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Central France


An austere beauty

"Auvergne produces cabinet ministers, cheeses, and volcanoes," was the ironic observation of Alexandre Vialatte, a prodigious writer and native Auvergnat. For the rest of France, these rugged, wild old mountains--they date back some 600 million years--evoke the image of an isolated citadel in the country's heart, a land turned in on itself and somehow fettered to the past. True, Auvergnats are a tough breed, toughened to hard labor; and yes, they are attached to their past: loyalty to ancestral traditions has allowed them to preserve a culture that otherwise could not have survived. The Auvergnat farmer with muddy boots and backward notions is a cliché, but like most clichés, it contains a grain of truth: Auvergne is indeed a conservative, rural region. The famous men who were born here--from Gregory of Tours to Blaise Pascal, Lafayette, and Teilhard de Chardin--drew strength and inspiration from their land. The Michelin family's industrial empire is also grounded in the solidity and determination of the Auvergnat work ethic.

Auvergnats are passionate defenders of their independence. These mountain people know how to use the terrain as a means to safeguard their freedom, whether against the Romans (beaten back at Gergovia by Vercingetorix, before the Gauls' ultimate defeat at Alésia), the Crown (France failed to annex the Bourbonnais until 1527), or the Nazis (joined in furious battle at Mont Mouchet in 1944).

A unique style of Romanesque architecture took root in Auvergne, and blossomed in Clermont-Ferrand's Notre-Dame-du-Port, the abbey church at Mozac, and the twelfth century church of Saint-Nectaire. Even tiny villages in Auvergne often possess a treasure, like the church of Orcival, with its spare, spiritual statues. The Romanesque long reigned supreme in Auvergne. The Gothic style, which filtered down from its birthplace in Ile-de-France, made only minor inroads and is best represented at the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand. Throughout Auvergne the vestiges of countless fortified castles repeatedly ravaged and rebuilt over the centuries, perch on their precarious peaks like eagles' aeries. To reinforce the authority of the Crown in Auvergne, Cardinal Richelieu had these citadels systematically destroyed in 1629. The old defensive walls of Tournoël, Châteaugay, Murols, Arlempdes, Léotoing, Polignac, and Billy bear witness to the region's tumultuous military history.

On these hardscrabble high plains and mountains, life has long been a struggle for subsistence. Farmers had to battle brambles and weeds for a share of stony soil on which only poor crops like buckwheat and barley would grow; they cleared forest for a patch of grass to feed their single cow; they braved floods and bitter storms. “My own grandmother” (says André Gayot), “the eldest of seven children, used to tell me how, when she walked her little brothers and sisters to school on the snowy tracks of Pontgibaut, she would have to ward off hungry wolves who loped out of the forest!”

A taciturn people

Auvergnats are a taciturn race of country people. Their innate reserve is reflected in Auvergne's culture, mentality, and even in the landscape. Opulent dwellings and showy châteaux are rare. The few examples that do exist are found in the cities of the plain: Clermont-Ferrand, Riom--and they are usually hidden away at the end of winding, narrow streets, behind ancient ramparts. Others are found on the northern plains of Limagne and the Bourbonnais, where rich soil yields plentiful harvests of wheat, or else in the foothills where almond and peach orchards grow alongside the vineyards of Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule, Corent, and Châteaugay. In fact, there are two Auvergnes: the fertile plains of the north that open out to the progressive influences of Paris (Moulins, Vichy, Riom, Clermont), and the Auvergne of mountains and high plateaus, increasingly abandoned by farmers and given over to grasslands, cattle-grazing, or tourism--skiing in winter, climbing and hiking in summer. In spring the herds of tawny-robed Salers cows are still moved to mountain pastures where they spend the summer in the open air.

These two very different Auvergnes correspond in their way to the linguistic divisions that once prevailed in France: the southern langue d'Oc and the northern langue d'Oïl which was the language of Gothic art and culture. With Vichy, its major city, the Bourbonnais extends north to just beyond Moulins and west to Montluçon, a buffer zone, so to speak, between the Paris basin (of which it is geologically a part) and Auvergne (to which it is administratively attached). While Auvergne is mountainous, save for the Limagne plain which is contiguous to the Bourbonnais, the latter's gentle valleys benefit from a milder climate. Life there is less hard and the art of living more gracious.

