The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                       PAGE FOUR
FEATURING:     THE ALLIER ~  Land of 500 Châteaus
Map courtesy Wikipedia
It was simply going to be a two-night stopover between the Savoie and our Burgundy and Loire destinations...a place to relax with probably little to do or see.  Typically, when something isn't expected as we travel through France, wonderful surprises occur. We didn't realize how much we would fall in love with the Allier, the northernmost département in the Auvergne region of France.   We crossed from Burgundy's Saône-et-Loire and very soon arrived at our bed and breakfast near the small city of Moulins. 

Bourbon blason (coat of arms)The Allier, as you can see on the map at left, is at the 'heart' of France.  It is also the land of Bourbon kings and of more than 500 châteaus ~ 574, if you include its belles demeures (lovely grand homes) ~ the Province du Bourbonnais, birthplace of the Bourbons. The Allier is one of the original 83 departments created during the French Revolution on the 4th of March 1790, and came into being from parts of the former provinces of Auvergne and Bourbonnais.  Geographically is the northernmost département of the Auvergne region which is made up of three others ~ the rugged Puy-de-Dôme, Cantal and Haute-Loire, the latter of which is well known for its connections to the family of Général Marquis de La Fayette.  But, our focus is on the Allier, and we think it is far more like Burgundy in landscape than the rest of the Auvergne. 

The Landscape

The Allier has six rivers running through it, if you count the eastern boundary with the Loire.  There is the Allier, of course, which flows through both Moulins and Vichy, and the Cher where Montluçon is located.  But there is also the Sioule in wine country, the Besbre and the Aumance. 

Fôret de Tronçais at Pirot Lake.  Photo credit: www.francevoyage.comAn important feature of the Allier landscape is the Fôret de Tronçais, a French national forest of over ten thousand hectares in Allier's northwest corner.  The oak trees were planted by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of Louis XIV, to supply wood to the French Navy, and it is still one of the principal oak forests in Europe.  Black oak comprises seventy-three percent of the trees; the other major species are beech and pedunculate oak, nine and eight percent respectively.  Completing the forest are two kinds of pine trees planted in the forest's poorest soils.  Careful management has kept the forest healthy: trees are harvested on a rotation schedule, about every 250 years!  The Tronçais oaks are used for making Cognac and wine barrels, especially for fine Bordeaux wines.  These prized wine barrels are also shipped to Argentina, California and elsewhere in the US.    Beneath the trees, ceps, chanterelle, hedgehog fungi and rusulla mushrooms flourish, and nature enthusiasts may spot wild game and the great crested grebes on the beautiful Pirot Lake in the forest (see photo), a favorite among area fishermen.


The Cities

Its three large cities are Montluçon, Vichy, and Moulins. Along the rivers throughout Allier are many smaller towns and villages, and it is not heavily populated.  Country drives here are delightful!  Before the end of the nineteenth century, the population had grown along with industry in both Moulins and Montluçon and the thermal spa attraction of Vichy.  Due to losses in World War I, the growth in population stopped and didn't increase again until the 1960s ~ and then only slightly. 

Medieval street in MontluçonMontluçon is the largest of the three main cities in Allier, but Moulins is the préfecture.  Montluçon dates from the eleventh century when Guillaume, son of Archambaud IV of Bourbon, built a castle in a defensive position on a small rocky hill on a bend in the Cher River.  The town, which formed part of the duchy of Bourbon, was taken by the English in 1171 and by Philip Augustus, the King of France, in 1181.  In the 14th century, Louis II de Bourbon reconstructed the castle and walls and the British were finally driven out.  It was 1529 when Montluçon and other lands of Burgundy reverted the to French crown.  King Henri IV continued improvement on the town's defenses.   Montluçon benefited from coal pits about twelve kilometers away which enabled it to participate in the industrial revolution.  The Canal de Berry completed in 1830 was a boon to Montluçon, and it and the railway system in 1864 allowed the transport of minerals, talc, coal, wood, ore, porcelain and more.  The Canal is no longer in use and in some areas has been filled in. Because of trade and industry, the town's population continued to grow until the mid-twentieth century. 

