France’s Best-kept Secrets: Part Four

The charming village of Argenton, © Laurence Lechaux

The charming village of Argenton, © Laurence Lechaux - Credit: Archant

Our most knowledgeable writers reveal their most treasured finds in France

Beautiful Bourges, © Fotolia

Beautiful Bourges, © Fotolia - Credit: julianelliott - Fotolia

Central France

40 BACK TO SCHOOL

At the very south of the Cher département near the Canal de Berry lies the quaint village of Épineuil-le-Fleuriel, childhood home of the author Alain-Fournier. His only novel, Le Grand Meaulnes, was written in 1913, just before his untimely death in the early days of World War I. Épineuil is depicted in the book as Sainte-Agathe and the school where his father had moved as resident teacher has become a ‘maison d’écrivain’ (www.grandmeaulnes.eu). As you push the iron gates into a semi-covered courtyard lined with dark school cloaks, you find yourself immersed in the French Third Republic’s educational system: black desks smell of violet ink and ancient blackboards are inscribed with moral lessons beautifully written in white chalk the old-fashioned way. The guides are second to none and if you wish to improve your language skills, the museum conducts Grand Meaulnes readings and a dictation. RG

The Plus Beau Village of Montpeyroux in the Auvergne département

The Plus Beau Village of Montpeyroux in the Auvergne département - Credit: odemll - Fotolia

41 MEDIEVAL MAGIC

Described as the Venice of the historic Berry region, Argenton on the River Creuse is a treasure waiting to be discovered (www.ot-argenton-sur-creuse.fr). Wander its streets and savour the atmosphere of this ancient town where colourful medieval houses with scalloped balustrades, balconies and galleries perilously overhang the water. Walk along the riverbank to see the old mills or climb the hill along the picturesque Rue de la Coursière to visit the Chapelle de la Bonne-Dame at the top. With a fascinating museum displaying finds from the town’s first settlement back in Roman times, this town is an ideal pit-stop on the long trip south from the northern ferry ports. RS

42 BEAUTIFUL BOURGES

To visit the Loire Valley, with its famous châteaux, gardens and wines, is to experience quintessential France. While the famous towns of Saumur and Tours draw visitors in their thousands, further off the beaten track lies another treasure, the town of Bourges (www.bourges-tourisme.com). Often overlooked by overseas tourists, yet easily accessible by road or rail, the capital of the Cher département offers culture, history and gastronomy in heaped measures. Like a Russian doll, the town slowly reveals its charms to visitors. The greatest of these is the Unesco-listed Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, famed for its vaulting, crypt and 66-metre-high north tower. Relatively unscathed by war or the Revolution, Saint-Étienne is one of France’s most impressive examples of religious architecture. From May to September, as night falls, the secrets of Bourges’s past are revealed in Les Nuits Lumières. In this multi-media show, visitors follow a route around the illuminated medieval buildings to discover the characters and events that have shaped this elegant town. Situated between the vineyards of Reuilly and Sancerre, Bourges is the perfect place to sample these Loire Valley wines. EOK

43 OUT OF THE BLUE

A tiny chapel in rural Corrèze conceals a hidden gem – Marc Chagall’s last-known work, begun when the artist was in his nineties. It is not easy to find, tucked away in the Vézère Valley, just to the north-west of Brive-la-Gaillarde. Look for Objat and Voutezac, and the hamlet of Le Saillant is halfway between. The chapel’s simple façade does nothing to indicate the treasure inside – a series of windows representing themes dear to the artist’s heart: the simplicity and abundance of rural life. The four elements are represented to stunning effect by different colours, including Chagall’s signature blue. AH

