If you’ve followed this blog, you know I have a longstanding fascination with people who come from difficult beginnings in remote parts of the country and somehow forge a national reputation and a lasting place in history. It’s not that I follow the “great man” school of historic thought – I don’t! – but many of these people just have personal stories that are so compelling they are worth knowing about. Joan of Arc is certainly a prominent example in French history; in this space, I’ve written about Lafayette (hero of both the American and French Revolutions), about Pope Clement VI (a monk from the remote abbey at La Chaise-Dieu), and about the Count of Montmorin (Louix XVI’s “right-hand man”), […]
Somehow my visit to the crumbling castle ruins at Montmorin feels more important to me than the site itself really warrants. From the peak of this ancient little volcano, you can see forever – or at least that’s how it seems to me on a particular August afternoon in the deep heart of France. The entire Chaine des Puys, that iconic 25-mile-long range of extinct volcanoes that dominates the country’s center, is visible along the horizon to the west. As it happens so often in my travels through this region, I feel like the only person left on earth after some global cataclysm. I’ve come to visit the Chateau de Montmorin, a jumble of ruins at the end of a […]
I’m not a jaded traveler – but neither am I easily surprised. Valence did it, though, more than most of the places I’ve visited in France in the past year. It’s a lovely small city that feels much larger and more urban than I expected. It’s sophisticated for its size – one of its leading families put the city on the map as one of the great destinations for gourmet dining in France! And with one foot in the Midi and the other in the deep heart of the country, it’s ideally positioned to be your base for exploring a part of France you might never see otherwise. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIqAy4oN1KQ Some of Valence’s sophistication is easily explained: this is […]
To be fair, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came to Hérisson last summer. For a few months I had seen clips in the French press ranking the town on the list of “villages préférés des Français.” But France is among the best in the world at creating labels to promote tourism in towns of every size in every region of the country. There’s the official list of “Most Beautiful Villages,” for example, but there’s also a designation for “Small Cities of Character”, “Cities of Flowers,” and so on. So what might I find in Hérisson? Would it be a place ready to receive thousands of tourists, like so many towns in France where the medieval charm is […]
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.”