Usson - Deep Heart of France

Usson – the scene of Queen Margot’s 20-year Exile – is officially one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”

We’re having lunch in Usson – officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages”.  Our table is on the terrasse of the Auberge de Margot, hanging on the edge at the top of the hill that gives Usson its spectacular views across the plains and stretching to the blue chain of extinct volcanoes 30 miles away.  And as we’re finishing off our meaty cabbage rolls, it hits me that Sarah Vowell** is right: “The more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories.”    Usson – this quiet little village in the deep heart of France – is overflowing with stories from its rich history.  Without them, it would be a delightful sunny spot, almost like a town […]

Cantal - Deep Heart of France

7 Videos to Make You Fall in Love With the Deep Heart of France

Sometimes, as we all know, words and static images just aren’t adequate to capture a feeling or an impression you get in a faraway place – we need to see movement and the passing of time to get a better feel for what it might be like to visit a place we’ve never experienced for ourselves. Since I started this blog, I’ve put a lot of effort into explaining what the “deep heart of France” means to me.  You’ve heard why I love Clermont-Ferrand and the Auvergne, and you’ve seen some of the towns officially recognized as being among “the most beautiful villages of France” – places like Blesle, Charroux, Arlempdes, and Salers. If you’ve stuck with this blog for […]

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, […]

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:  […]

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

ARLEMPDES – One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages

Arlempdes (pronounced Arlandes), is buried deep in the heart of France.  Although it is officially one of the 155 “Most Beautiful Villages in France,” it’s not exactly typical of the other towns you’ll find on the list. For one thing, it’s very small – the population is listed at 129 people, and I counted no more than 7 or 8 houses inside the town’s walls and perhaps 7 more outside.  It’s also very isolated.  The nearest autoroute (the A75) is 90 minutes away by narrow, winding country roads.  The nearest town of any size is Le Puy en Velay, 45 minutes away.  There are no stores in Arlempdes – no bakery, no pharmacy, no butcher. The only visible commerce is […]

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 […]

What makes a village “One of the Most Beautiful” in France?

If you spend much time bouncing around the French countryside, at some point you may come across a village with a distinctive sign at the city limits: “L’un des plus beaux villages de France” – one of the most beautiful villages in France. When you see the sign, you know you’re in for a treat.  Among other things, you’re likely to find ancient buildings, quaint medieval streets, elaborate floral displays, and pleasant gathering places where people meet for drinks and meals.  But have you wondered what makes a town “one of the most beautiful”?  Who decides?  Where are the other “plus beaux villages” in the country? Apremont-sur-Allier is definitely one of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France”! There’s actually an […]