Medieval Festival, Montluçon.  Photo credit:

Today, Montluçon's upper town on the banks of the Cher, with its steep winding streets and buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries, is a favorite place to visit.  The city has many interesting churches, some from the 12th and 14th centuries, and the castle rebuilt by Louis II, which today serves as a barracks.  And, as with so many towns and small cities in France, there are always festivals and celebrations taking place.  This past July 7 and 8 Montluçon held its Medieval Festival (more accurately known as Fête des Ducs de Bourbon et marché médiéval).  This photo was taken during the event in front of the castle of the Ducs de Bourbon.

In July of 1940, the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain made Vichy the capital of the 'free zone', or Vichy France.  The Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis, but the area it controlled remained unoccupied until 1942 following the Allied landings in French North Africa in early November 1942.  To avoid a threat from France's Mediterranean coast, Hitler's army occupied Corsica on November 11 and Vichy the next day. 

Eglise Notre-Dame-des-Malades, Vichy.  Copyright G. Ohanian/Cold Spring Press.  All rights reserved.
Vichy had its Golden Age from Napoléon III to the start of the 20th century ~ the thermal baths area, the Opera House and the Parks all reflect the eclectic style of the town.  It sits on the banks of the River Allier in the south of the département, not far from the Parc Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne, a national park...the volcanoes that account for the thermal springs in and around Vichy.  The last twenty years have seen Vichy redefining itself as a major European center dedicated to beauty, health, fitness and leisure.  The hydrotherapy attraction has somewhat waned, but the city still attracts those looking for health and beauty treatments, spa vacations and to enjoy the opera, theater, casinos, horse racing and local golf courses.

The Church of St Blaise dates from 1672 ~ only a 19th century chapel remains containing a picture of a Black Madonna and which is now conjoined with Church of Notre-Dame-des-Malades.  Each August 15th on the Feast of the Assumption, a procession takes place in Vichy.  Notre Dame des Malades is an Art Déco church built in 1931 by the father and son architectural team of Antoine Chanet (he built Vichy's Hotel de Ville) and Jean Liogier.  The interior, in comparison to the exterior, is quite ornate and uses marble, onyx and semi-precious stones for mosaics with stained glass windows by the well-known and admired Frères Mauméjean.

Vichy Opéra.  Photo Vichy Office du Tourisme web site
The elegant opera house at Vichy

Musee de la Visitation.  Photo Moulins Office du Tourisme web siteThe third prominent city in Allier and the préfecture is pretty Moulins.  Notable for having the largest costume museum in the world, Centre National du Costume de Scène, it is also the oldest of the three Allier cities dating back to the year 990.  It was important throughout history because of the Bourbons - the Royal House of Bourbon was located in Moulins.  The close ties to the Catholic church added to its importance.  For example, you can spend some time in Musée de la Visitation ~  installed in some 15th and 17th century buildings where you will discover the artistic heritage of the religious Order of the Visitation. This permanent unique exhibition in France, composed of works of art of XVe to the XXe centuries from some ninety European communities, retraces the history of the Institute. There are many treasures: liturgical, embroideries, exceptional works of convents, and statuary. Revealed are religious activities and daily life of the Moulins monastery from 1616, as well as a written record of city life.  It is open every day from May to December ~ free Sundays from 3 to 6 PM.

There is so much to see in Moulins ~ and it is the perfect town to wander around at your leisure with no particular goal in mind.

Family of Bourbons adorning Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Moulins.  Photo Ville de Moulins.Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Moulins.  Photo Ville de Moulins.Pavillon Anne de Beaujeu.  Photo Ville de Moulins.

