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, […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

8 Things We Love About Clermont-Ferrand

This week I’m missing my “second home”: Clermont-Ferrand, capital city of the Auvergne, one time capital of France for a day, and the largest city in the deep heart of France. We lived there for seven years (split between two different expat assignments), and I’ve spent several weeks there every year when we weren’t living there for the last 19 years.  Why do I like this place so much?  Here are my 8 favorite things about Clermont-Ferrand: Notre Dame du Port.  This is the older of Clermont’s two main churches, and it is rich in history – Pope Urban II launched the first of the Crusades during a conference here in 1095.  So although I’m not at all Catholic I […]

Clermont-Ferrand in Central France

Save Short Film If You Can! Clermont-Ferrand’s International Short Film Festival is Coming

Every winter, Clermont-Ferrand hosts “the second most important film festival in France” (after the well-known event in Cannes).  This February will bring the 29th edition of the International Short Film Festival, showcasing works from filmmakers around the world in addition to two thematic programs on the art of short film in Colombia and works of “black humor”. La Jetee is home to the International Short Film Festival in Clermont-Ferrand The 29th annual International Short Film Festival and 39th National Short Film Festival will be held from February 3rd to February 11th, 2017.   Ticket packages and information about hotels  are available on the Festival’s website. Read more about this exceptional event in my article on FranceToday.com , one of the best […]

Hidden Gems by Gustav Eiffel in the Deep Heart of France

The more I read about Gustav Eiffel, the more amazed I am at the variety and number of projects he and his company executed.  Among his early projects, I knew that the beautiful red arc of the Viaduct at Garabit was one of the most important things he did long before he built that famous tower in Paris. Viaduct de Rouzat But I was surprised to find that Eiffel was active in the deep heart of France long before even that.  As I drove the country roads along the great gorges of the Sioule river in the Auvergne, I caught a glimpse of a graceful dark line appearing from the trees on one side of the river and shooting across […]

Romanesque Architecture in the Deep Heart of France

Romanesque buildings pop up often in these blog posts because there are so many of them in the deep heart of France — it’s hard to write about most of the small towns and historical centers of this region without mentioning “Romanesque” at least once! The church at St Menoux There are big basilicas and cathedrals like those in Clermont-Ferrand, Issoire, St. Nectaire, Brioude and St. Saturnin.  Some very beautiful examples of the architecture show up in small towns like St. Menoux and Salers.  Country church in the Auvergne There are even some ugly stubs of buildings and little country churches which are technically “Romanesque” even though they don’t conform to the aesthetic principles you might expect to see associated […]

What’s Different in France: The Legal System

One of the first things you notice when you move to France is the difference between the French legal system and the ones we’re more familiar with in the U.S. and the U.K.  For us, it became obvious on our first visits to some of the ruined castles in the Auvergne.  We were surprised by the absence of safety barriers and access controls around piles of rubble, narrow staircases, and open pits in many of the ruins open to the public.  We have pictures of my wife grabbing our 8-year-old son by the belt to keep him from plunging over the top of a castle rampart.  Castle Ruins at Arlempdes Clearly these French tourist institutions don’t worry as much as […]

Castles - Central France

ARLEMPDES – One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages

Arlempdes (pronounced Arlandes), is buried deep in the heart of France.  Although it is officially one of the 155 “Most Beautiful Villages in France,” it’s not exactly typical of the other towns you’ll find on the list. For one thing, it’s very small – the population is listed at 129 people, and I counted no more than 7 or 8 houses inside the town’s walls and perhaps 7 more outside.  It’s also very isolated.  The nearest autoroute (the A75) is 90 minutes away by narrow, winding country roads.  The nearest town of any size is Le Puy en Velay, 45 minutes away.  There are no stores in Arlempdes – no bakery, no pharmacy, no butcher. The only visible commerce is […]