Because it raises a 250-kilometer barrier to clouds rushing in from the ocean, the Massif Central is literally the water tower of France. Rivers rush out in all directions to irrigate the land. The springs that bubble up to the surface from deep in the earth are charged with beneficial minerals. As far back as antiquity, the Romans established thermal spas in Auvergne. The waters of Volvic are filtered by volcanic rock, and are as pure as if they had been distilled. Curists take the waters at Vichy, the queen of spas, for digestive problems; at Châtelguyon, for the kidneys; at Le Mont-Dore and La Bourboule for bronchitis; at Royat for the heart; at Bourbon-l'Archambault for rheumatism... In Auvergne, Nature can soothe nearly any ill!

The young volcanoes--extinct for a mere 5,000 years--that are scattered throughout Auvergne give these springs their vitality (150°F at Vichy!). And they also give the landscape its haunting beauty, softened by the passage of millennia. The spectacular Dômes range and the Monts Dore and their region are protected environments since the creation in 1977 of a vast Parc Naturel des Volcans. Lakes sparkle in former craters (Lac Servière, Lac Pavin, Lac Chauvet, Gour de Tazenat) or in naturally dammed valleys (Lac Chambon, Lac d'Aydat); man-made lakes glitter in the landscape, too (Lac de Bort-les-Orgues and the lake on La Truyère), and provide precious hydroelectric power as well.

In the nineteenth century, Auvergne's mountains were home to a burgeoning population--there were just too many mouths to feed. So each summer, able-bodied young Auvergnats came down from the peaks to work as hired hands on wheat farms in the plains, while older men tended sheep and sheltered in makeshift huts (called burons) high up on the mountain. Nowadays there are cows, not sheep, on the hillsides and they don't need anyone to watch over them: electrified fences do the job! And most of the young men who went down the mountain never came back up: they stayed where they found work, and succeeded by virtue of their peasant tenacity. Not so long ago, the coal merchants of Paris who carried heavy sacks of charbon on their backs up flight after flight of stairs--the bougnats, as they were derisively called--were all sons of Auvergne. With their savings, many bought a café or a restaurant--and of course a country house back home, where they could retire, once they had made their fortune, and live out their days at the foot of their beloved volcanoes. But among the emigrants from Auvergne there were also scientists and thinkers and prominent political figures, including three recent French presidents: Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and Jacques Chirac.

A morning at the market

There's no better way to learn to love this French heartland than to spend a morning at one of the local open-air markets, or foirails. In the fall, farmers from Cézallier or Aubrac proudly exhibit their prize Salers cattle: beautifully combed, with their lyre-shaped horns, the beasts are a splendid sight! The men trade and deal in the local dialect, perpetuating an ancestral tradition. The rich milk from these cows lends a special savor to Auvergne's cheeses: fragrant Saint-Nectaire, robust Cantal, pungent Bleu d'Auvergne, and buttery, blue-veined Fourme d'Ambert.

The famous knives of Thiers are back in fashion, giving the cutlery industry a boost, but the lace that made the town of Le Puy a byword with elegant ladies--and employed some 100,000 lacemakers--has practically disappeared with the advent of machine-made lace. The superb rag paper once made by hand at Ambert has met a similar fate. But the rubber industry established in the nineteenth century by the Michelin brothers still fuels the local economy, providing jobs for farmers who work their fields half-time, after leaving the factory. Michelin made Clermont-Ferrand the tire capital of France. Close to transportation--an excellent highway links Clermont to Paris--new industries have taken root: pharmaceuticals, glassworks, and mills producing special types of steel.

This is the new face of Auvergne, open to progress but deeply attached to its traditions and its rustic cuisine. Potée auvergnate, which combines pork, smoky bacon, cabbage, and other vegetables in an aromatic broth, satisfies the most voracious appetite. In Aurillac, be sure to sample the tripoux d'Auvergne (stuffed mutton tripe--much tastier than it sounds...) accompanied by aligot, a savory blend of mashed potatoes and Tomme cheese. For dessert, there will be clafoutis (a fruit-studded batter cake) or delicious candied fruits, a Clermont specialty, which are perfectly partnered with Corent, a rare, delicate rosé wine. Liqueur lovers will want to try the verbena elixir called Verveine du Velay.

Set in grandiose landscapes, Auvergne's austere cities built (like the Clermont cathedral) of black basalt, express the local belief that ostentation is an unpardonable sin, prodigality a vice. For the richest Auvergnat on earth, driving a Rolls through the streets of hard-working Clermont would be the acme of bad taste. This story sums up the Auvergnat's attitude: upon landing at JFK airport in New York, François Michelin was informed that he could not bring fresh fruit into the United States, and that he would have to discard the apples he had packed into his carry-on bag. With perfect aplomb, he sat down, peeled his apples, and ate them. Waste not, want not: hard work and thrift are the keystones of the Auvergnat's character--and the keys to his success!