Anne de Beaujeu was the Regent of France from 1483 to 1491 and daughter of Louis XI and his second wife, Charlotte of Savoie.  At the age of 14 she was married to Pierre de Bourbon, seigneur of Beaujeu, 22 years her senior.  He proved to be a supportive husband as she acted as regent for her brother, Charles VIII, during his minority.  She and her husband held off the conflict coming from Orléans, and during her regency she was one of the most powerful women of the late fifteenth century and was referred to as Madame la Grand.   Today, in Moulins there is the Pavillon and Musée de Anne de Beaujeu, housing archeological and decorative art objects as well as paintings and sculpture.  The archeology collection focuses on prehistoric and Gallo-Roman objects, and there is also a military arms collection.  In addition, the museum has taken on supervision of the 19th century collections left in Maison Martin by its owner who died in 1905.

Several well-known personalities came from Moulins.   Among them, Coco Chanel who went to school in Moulins when she was orphaned and who later became a world-renowned fashion designer.  It was also the birthplace of the great 19th century baritone opera singer, composer and art collector, Jean-Baptiste Faure ~ not to be confused with the great French composer Gabriel Fauré. 

The Gastronomy of Allier

Allier has some unique gastronomic offerings ~ one being a river fish called ombre des rivières, found rarely anywhere else and prized throughout France for its delicate flavor and texture.   There are distinctive specialties in Allier including potato pie (made with fresh cream and potatoes), scratchings bread (butter is replaced by fried pork fat scratchings and extra salt is added), and Bourbon Charolais beef dishes of all descriptions.  As you drive through the Allier, you will see the grazing white cattle on every farm.  A sweet dessert is Palet d'Or, a Moulins specialty made from semi-sweet chocolate and cream ganache and topped off with gold flakes.

Saint Pourçain WineWine is also produced here, the best-known being Saint-Pourçain, from the area around Saint Pourçain sur Sioule. It holds the distinction of being the first AOC wine in all of the Auvergne, a designation it received in 2009.  Saint Pourçain contains Gamay and black Pinot grapes for the red and rosé wines, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon and the local Tressallier grapes for the whites. The vineyards of this region are among France's oldest, and the Auvergne supplied Paris and the north with wine in the Middle Ages.   The Allier and Loire Rivers were the routes the wine traveled on rafts to the city of Orléans where it then was shipped by highway to the north.  However, often by the time it reached Orléans from the Auvergne it was no longer drinkable and could not be shipped further.  Perhaps that is why Orléans gained the distinction of being the vinegar capital of France!  Another Allier contribution is oak from the nearby Forêt de Tronçais which is excellent for making wine barrels.

Of course, as with every region of France, there is the cheese!  Perhaps one of the best known is Bleu d'Auvergne.  Only produced in the last hundred years, the tale of its creation is that an Auvergnat farmer sprinkled bread mold on his milk curd, piercing the curd with a needle.  This permitted air to penetrate the curd, and it developed blue veining.  Bleu d'Auvergne achieved AOC designation in 1975.  It is said that it has the flavor of grassy pastures and wild flowers, and everyone we know who has tasted it, loves it.  Another blue cheese is Fourme d'ambert made from cow's milk and Cantal, both from the Cantal département.  And from the Puy-de-Dôme, there is Saint Nectaire - one of those delightful semi-soft cheeses with a nutty flavor that everyone enjoys time after time.

The Special Places

We must return, however, to where we began: entering the Allier to spend a few nights on our way to points north.  Our destination was Les Vieux Murs, a bed and breakfast that we knew little about except for what we saw on their web site.  It is located in the town of Souvigny in the Allier.  As it turned out, our choice of a place to stay couldn't have been better.  The owners are delightful and the chambres d'hôtes an absolute dream. 

