22 March 2018

Saint-Léon et le Puy Saint-Ambroise

It was March 6, our first full day on the car trip we took over to the old Bourbonnais province in central France earlier this month. After our walk around in the town of Lapalisse under the shut-tight 16th century Château de La Palice, we drove north through Jaligny and on to Saint-Léon, basically down the valley of the Besbre River.

Saint-Léon (pop. 601) has — surprise! — a big church at its center. The church dates back to the 12th century, at least in part. You get used to that in France, because there are 11th and 12th century churches all over the country. Most of them have been maintained, modified, added-onto, and restored over the centuries. In French, a village is by definition a settlement that includes a church — no church, no village.

Saint-Léon also has sights like the house above, as well as a good bakery/pastry shop (below) where we got some bread to have with our dinner of home-made blanquette de veau back at the gîte (brought in a cooler from Saint-Aignan). From the boulangère we also got some advice and directions on which road to take back 25 miles north to the big town of Moulins, where we were staying.

When I took these three photos, we had just come back from the top of the nearby Puy Saint-Ambroise, an extinct or at least dormant volcano where you can enjoy panoramic views out over the valley of the Besbre River and the fields, hedgerows, and farmhouses of the bocage bourbonnais — and beyond!

21 March 2018

Le printemps

Les saisons se suivent et se ressemblent. One season is not very different from the last. That's life here right now. Nobody much noticed that spring arrived yesterday afternoon. It was cold outside, with a frigid wind blowing from the northeast.

Here are three more pictures I took in Lapalisse two weeks ago. The weather was much nice back then, despite the fact that it was wintertime, than it has been here over the last week or two. We know we were lucky.

Walt and Tasha were enjoying our walk through narrow streets tucked up under the huge old château. I was too. It's a good memory.

It's too bad we didn't get to see the château from inside the entrance gate. The place was closed for the winter season. Always save something for later, they say. We did — no choice.

20 March 2018

Just two days

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Monday, March 19, 2018

19 March 2018

Walking around in old Lapalisse

Old doorway

It snowed here in the Saint-Aignan area overnight. It seems to be a wet snow, and the temperature is not below freezing. We are lucky that we didn't have bad weather like this two weeks ago, when we were exploring the Bourbonnais region.

Narrow steps

We were in Lapalisse on a Tuesday afternoon. The sun was shining, though the breeze was not particularly warm.

Château looming

The streets up around the château were empty of pedestrians. The château itself was closed for the season, with re-opening for guided tours scheduled, I believe, for April.

Broken blinds

We had spent the morning in the car, and had eaten a picnic lunch at a little roadside park with tables for people like us. Tasha had been well-behaved all day.

Need paint

So it was nice to be able to get out of the car and walk around the town, taking pictures of the sights we were seeing.

Line drying

I found Lapalisse picturesque — slightly down at the heels, but not dingy or depressing. Judge for yourself.

18 March 2018

Church décor

Walt mentioned in a blog post the other day that I had taken some photos of stained glass windows
 in the Eglise St-Jean-Baptiste at Lapalisse. Here are some examples.

I also took photos of these sculpted figures.

Bon dimanche...

17 March 2018

Photos and a duck dish

This is one of those mornings when I can't think about a blog post because I can't stop working with, processing, and editing photos. That doesn't mean I think they are the best photos ever. It just means I can't stop messing with them. They are photos I took in the town of Lapalisse. I'm posting some of them here.

Today I'm going to cook a culinary specialty of the Bourbonnais region that I didn't know about until recently. I don't know if I've said that Walt and I didn't go out to a single restaurant during our trip last week. We did get pizza from a pizza truck in the village we were staying in.

Otherwise, we ate food that we had taken with us or that we bought in supermarkets. Partly, that was because we weren't sure that Tasha was mature enough to spend time in a restaurant without misbehaving. We couldn't leave her alone in the rental we were staying in. And we didn't want to leave the dog by herself in the car for a long stretch of time.

The Bourbonnais specialty is one that I learned about from watching Les Carnet de Julie, which is French TV personality Julie Andrieu's show about French regional cooking and foods. It dawned on me last week that Andrieu might have done a show about the Allier/Bourbonnais area, and indeed she had — I found it on YouTube. And it turned out that I had watched it before, but I'd forgotten about it. I enjoyed seeing it again, in light of our travels in that area.