At the heart of the matter

The center, the middle, or--more poetically--the heart of France: that special spot belongs to Berry. This site at the country's center of gravity confers a certain balance. Berry can claim kinship with the all the larger regions that surround it: like Touraine and Anjou, Berry boasts romantic châteaux; like Auvergne and the Bourbonnais, Berry's landscapes are alive with springs and rivers, and are dotted with Romanesque churches; Burgundy's wines and ancient abbeys find an echo in Berry's delicious Sancerre and Menetou-Salon, and in the noble monastery of Noirlac; the wheatfields and Gothic cathedrals of Ile-de-France are mirrored in Berry's prosperous farms and the cathedral of Bourges, one of the most impressive in France. It's logical, perhaps, that those larger regions drain off the flow of tourists, many of whom are not even aware that Berry exists! All the more reason then, for the curious traveler to take the time to savor Berry's quiet but very real beauty.

The Berry region covers two départements, Cher and Indre. The northern portion is occupied by Sologne’s endless forests, stippled with ponds and teeming with game. The center, known as Champagne Berrichonne, is agricultural, while the slopes of eastern Berry (the Sancerrois) are covered by vineyards. To the west, the marshy Brenne is home to flocks of waterfowl. Two hours from Paris by car or train, Berry is an ideal destination for ecology-minded travelers; but art and history buffs will find plenty to occupy them, too.

This rich, temperate region was naturally a coveted prize for conquerors. To win it (along with Aquitaine, of which Berry was once a part), England's Plantagenet kings (a line born of the French Count of Anjou and the daughter of William the Conqueror) warred against the French Crown. It was from Bourges that Charles VII, spurred by Joan of Arc, set out to win back his kingdom from the English. The Scots, too, rallied to the French cause according to the terms of the “Auld Alliance,” a defensive pact against the English which, the Scots maintain, still holds good today! In any case, to thank Scotland for its aid, John Stuart of Darnley was made Seigneur d'Aubigny. In beautifully preserved Aubigny-sur-Nère also known as the Stuarts' town, bagpipe-playing Scots decked out in kilts parade down the main street each July 14. On the outskirts of Aubigny, at the Château de la Verrerie, the hospitable Comte de Vogüé‚ has fitted out princely accommodations where a few privileged paying guests can spend the night or a few idyllic days.

To reconquer his realm Charles VII required considerable forces, and to obtain them he needed considerable funds. The man to supply them was financier Jacques Coeur, the hugely rich merchant prince whose commerce with the East (he had his own Mediterranean fleet) allowed him to build up the royal war chest. Jacques Coeur also built himself a superb palace, one of the architectural glories of Bourges. The town's other glory, of course, is the magnificent cathedral of Saint-Étienne, completed in the thirteenth century and recently registered as a world landmark by UNESCO.

If you are driving to Bourges from Paris, why not follow the Route Jacques Coeur? It begins at La Bussière with the lakebound château des Pêcheurs, then continues south through Aubigny-sur-Nère and Bourges to the Cistercian abbaye de Noirlac (where a music festival is held in July and August) and the exuberant Renaissance castle of Meillant. Last of the seventeen stops on the Route Jacques Coeur is the triple-towered medieval fortress of Culan not far from the Auvergne border.

Sancerre occupies a rocky spur on the banks of the Loire. The town's ancient vineyards (mentioned by Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist writing around the time of Christ) are best known for a crisp, flinty white wine produced from the Sauvignon grape. Sauvignon is also planted at nearby Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly, and Châteaumeillant, along with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Gamay. Appreciated in their day by kings and royal courts, the wines of Berry nearly disappeared in the nineteenth century, attacked by the phylloxera root louse. The region's vineyards are coming back in strength today. These fruity wines make perfect partners for the famous Crottin, a tangy chèvre made in Chavignol, not far from Sancerre.

A final note for lovers of mystery: Berry has long been suspected--and still is, today--of siring witches and sorcerers. It seems that this quietly lovely land is particularly fertile terrain for superstition (or overactive imaginations). Whether to thwart the witches' power, or simply to celebrate their legend, the inhabitants Bué, once a hotbed of witchcraft, masquerade as wizards and witches during an annual festival. Nowadays, it's more frolicsome than fearsome. If black magic fascinates you, don't miss the Musée de la Sorcellerie in Concressault, where you can explore the weird world of witchcraft. You'll leave all the gladder knowing that the natural magic of Berry's gentle beauty awaits you outside!


