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 […]

Medieval Charroux is one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

  Occasionally you’ll pass through a French town that proclaims itself to be “une ville franche” – a “free city”.  There are even a couple dozen towns in France actually named some variant of “Villefranche” or (in the areas nearer to Germany) “Fribourg”, which means the same thing.   Charroux is officially “one of the most beautiful villages of France”.  There’s been a town here since Gallo-Roman times, but Charroux has also been one of these “free cities” since at least 1245 AD.  That means it shares the characteristics of many of the other French towns that have this distinction: It was given its autonomy from the feudal lords who controlled its region.  In an area frequented by war, famine, […]

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

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 […]

Medieval Blesle is One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages

Hello – and best wishes to all of you for a healthy, successful New Year in 2017 (or, as the French say, “Meilleurs vœux pour ce nouvel an – que 2017 serait une année de bonne santé et la réussite de tous vos projets”). We start the new year in another of the most interesting places “off the beaten path” in the deep heart of France.  The first thing to know about the medieval town of Blesle is how to pronounce its name:  it’s BLELL, with no mention of the “s’.  This is officially one of the “most beautiful villages in France,” an hour south of Clermont-Ferrand in the rugged volcanic mountains of the Haute-Loire. The second thing to know:  […]

The Chateau d’Avrilly and the Crash of La Republique

What do I love most about driving the back roads of central France?  Discovering a little corner of history that I would have missed if I only stuck to the guidebooks.  When I set out that day in September, my objective was the mysterious church at St Menoux, passing through Villeneuve-sur-Allier (and regular readers will know how badly that went!).  Early in the day, though, with the fog still settled in the valleys around the D133, I came to a sign pointing off into the woods and promising “Chateau d’Avrilly / XVè – XIVè”.  Great!  I was in a fine mood after my evening in Moulins, the September day was bright and warm, and I had no deadline to constrain […]

Medieval Apremont is a “Most Beautiful Village” – but is it “authentic”?

Apremont-sur-Allier is, without question, one of the most beautiful villages in France (“un des plus beaux villages de France”) – and not just because it’s on the official list.  But as tourists demand more and more “authenticity” in their travel experiences, I wonder how Apremont stands up to the test. There’s no doubt that it has all the requirements, and everything is arranged in one of the most aesthetically perfect settings I’ve seen anywhere in France.  It’s authentically medieval; quarrymen in the Middle Ages were cutting stones here and sending them on boats down the Allier to the Loire to be used in buildings like the great Cathedral at Orleans. The town church was built in the 13th century.   A […]

Castles - Central France

A Medieval Ruin Among the Sunflowers

Driving through the département of the Allier in central France can be like driving through Iowa or Illinois in summer.  You’re surrounded by the agricultural richness of the region – vast yellow fields, giant bales of hay ready to be loaded and stored, barns and farmhouses clustered in little compounds alongside the road.  The biggest difference?  There aren’t that many ancient châteaux in Iowa and Illinois! I was enjoying a drive like this a few weeks ago, taking the long way back from the extraordinary church at St Menoux to Moulins, when a medieval vision suddenly loomed over the little D-road in front of me.  It was the Château de Fourchaud (curiously spelled Fourchault on the road signs in the […]

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 […]

AT SAINT MENOUX: A MEDIEVAL CURE FOR WHAT AILS US NOW ?

It’s worth going to Saint Menoux just for its fine Romanesque church.  In fact, there’s not much more to see in this bright little hilltop village near Moulins in the Allier département.  But my curiosity was heightened as I drove west on the D945 on a brilliant sunny morning in September.  As in so many places around France, there are big brown road signs signaling the attractions you can see in the area around you.  These are usually straightforward: “Château de Billy,” for example, or “Forêt de Tronçais”.  The sign for Saint Menoux was a puzzle, though.  Featuring a line drawing of something that looks like a coffin, it says (with no other explanation) “Saint Menoux et son débredinoire”. Not […]

DESTINATION: SALERS – One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages

I’ve talked elsewhere about towns that are designated as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France” (les plus beaux villages de France).  It’s not easy to get the honor — a city really has to work at meeting all the criteria.  This month’s destination — Salers — is one of the 154 French villages on the list.  Like many of them, it’s not somewhere you end up by accident — it’s remote, located in the Cantal region of the Auvergne, southwest of Clermont-Ferrand.  But for me it symbolizes what the designation of “most beautiful village” means.  The first time we went there was on a market day in summer.  The town was packed – local farmers selling the incredible […]

Want to feel a chill in August in a secret corner of France?

One of the things I love most about exploring the “deep heart of France” is finding events and experiences that translate the region’s rich history into something I can taste, touch, see or hear for myself.  Today’s post is about one of the most extraordinary experiences you can have in central France, one which lets you go very far off the beaten path and be absorbed into one of the country’s hidden artistic delights. I’m talking about the great abbey church of La Chaise Dieu, where this August you can go for the 50th anniversary of an extraordinary classical music festival.   Photo  © 2016 Richard Alexander But…the town is synonymous with its great medieval abbey — the ancient Abbey […]