The Bourbonnais dish is called Canard à la Duchambais. It's duck thighs and drumsticks cooked in a sauce made with pureed or chopped liver — duck, chicken, veal, or pork liver, as you like — mustard, vinegar, and red wine. You might compare it to Coq au Vin, but with a few twists. More about that over the coming days. I need to get busy in the kitchen.

16 March 2018

Taking pictures at Lapalisse

Walt has been posting some photos he took in the town of Lapalisse, not far from the spa town of Vichy in the Bourbonnais. We spent an hour or two there 10 days ago taking a walk, taking photos, and taking in the sights.

When we drove in, we could see the massive château in the distance, looming over the town. We stopped and stood on the roadway — no traffic! — to capture the view.

The existing château was built mostly in the 1500s, around the same time that Chambord and Chenonceau were being built in the Loire Valley. The architects and builders came in from Florence, in Italy. The town is about the same size as Saint-Aignan.

We parked next to the big church near the château entrance and walked around that neighborhood with Natasha on her leash. Walt has a special belt that he can attach the dog's leash to so that he has two hands free to operate his camera.

The year-old puppy was very well behaved both in the car and on our walks. Part of the point of this trip was to teach Tasha about traveling by car, staying in unfamiliar accommodations, and walking around in new surroundings. We plan to do more of these kinds of trips over the next few years.

15 March 2018

Notre-Dame d'Agonges, dans l'Allier

We were so lucky with the weather last week, while we were traveling in the Allier. Given that we were both still recovering from bad chest and sinus colds, seeing the sun meant we could get outdoors and enjoy rehabilitating fresh air.

The Allier [ah-lee-'ay], by the way, is what is called a département in France. It's an administrative division that is more or less the equivalent of an American county. Départements sometimes correspond to older, pre-revolutionary territories that were called provinces and that were gradually united to form modern France.

French départements are often named after the rivers that flow through them. Saint-Aignan is is the département called the Loir-et-Cher because the Loir river flows across it from east to west in the northern part of the territory, and the Cher river flows the same way through the southern part. The next département to the west is the Indre-et-Loire, named for two rivers, and it corresponds to the historical province called La Touraine. The Allier is a river too — it flows from south to north through the département named after it, and the old province that covered basically the same territory was (and still is) called Le Bourbonnais.

The village of Agonges [ah-'gõzh], located near the administrative capital of the Allier département, Moulins, was first mentioned in writing in the late 12th century. The church was built during that period too, according to what I've read. It's in the northeastern part of the Allier, which is an area called Le Bocage bourbonnais, a rural area characterized by the hedgerows that delimit its fields and pastures. Large parts of Normandy and Brittany, as well as England, are give over to bocage, which one dictionary calls "farmland criss-crossed by hedges and trees".

The Michelin Green Guide to the old Auvergne province, of which the Bourbonnais is a part, says that the Notre-Dame d'Agonges church shows features of Auvergne architectural styles as well as features common in the Berry province to the west and the Bourgogne province to the west. The style is Romanesque in transition toward Gothic. If you know more about architecture than I do, you'll understand what that means. It has much to do with the form of the building's window arches and ceiling vaults.

« Agonges garde en témoignage de son histoire, somme toute quelque peu mouvementée... sa remarquable église de la fin du XIIème siècle, romane par son plan général, ses portails et chapiteaux, elle est aussi gothique par une voûte sur croisées d’ogives qui recouvre la nef. Les chapiteaux sont ornés de feuillages, d’animaux, de masques grimaçants, de personnages luttant contre des lions. » That, in French from this site, is sort of what I said above, and adds some information about the sculpted capitals on the pillars that hold up the church's vaulted roof.

The western façade of the church is very plain, but the area around Agonges is not. That same web site I linked to above says that Agonges is home to more châteaux than almost any village in the world — 13 of them! Only one is open to the public, however. It's the Château de l'Augère, which I posted about last week, with a photo. Some of the others are listed on this web site.

By the way, it just occurred to me that there's a church in the neighboring Berry province, in the town of Chârost, which resembles Notre-Dame d'Agonges. I did a post about it in 2008.

14 March 2018

Le village d'Agonges dans l'Allier

A week ago today, we spent the afternoon exploring the area west and north of Moulins and Neuvy in the département de l'Allier. We went to Souvigny, which has strong ties to the famous Benedictine abbey of Cluny, to the east. We stopped at Saint-Menoux, which has an impressive Romanesque church that was classified as a French monument historique back in 1840. More about those later...

