Deep Heart of France

7 Videos to Make You Fall in Love With the Deep Heart of France

Sometimes, as we all know, words and static images just aren’t adequate to capture a feeling or an impression you get in a faraway place – we need to see movement and the passing of time to get a better feel for what it might be like to visit a place we’ve never experienced for ourselves. Since I started this blog, I’ve put a lot of effort into explaining what the “deep heart of France” means to me.  You’ve heard why I love Clermont-Ferrand and the Auvergne, and you’ve seen some of the towns officially recognized as being among “the most beautiful villages of France” – places like Blesle, Charroux, Arlempdes, and Salers. If you’ve stuck with this blog for […]

MOULINS – A Medieval Center of Power in the Deep Heart of France

I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Moulins.  I’ve written before about how one wonderful evening in this town captured the essence of French food culture for me.  Today, though, we’re revisiting Moulins as one of the most interesting, historically rich small towns in the deep heart of France. When you roll into town on the D945 you know immediately this place is different.  Traffic flows constantly through the main square, with the pretty Town Hall on one side and a starburst of restaurants and medieval buildings on the other side of the road.  It’s a fine place for a long lunch and watching people on a sunny afternoon, but be sure to catch the showy chiming of the […]

Never Throw Anything Away – An Intro to the French “Plan d’Urbanisme”

A few weeks ago I was in Souvigny, a postcard-perfect town in the Allier, and it made me think of computer systems.  Well, in a roundabout way… The main square in Souvigny I first heard the phrase “plan d’urbanisme” when I was working in the Information Technology department of a big manufacturing company in France.  While it literally means “city planning”, in the context of IT it meant trying to figure out the thorny problem of how to integrate new applications and new technologies into an existing mass of old systems. But it set me thinking about how profoundly important the idea is for every town in France.  How do you put a subway underneath an ancient city like Paris […]

Castles - Central France

“Chateau” or “Big Country House”?

As you drive through the “deep heart of France”, you’ll regularly come across a massive house, usually sitting on top of a little hill or bluff and looking as though it’s been there forever.  There may be some evidence of fortifications – a guard tower, a thick wall around the garden, sometimes even a moat.  But is this a “chateau”?  Or just a big, old house in the country? The answer may be a little more complicated than you think.  Part of the issue comes from how freely the word “chateau” is used in French to describe many different types of dwelling.  It’s not just reserved for the traditional medieval castle – that’s a château fort in French and still […]

Medieval Montpeyroux is a “Most Beautiful Village of France”

Sometimes I come across one of the “most beautiful villages in France” that apparently gets more points for the vistas it overlooks than for what it actually contains.  Montpeyroux, for me, is one example. Not to say you shouldn’t visit – you should!  It is a lovely, neatly-kept little town with its own rich history deep in the Auvergne.  It’s easy to find, too; its prominent castle tower is visible to thousands of cars every day as they zip along the A7 (“La Méridienne), the major autoroute that connects Clermont-Ferrand to Béziers down on the Mediterranean coast. Within the city walls the first thing you’ll notice is how much lighter and brighter Monypeyroux looks compared to many other towns in […]

Is That A Rooster on Your Church?

In almost every French village you’ll find a church.  And whether it’s old or new, Romanesque or Gothic, urban or rural, your eyes will be drawn up to the cross at the highest point on the church — and on top of the cross you’ll see … a rooster? I asked a French friend why this symbol is so pervasive on French churches.  After a little hesitation, he brightened and said “because a rooster is the symbol of France!”  Which is true – you’ll also see roosters perched on top of war memorials, town gates, and old coins.  But is that why it appears on top of the cross? Nope!  That response didn’t seem right to me, so I dug […]

On Working With the French 2 – The 35 Hour Work Week

I’ll bet every expat working in France has heard the same thing from a friend or relative during a holiday visit back home: “Wow, so you’re only working 35 hours a week!  What a sweet life that must be!” As you’ve already gathered from things I’ve written here and there, it can indeed be a sweet life to live and work in France.  But the misconceptions about how much French people actually work and how productive they are can make you crazy if you focus on them. Where do the misconceptions begin?  Everyone knows about the famous “35-hour law” passed in February of 2000.  Its main goal was noble: reduce unemployment, which in France was at 9.8% in the year […]

Destination: Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule

The day was a little gloomy when I came to town, but Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule still managed to give me a lively, cheerful first impression. It’s a commune of about 5,000 people in the Allier département , about halfway between Moulins and Vichy.  If you’ve heard of it, it’s likely for the nice wines produced in the region – like those of the nearby Loire valley, they’re on the light side, with Gamay and Pinot Noir dominating the reds produced in this AOC.  (They also have some nice Chardonnay!) But for me, a couple of other things stand out as highlights of my time in Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule: The medieval church (the Eglise Saint-Croix) is worth the detour for several reasons.  Built in the […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

Blaise Pascal – Towering Genius from the Deep Heart of France

The incredible thing about Blaise Pascal is… well, for me, almost everything.  He was one of those extraordinary intellects who come along too rarely in history, but like Mozart, like Shelley and Keats, he died before he turned 40, leaving us to wonder what else he might have done if he’d lived longer. I first encountered him when, as a young professor of computer science, I was asked to teach a class on “Pascal”.  In the 1980s it was a new, structured language for computer programming, a predecessor to some of the languages still used to write code.  It turned out that this very modern programming language was named for the 17th-century scientist and philosopher because, among his other inventions, […]