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due east of Limoges, in the 21st-century region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, but on the day I visited, Saint-Léonard had withdrawn to a time before the modern idea of “France” even existed, far back into its medieval past.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, […]
Every year around this time, the France 3 television network invites people to vote on the “most preferred village in France”. (Last year, the winner was Cassel, up in the north near Dunkirk and the border with Belgium.) When the candidates for 2019 were announced this week, I was thrilled to find Souvigny among the 14 nominees — it’s there as the representative of the Auvergne in the deep heart of the country, and it’s easily one of the most photogenic and historically interesting places I’ve had the fortune to visit in recent years. You can vote yourself for your own “most preferred village”. Just click here and you’ll go to the France 3 site, where you just click on […]
Since I started this blog, I’ve written about my visits to 23 of France’s “most beautiful villages” (click here to read about my personal “top 10” – and I still have several left to write about in the months ahead). In Curemonte, though, I found something I’ve never seen anywhere else. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81cDV8EIJ_8 All of the plus beaux villages in the deep heart of France have the essential elements required to get on the official list: at least a couple of historically-significant sites and a willingness to invest in making the town attractive to tourists as a destination. Curemonte, though, is distinguished because it has three castles clustered together in one tiny village of 211 inhabitants. And the history of […]
Our guide at the Chateau de Cordès clearly loves his job. He’s also the “chief gardener” for the grounds around the castle (although he admits there’s only one other person on the staff), so for our tour he has scrubbed the dirt off his hands, tucked in his shirt, and opened the doors for the five of us at the height of tourist season in the Auvergne. It’s not really surprising to him (or to me) that the Chateau de Cordès is so lightly trafficked even at this peak time of the year. We are far removed from all the major tourist centers of France – distant even from most of the lesser known sites in the deep heart of […]
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 […]
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. […]