The Auvergne – that ancient volcanic region near the center of France – doesn’t seem at first glance like a place that would feature prominently on the stage of great world events. Even many French people don’t know what goes on there; they hold a number of odd stereotypes about the people who live there, many of which imagine Auvergnats as a species of rural rubes. And they’re always surprised when they actually visit the place to find how interesting, how beautiful, and how utterly civilized it is.
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 […]
Once you get to Lyon, the gravitational pull of that great city can make you want to settle in for a while – but let me encourage you to save a day for the 40-minute drive out of town to Pérouges. This medieval gem may already be familiar to you from movies you’ve seen, but it’s worth exploring on its own as one of France’s official “most beautiful villages.” I’ll admit that the timing for our first trip to Pérouges 18 years ago was not the most sensible: we went in February. The temperature had dropped to around -100 C (14 F), and our breath hung in clouds of ice crystals as we wrestled our suitcases into the hotel room. […]
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.”
Here’s an example of truth in advertising at its best: the little village of Collonges-la-Rouge in the départements of Corrèze is called “la Rouge” because… well, because it’s red. And it is officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages” because…it’s really beautiful. In fact, Collonges-la-Rouge has a legitimate claim to be called the original “most beautiful village in France”, since it was the town’s mayor, Charles Ceyrac, who conceived the idea of creating an association of exceptional sites in 1982. He eventually convinced 66 of his fellow mayors all across the country to sign on to the project, and the list of plus beaux villages now counts 157 towns in 70 of France’s 101 départements.
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’ve always loved the “living history” sites we’ve found in different places around the world. In the U.S., Colonial Williamsburg is perhaps the most famous, but my personal favorite is the Plimoth Plantation [sic], operating since 1947 near Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s populated by people who have taken on the names and identities of the 17th-century colonists who came to this place on the Mayflower, and they’re happy to talk to you and answer questions, intelligently and at great length, about how they grow food, the hardships of their lives, their aspirations in coming to America, and their relationships with the Native American Wampanoags. (Just don’t ask them about anything that happened in the world after about 1622 CE. The actors […]
It would be easy to understand if the people of Montferrand carried some kind of grudge. Its name has all but disappeared as an independent entity from maps of France. When people talk about Montferrand these days, it’s mostly considered a quartier or neighborhood in the larger urban context of Clermont-Ferrand. But buried in that hyphenated name is a rich history of conflict and royal intervention — and some modern-day attractions that make Montferrand worth a visit all by itself. The first thing to know about Montferrand is that it was a deliberate creation, not like other French towns that grew over time because they are at an advantageous bend in a river or on some natural defensive placement. No, […]
We’ve been to Sarlat-la-Canéda (most people just say “Sarlat”) several times, and each visit reveals more to love about this fine medieval town in the Dordogne region of France. Yes, it can be crowded and touristy on peak days in peak season – that’s why one of our favorite trips was in late February, when the market days are quieter and the chill wind makes passing an evening with a good bottle of local wine and a plate of fresh foie gras all the more inviting. Even if you can only go at the height of the summer, though, it’s one of those sites that genuinely merits your attention. Here are 5 great reasons to plan your next holiday using […]
When I wrote my first post for this blog back in 2016, I focused on the choice we made for our very first weekend after we moved to the Auvergne for our initial expat assignment, now more than 20 years ago. Our plan was to take a daytrip to Le Puy en Velay but we got so distracted by the extraordinary sight of the crumbling ruins of a great castle, the Chateau de Polignac, sailing like a clipper ship on a plateau of basalt near the highway, that we took a detour to explore it first. The sun’s brightest rays seemed to settle on it, and we could see from miles away how unassailable this powerful fortress must have […]
When you hear the words “cave dweller”, your mind likely goes immediately to images of the sloping foreheads and protruding teeth of the Cro-Magnons of textbooks and Geico commercials. In fact, though, people have been living in caves in the deep heart of France for tens of thousands of years. Karen and I have had the thrill of being among the very few visitors allowed in each day to see the prehistoric paintings on the wall of the caves at Font de Gaume and Combarelles. We’ve seen examples like the defensive fort built in a cave above La Roque Gageac, and the remarkable network of troglodytic chapels that make up the ancient church behind the Abbey at Brantome.