I’m a “big picture” guy. I like headlines and high-level summaries, not pages of detail. Global trends and big ideas are more interesting to me than step-by-step accounts of what happened in the past. One of the members of my team at work once told me (by way of explaining why we were having trouble communicating) “we’re all operating at 5,000 feet, and you’re flying at 35,000 feet.” All of this is to explain my enthusiasm – “love” is not too strong a word – for the place Karen and I discovered in Lyon last year: the new Musée des Confluences.
The main reason to come to Hautefort in the Dordogne region of the deep heart of France is to tour the great Chateau at the top of the hill overlooking the town. It’s an hour-and-a-half southwest of Limoges, and an hour northwest of Brive-la-Gaillarde, but well worth the drive to see this gorgeous example of how a medieval fortress evolved into an elegant country mansion over the centuries. I’ll be doing a detailed report on my visit there in a future post – but for me the trip down the hill to the Musée d’Histoire de la Médicine was in many ways the most interesting part of my day in Hautefort.
In all my travels around France over the past several years, the day I spent in the little UNESCO World Heritage town of Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat ranks among my favorite memories. It’s 30 minutes due east of Limoges, in the 21st-century region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, but on the day I visited, Saint-Léonard had withdrawn to a time before the modern idea of “France” even existed, far back into its medieval past. Remarkable things were happening when I arrived. The entire center of the village was closed to cars, and people were streaming in from wherever they could find to park. The narrow medieval streets were alive with visitors – but not only tourists! Everywhere I turned, in the midst of the great crowd, […]
I just came across a short piece from National Geographic summarizing the life and accomplishments of Julius Caesar. Before he made himself “dictator for life,” the magazine notes, he had to prove his worth as a powerful military commander — and he started that quest in the deep heart of France, trying to subdue the tribes of Gauls who controlled that part of Europe. Here’s how National Geographic summarized his campaign in France (and the phrase that caught my attention): Caesar’s seven-year Gaul campaign ended triumphantly in 51 B.C. The Gaul leader Vercingetorix was paraded in chains through Rome before being ritually strangled. In all, Caesar’s campaign killed or enslaved more than a million Gauls […]
I arrived in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne earlier than I’d planned, so my first stop was a bakery just outside the medieval center of town. There was still a morning chill in the shade when I took my pain au chocolate to a bench in the little square, but from the first bite I knew this was a town I was going to like – the bread was still warm, the two bars of dark chocolate were still melted inside, the crust flaked off in sheets for the birds around my bench to enjoy… it was the archetypically perfect French breakfast for me. (That may be because there’s so much competition. For a small town (around 1,200 people) there are a surprising number […]
On this frigid, dark winter day, I’m thinking back to another time… It was summer, 86 degrees and humid in Clermont-Ferrand, headed to 90 later in the week… Most offices and houses here don’t have air conditioning, so any respite from this oppressive heat was welcome. For me, one of the best places to be on days like this is inside the ancient basilica of Notre Dame du Port. I leave my room, already hot as a car in a Texas parking lot by lunchtime, and labor up the sharp little street from Place des Carmes to spend an hour in the cool dark interior of this medieval wonder. Rebuilt in its current form beginning in 1185 C.E. — but […]
For centuries, France had a king and thousands of titled aristocrats – that’s not surprising news. What might be surprising, though, is how often the vestiges of that old royal system still pop up in travels around the country today. That struck me particularly last summer as I drove north from Brive-la-Gaillarde when I saw a sign pointing off to Arnac-Pompadour and “l’haras national de France”. I love horses, so I knew what the word meant – a haras is a stud farm. But really, a national stud farm? Where else but in France would you find such an unusual institution? That got the best of my curiosity, so I took a serendipitous detour from my intended destination and headed […]
Some people are put off by the French tendency toward self-criticism and self-deprecation, but I find it somewhat charming. When I got to Saint-Amand-de-Coly (officially one of the “most beautiful villages in France”), I went straight to the massive Abbey of Saint-Amand in the middle of town. It’s a medieval wonder combining a long religious history with a commanding presence as a military fortress. But I was brought up short by its historical marker, which describes, in big letters, “the grandeur and the decadence of an abbey. […W]ars, epidemics, and the abuse of the Abbey’s provisional management mark the steps of a progressive decline.”
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 […]
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”. […]
A while ago, La Montagne, the main newspaper chain covering central France, had a great idea: interview a group of French tourists arriving in the Auvergne for the first time just as they are getting off the bus, then catch up with them again a few days later to see if their opinions have changed. The question: “What preconceptions do you have about the Auvergne and its inhabitants?” Jean, a 70-year-old from Paris, said he thinks of Auvergnats as “coal merchants and brasserie owners”. Denise, also from Paris, said “When you say Auvergne to me, I immediately think of volcanoes and the stinginess of the people.” The final word came from Bernard, another Parisian: “For me, the Auvergne means ‘prehistoric’”. […]
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 […]