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 […]
If you’re anywhere near central France next weekend, try to carve out time to visit Montferrand. The town has made something of a cottage industry out of its annual Medieval Festival which will fill the narrow streets of Montferrand this week from May 31st to June 2nd. I saw several signs around town offering to rent medieval costumes for the occasion (some of them are listed on the town’s official website), and they really do mount a serious affair. Each year’s festivities are devoted to a particular theme – “ancient trades,” “the Templars in Montferrand,” “the visit of King Henry II”, and so on. This year will be no different. Street musicians, medieval combat, troops of actors and dancers, […]
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.
I grew up in Oklahoma, a completely land-locked state where most of the “rivers” are spindly streams running only a few inches deep most of the year. I can still remember what a big deal it was when we got our own real seaport in the early 1970s; great ships from the Gulf of Mexico could come up the Mississippi to the Arkansas River almost all the way to Tulsa, handling millions of tons of imports and exports every year. So I found it particularly interesting to see how Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, a lovely little village in the Périgord Noir in the deep heart of France, can trace its history as a port town all the way back to the early 19th […]
Karen and I will see Hamilton when we get to London in a couple of weeks, so I’ve been reading the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the hit musical. Among many new discoveries, it’s reminded me over and over again that nothing in history is ever really new or original. Think the idea of “fake news” is something modern? Thomas Jefferson said of the press in early America, “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” And if you’re distressed by the crassness of public discourse in the age of Twitter, you might find some comfort in knowing our forefathers routinely engaged in the kind of invective that would make a Russian bot blush. […]
Almost every town you visit in your travel around western Europe will have some kind of prominent religious building in the center of the city. But it can be difficult sometimes to figure out what you’re looking at, at least according to the taxonomy of the Catholic church. Is it a cathedral? Or a basilica? Just a regular “church”? Or something more exotic like an abbatiale, a collegiale, or a chapelle? Here’s a quick guide with some examples drawn from the area I love most, the “deep heart” of central France. (And yes, I do know that there are many other houses of worship, including mosques, temples, and Protestant halls, even here in France. But they are rarely the […]
The broad stone steps are still slippery from the rain as I start up the side of the rocky needle toward the Chapel of St. Michel d’Aighuile. I pick my way carefully as I climb…97…98…99….100. The building up at the top is tiny, meant for dozens of people, not a crowd. It’s 269 feet in the air, overlooking the city of Le Puy en Velay and the valley of the Haute-Loire. The Romans probably came up here to worship at an altar dedicated to Mercury, and the original Christian shrine was likely much smaller than what we see today – a graceful little 12th-century chapel with a claustrophobic Romanesque vault and several ancient frescoes still visible on the wall.
Having just ranked my personal “Top 10 of the Most Beautiful Villages in Central France,” I have to ask myself: would I include Pradelles in that list? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-u8FEPyKUY The honest answer is “probably not” – but this is still a town worthy of your consideration if you’re heading south toward the Mediterranean or to a week in Provence. I’d put Pradelles in the middle rank among the “plus beaux villages” I’ve visited in France – not the richest in history, not the most spectacular landscape, but still well worth a stop for lunch and a 3-hour tour if you happen to be in this part of the country.
The site of Les Tours de Merle has everything I love most about traveling in the “deep heart of France”: castles, a little medieval mystery, a little wild nature, and a challenging hike up a very steep hill. On the day I came to town, I stopped on the side of the sharply winding “D” road to photograph the towers when a French motorcyclist pulled up next to me. “Mais qu’est-ce que c’est?” he demanded. I explained what I knew already about the site. He stared for a long, quiet minute, then drew in his breath. “C’est magnifique,” he said softly, “c’est vraiment magnifique”. I couldn’t agree more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E1lKf3bjSo The first thing you have to know – the site’s […]