We also drove a short distance north to the village called Agonges (pop. 315), where we saw the church above, as well as a few big old houses or châteaux out in the surrounding countryside. The church, Notre-Dame d'Agonges, dates back to the 12th century and was declared a French monument historique in 1925.

Here's one of the châteaux that I noticed when I was standing at the west entrance of the church. I'm not sure what the name of it is, because on the map I see two or three châteaux that it might be: Le Vieux Monceau, Le Petit Monceau, or just Le Château du Monceau. Your guess is as good as mine. I liked the view through tree branches.

Here's a view of the village square on the north side of which stands l'église Notre-Dame d'Agonges. Two or three cars besides ours were parked there, and there were no people to be seen. However, the church doors were open.

I went in and took this photo, among others. More tomorrow...

13 March 2018

L'Eglise Saint-Vincent à Neuvy dans l'Allier

Here are four more views of the Église Saint-Vincent in Neuvy, just outside Moulins in the Allier. The first is a close-up of the bell tower (le clocher). Here's what I've read about its style: Le clocher est orné, sur les faces est, nord et ouest, par des arcatures en mitre groupées par quatre.

Parts of the church date back as far as the 11th century, but as with many ancient buildings in France, the Église Saint-Vincent has been modified and expanded over the centuries — especially in the 12th and 15th centuries. In fact, the church was originally dedicated to saint Hilaire, and was given the name Saint-Vincent only after the 1789 French Revolution.

To my untrained eye, this church struck me as being very different from other churches I've seen in the Allier or in the Loire Valley. You can read about it here or here in French for more details. We weren't able to go inside the church. I've read that the Neuvy church is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but we were off traveling in other areas during those hours.

I thought the photo below showing a white van parked in front of the church might give you a better idea of the scale of the place. I took these photos at sunrise on a clear morning when I was out taking a walk with the dog.

We were in the Allier from March 5 until March 9, and we did mostly car tours, with short walks around the village where our gîte was located and in other places during the day, depending what caught our eye and whether or not we could put the dog on a leash and walk her around with us rather than leave her shut up in the car.

12 March 2018

Le gîte à Neuvy dans l'Allier

Walt told me he might post some photos today of the interior of the gîte rural (countryside vacation rental) that we stayed in last week outside the big town of Moulins in the département de l'Allier.  If he does, this post will be complementary. (Here's a link to Walt's blog.)

I didn't take any photos inside the gîte, but I took some along the road that leads to it from the village center (church and bakery). That's it above. The sign warns drivers that there is a dangerous curve ahead, and also that the road narrows to one lane. Along the sides of the road are hedgerows that border fields and pastures.

Here's the curve and the single-lane section of road. It passes under a railroad viaduct. The rail line was decommissioned some time ago, apparently, and there are no trains running on it. So there's no train noise to hear when you're in the gîte, of which you can see the back door in the photo. There is car noise — drivers often toot their horn as they come to the underpass to warn oncoming traffic that they're coming through. However, with double-glazing and closed shutters on the street side, you hardly notice (but a dog does!). The front side of the house faces south, with big windows, by the way, and views of horses and pastureland.

Since I didn't take any pictures of the gîte-owners' house, here's one that I grabbed off Google Maps (with thanks). The house is only 500 meters (a third of a mile) from the village center, so it's an easy walk even though it is slightly uphill. The underpass is dangerous for cars, I have to say. One day I was driving down from the village. I slowed down as I came to the underpass and proceeded with caution. A car coming in the other direction came barreling into the "tunnel" and we both had to slam on brakes to avoid a head-on collision. It was a close call.

11 March 2018

Village scenes at Neuvy

In the Allier (northern Auvergne) last week, we spent four nights in a gîte rural on the edge of the village of Neuvy (pop. 1,600, area 7 sq. mi.), which is more or less a suburb of the big town of Moulins nowadays. The house we stayed in is less than two miles from the (one and only) bridge across the river that takes you into central Moulins (pop. 20,000). You can see the towers of the cathedral in Moulins on the horizon in the photo below.

We weren't staying in a suburban subdivision, however. The gîte (pronounced "zheet") at Neuvy, very modern inside, is one wing of an old farmhouse, surrounded by land where horses, ponies, and goats are kept. A gîte rural is by definition a vacation rental located in a rural setting.