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44 ABBEY DAYS

Religious art and inaccessible places have always fascinated me and I was pleasantly surprised to find out – with the help of Le Guide du Routard – that the Abbaye Sainte-Marie de la Pierre-qui-Vire in the Yonne département of Burgundy was open to visitors and that it was possible to visit its farm, which produces excellent cheese. The Benedictine abbey lies in the Morvan woodlands 25 kilometres from Avallon (89630 Saint-Léger-Vauban, www.apqv.fr), where the monks follow a life of work and prayer. The modern architecture of the entrance is striking and the experience of ‘stumbling’ upon a procession of monks followed by the singing of Gregorian chants is very moving. You can also stay for a retreat and it is hard to resist buying the creamy fromage and home-made jams. RG

45 MEAT AND GREET

The town of Limoges is renowned for its porcelain but for centuries it has also been at the heart of the Limousin region’s meat trade. In the 13th century the small town had more than 50 butcher’s shops centred on the aptly named Rue de la Boucherie. The charmingly wonky medieval streets of the Butcher’s Quarter are now the setting for an annual celebration of Limoges’s gastronomic traditions, the Frairie des Petits Ventres, which takes place on the third Friday of October (www.limoges-tourisme.com). Those who find the local tripe dishes hard to stomach can feast on pâtés de pommes de terre – the region’s answer to the Cornish pasty – and clafoutis, the cherry-based dessert. During the festival, a statue of the Notre-Dame-des-Petits-Ventres is paraded through the streets to commemorate the long-standing tradition of female butchers in Limoges. EOK

46 BRING ON THE BRIONNAIS

My husband and I live in southern Burgundy near Cluny, which has its share of tourists from all over the world, enticed by its venerable abbey. But when we want to escape to a quiet, beautiful corner of France, far from the crowds and off the tourist radar screen, we head over to the lovely Brionnais, in the south-western corner of Burgundy. Medieval châteaux, postcard-pretty villages set in bucolic valleys, and excellent restaurants are the main draw. Romanesque churches and Roman roads abound. At the heart of the region is the gorgeous village of Semur-en-Brionnais (pictured below), with its fairy-tale 9th-century castle and the Église Saint-Hilaire. We like the polished and pretty little town of Poisson as a home base. Here there is the lovely Hôtel La Reconce (Le Bourg, tel: (Fr) 3 85 81 10 72) and its charming, good-value Restaurant de la Post (menus from €18). The historic town of Anzy-le-Duc has a friendly bed and breakfast Aux Pradelles (doubles from €70, www.gites71.com) that we’ve enjoyed. There are many beautiful villages to discover, such as Oyé and La Clayette, where the château sits in the middle of a large lake.

Our top Brionnais experience? Discovering the isolated rural retreat that superstar chef Michel Troisgros has created, La Colline du Columbier (71340 Iguerande, www.troisgros.fr/colline.php). His upmarket bistro (menus from €34) is a must for lunch, or stay longer at the auberge next door. The bistro, in a barn renovated in rustic but chic splendour, is one of the most unusual and memorable we’ve ever visited. LM

47 ON THE EDGE

High in the Massif Central and close to the ski resort of Super-Besse lies the small fortified village of Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (www.sancy.com/commune/besse). Cast in black volcanic stone, the village reeks of centuries of trade between the plain and the mountains. Narrow cobbled streets link small squares and many of the medieval shopfronts survive intact. Besse is a contender for Plus Beau Village status, yet it has the raw feel of a frontier town on the edge of a wilderness. PL

48 TIME FOR TEA

On my visit to the Plus Beau Village of Montpeyroux in the Puy-de-Dôme département of Auvergne, the deputy mayor was keen that I paid no attention to the art deco villa at the heart of the commune. Hidden by a high wall, it was purpose-built as a brothel. Business peaked during World War II and brothels were outlawed in 1946. Its current incarnation is as the Deco-thé salon de thé run by Françoise Marcelot (www.montpeyroux63.com). Afternoon tea in the shady courtyard is the perfect end to a visit to this vigneron village, which is accessed from junction seven of the A75 autoroute south of Clermont-Ferrand. PL

Click HERE to read France’s Best-kept Secrets: Part Five.