Art treasures from an unyielding land

The last low hills of the Massif Central come to a rolling halt in the Limousin. It's something of a puzzle, really, to pinpoint exactly where one region ends and the other begins. The Limousin's connection to Auvergne is evident at Guéret, Ussel, or Aubusson, but links with Quercy are equally apparent at Collonges-la-Rouge, one of France's most beautiful villages, constructed entirely of red sandstone, and lively Brive-la-Gaillarde would look quite as much at home in Périgord as in the Limousin.
What the Limousin's three départements--Haute-Vienne, Creuse, and Corrèze--have in common are vast, deserted stretches of poor, rocky soil (like the barren plateau de Millevaches threaded with springs and streams), with precious little farmland. The land's unyielding character explains the many small holdings scattered wherever patches of arable soil make it possible to cultivate such undemanding crops as rye or potatoes.

The population has a certain unity, too, although we have to rewind the reel of time back through thousands of years. The Lemovices, who gave the Limousin its name, descended from even more ancient tribes of Iberians, Ligurians, and Celts. Rome conquered, then colonized the region, but when the Empire imploded the Limousin fell prey to the slings and arrows and hatchets and swords of marauding barbarians. The Merovingian kings introduced order and the monastic movement to the Limousin. Eleanor of Aquitaine's marriage to Henry Plantagenet in 1152 put the Limousin in the hands of the English, but during the Hundred Years' War the inhabitants rebelled against the oppression of the Black Prince. During this period of British occupation, Richard the Lionheart met his death in the Limousin, mortally wounded by an archer of his own camp who couldn't shoot straight. Though Richard's death was accidental, the hapless archer was flayed alive. Traces of these turbulent times can still be seen at the fortress of Curemonte and at Uzerche on the Vézère River, a village of ancient gables and turrets.

Christianity was embraced with fervor in the Limousin, which gave the Catholic Church three popes. Many pious hermits took refuge in the region's deep forests, and the influence of abbeys like Saint-Martial in Limoges touched all Christendom. The Limousin's many Romanesque churches display a distinctively sober style, due in part to the hardness of the local granite, which resists the sculptor's chisel. Examples are the twelfth-century collegiate church of Saint-Pierre at Le Dorat in Haute-Vienne, Tulle superb medieval cloister, and the church of Saint-Martin in Ussel.

Enamels, tapestries, and china

This spirituality, expressed in langue d'Oc (the dominant tongue in southern France) also fostered the development of a poetic literature popularized by the troubadours, who sang their songs of love in a variant of langue d'Oc called limousine.

Enamels were another art form that flourished in the Limousin. Medieval silversmiths discovered that by blending sand with metallic oxydes they could obtain brilliantly colored ornaments with a hard, glossy surface. Inspired by their Christian faith, master enamelists like Limosin and Penicaud created magnificent reliquaries to hold the remains of saints or holy hermits, such as the twelfth-century reliquary of Saint Stephen in the church of Gimel-les-Cascades. The Guéret museum preserves a remarkable collection of medieval reliquaries. These marvels of craftsmanship were admired throughout the Christian world, and by the fourteenth century Limoges was the capital of fine enamelwork.

In Felletin and Aubusson still other artists expressed their talents in the tapestries for which the picturesque town of Aubusson, especially, has been famous since the Renaissance. Workshops in both towns still function today, producing tapestries designed by modern artists.

The discovery in 1765 of kaolin deposits near Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche allowed Limoges to rival China in creating beautiful yet strong, translucent porcelain. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, was enthralled by the prospect of such luxury and lavished her encouragements on the fledgling industry. Supported and organized by Turgot, the king's administrator, the porcelain makers of Limoges made their city the world's china capital. Long the hallmark of an elegant table, bone china from Limoges is threatened by copies and imitations made with cheap labor. The number of china factories has dropped sharply in recent decades, and not even consolidations have managed to revitalize this industry in crisis.

It is astonishing that a land so hard and austere, removed from the major routes of commerce and exchange (but not from the path of war: the Black Prince torched Limoges for rebelling against his tyrannical rule), should have contributed so much to the world of art--enamels, stained glass, poetry, and porcelain--and to the history of religion, producing three popes and several saints, among them the great Saint Martial.

The sparsely populated Limousin has remained an agricultural region, dominated by tawny Limousin cattle which have been bred to produce excellent beef. And although vineyards never took root here, the Limousin's vast forests of oak supply wine growers all over the world with splendid barrels for aging fine Bordeaux, Napa Chardonnay, and Cabernet from Australia's Alexander Valley.

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(Updated: 01/07/13 CT)

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