Other people in the "neighborhood" keep horses too, as you can see in the photo above. And still others keep big flocks of sheep (below). Natasha the puppy was thrilled to see the first horses, goats, and sheep she had ever seen. She also stayed for the first time ever in a house other than our house in Saint-Aignan. She was well behaved, but she seemed glad to get back home on Friday.

From the gîte it was only a short walk (500 m) up a narrow lane to the village center, where there's a church (l'église Saint-Vincent), the village hall (la mairie), and a boulangerie where you can get fresh bread and pastries. On Wednesday nights, a pizza truck parks out in front of the boulangerie and a man bakes fresh pizzas in an oven in the truck. We enjoyed the ones that we got there for our dinner.

According to local legend, Joan of Arc spent time in Neuvy back in the early 1400s. The church (above) dates back to the 11th century, with significant modifications in the 12th and 15th centuries. Modern suburban neighborhoods lie to the west and south of the village center. I drove through them one day just to see what they looked like.

10 March 2018


I thought the trees dotting the countryside over in the département de l'Allier (northern Auvergne) were amazing. Moulins, the Allier's main city, is only about a two hour drive from Saint-Aignan, but the landscape changes radically at least three times along the way.

Yesterday on the drive home I took some photos. Walt was driving. When you are a passenger you get a much better view of the scenery than when you're the driver. I probably have a lot of other photos of impressive trees in the northern Auvergne province, but I haven't yet had time to go through all the images I captured.

I assume these are oak trees. There's a big forest in the northern part of the Allier where oaks are grown and harvested to produce barrel staves for the French wine industry. We drove through the forest, but mostly we spent time on rolling hills and plains.

It's very nice to be back home. Tasha and Bertie were really happy to see each other again. When we drove in, Bertie the black cat was waiting for us in the garage window as if he somehow knew we would be arriving at that moment.

And I was happy to be back at home. As Walt says, our house is the nicest gîte rural we've ever stayed in. One of the greatest side benefits of  going off for stays in vacation rentals is that you come back appreciating the comforts of home all the more.

09 March 2018

This “turkey trip”

As you might already have known, or by now have surmised, Walt and I, coughing and sniffling, have been traveling this week. We have been in the département de l'Allier, a.k.a. le Bourbonnais, where the Bourbon dynasty of French kings, starting with Henri IV in the late 1500s, originated. The Allier is the northern portion of the Auvergne region. We didn't want to broadcast the fact that we were traveling while we were away from our house, which stands empty, in case some burglar was reading this blog and decided the time for mischief was right.

One of the places I wanted to see in the Allier was a village called Jaligny-sur-Besbre, which is a major center of turkey farming in France. I knew that because I saw a documentary about it on TV several years ago, and the name stuck in my memory. La Besbre (the S is silent, AFAIK) is a river that I had never heard of before, and its spelling helps make it memorable. Anyway, turkeys are raised in the Jaligny area, as you can see from the photo above — « Capitale de la dinde » says it all. And since I had a couple of dindes (turkeys) in the freezer at home, I cooked one and we brought the leftovers on the trip to enjoy eating them at the gîte (vacation rental) we had reserved near the small Allier city of Moulins.

Since the sign pictured above says both "the old burg and the château are worth a photo," here's a photo of the "castle." It's not open to the public, and if the photo looks a little blurry it's because I took it through the car windshield from the opposite side of the Besbre.

I didn't find "the old burg" all that interesting but, as a bonus, here (above) is a photo of the old church in Jaligny. I think the time to go to « la capitale de la dinde » would be in December, when they have what is billed as a gigantic market to sell holiday turkeys to buyers from all over France (and perhaps Navarre). Maybe one day I'll get there in the pre-holiday season and experience the magic of it all. Silly me thought I might find somewhere to buy a fresh farm-raised turkey in or around Jaligny in March, but I was disappointed.

Coincidentally, the first place we noticed when we drove into central Jaligny was the establishment above, the café du Beaujolais (the building is for sale). Another goal we set for this week's trip was a quick run over to the Beaujolais wine region, which neither of us had ever seen before. You'll get the significance of this: Beaujolais is in the Rhône département of France, which is department number 69. We did that drive yesterday, and it was fun. Today it will be fun to get back to our home in Saint-Aignan, even though it's raining now and predictions say it will rain for the next two or three days.