Entering Souvigny (our first time ever) our goal at the end of a long driving day was to find their street.  Just by  chance, as we slowed down to read a street sign, there it was!  We made our right turn up a hill and number 11 was an opening in a wall ~ a wall that was continuous: one house after another attached to the next with doorways right on the street.  Having remembered from the web site a rather grand home on a spacious piece of open land, we were a bit confused about this small entrance right in town.  But, we approached the gate, rang the buzzer, and the gate slowly opened for us to drive in.  Before us lay a winding driveway, bordered by trees and lawns, leading up to a fine manor house.  It was the nicest surprise of our stay in France.

Priory of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and gardens, Souvigny.  Wikipedia
The Priory of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and its gardens in Souvigny

The village of Souvigny, made a 'great Romanesque sanctuary of Auvergne' in 2003, proved to be very special as well.  It has a long history with the Bourbons and the Benedictine monastery at Cluny Abbey.  The influence of the Bourbons made Souvigny an important town.  In the year 916 Aimard, the first known ancestor of the Bourbons gave the abbot, Bernon of Cluny, his villa in Souvigny and the Priory of Saints Peter and Paul. The fourth and fifth abbots of Cluny, Mayeul and Odilon, are buried at Souvigny, and it always had influence in the Pays Bourbonnais.  Their sepulchers, which sank into oblivion during the French Revolution, were rediscovered by archeologists in 2001 and 2002.  The priory church became a stopping point on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela and is a fine example of the marriage of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles.  It was altered several times by the Dukes of Bourbon who introduced Gothic architecture to the heart of France.

The town holds many public events of interest to both locals and tourists.  A few of those are the antiques fair in May, a Medieval fair beginning on the last Sunday of July each year, autumn music days the last weekend of September, and the regional sale of antiquarian books in November.  While in Souvigny we stopped at a little café across from the cathedral for coffee to discover that it was also a book shop specializing in used and collectible books as well as new ones. 

What we found really interesting were the many Romanesque churches in the local villages, most only a short drive from Les Vieux Murs.  Our host and hostess suggested three to visit one morning.  With intermittent rain, we set off with two umbrellas to see the churches.  Here are some photos of the three we were able to visit.

Eglise Saint-Martin, Ygrande.  Copyright Cold Spring Press.  All rights reserved.Eglise de Notre-Dame, Agonges.  Copyright Cold Spring Press.  All rights reserved.Joan of Arc window at Eglise Saint Pierre de Gipcy. Copyright Cold Spring Press.  All rights reserved.
                                                                                      Rainy day visits to 3 Romanesque churches near Souvigny
       Eglise Saint-Martin in Ygrandes                                              Eglise de Notre-Dame in Agonges                                     Joan of Arc,  Eglise St-Pierre de Gipcy 

Nearby, as well,  is the town of Bourbon-l'Archambault, a spa town and the origin of the House of Bourbon.  In 1300, Louis Bourbon built the city when he was made Grand Chambrier of France.  Although it was the capital of the province for some time and achieved great importance in the late 1320s when Charles IV elevated Louis I de Clermont to Duke of Bourbon, either he or the later Pierre II moved the capital of the province to Moulins.

We hope this has tempted you to visit the Allier when you are next in France.  It is not a typical tourist destination (which is in its favor), and offers the visitor culture, history, tranquility and a completely unique experience.  If you have questions, don't hesitate to contact us at

Where to stay in the Allier:

Les Vieux Murs.  Photo copyright Monsieur et Madame Louyot.  All rights reserved.

Les Vieux Murs is set on acres of rolling lawns and woods in Souvigny, just to the west of Moulins.  The first impression is a very good one, and once you meet your hosts you will know that you have chosen the ideal lodging place in this lovely part of France.  From the Swiss chocolates and Vichy mints in your room to the delightful breakfasts and inviting swimming pool, Les Vieux Murs will never disappoint.  For more information or to make a reservation, click on the photo or the link.  We will also be happy to recommend a superb restaurant near Les Vieux Murs for your evening meals.

[Please mouse over photos for descriptions and credits.]

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