“Putain!” Thanks to a few trains being delayed, I got confused and went to the wrong platform, missing my train from Vichy to Clermont-Ferrand. The train that I was standing in front of also went to Clermont-Ferrand, but I had no ticket for it. I timidly approached a train conductor and explained that I’d made a mistake and she told me not to worry, and that I could board this train instead. I thanked her profusely, and did just that. So commenced my day trip to the capital of the Puy-de-Dôme region.
Clermont-Ferrand is – compared to Vichy – quite a big city, although it’s still fairly small on the scale of a city like Paris. Nonetheless, I was a bit intimidated when I left the train station. I’d checked the map when I was still half asleep in the morning, but nothing really seemed familiar. Instead of asking directions – which I’ve been doing a lot of lately – I stubbornly decided to find my own way around, and set off in what seemed to be a likely direction. Fortunately for me, it transpired that my internal compass was accurate – I soon discovered a warren of neat little alleyways which had signs claiming to lead to the Place de Jaude.
My mission in Clermont-Ferrand was really just to have a look around – I imagine I’ll be back here before long, possibly on an excursion with the CAVILAM. My single named goal was to see Bartholdi’s statue of Vercingetorix, the Gaulish general who united a number of tribes in what is now France to stand against Julius Caesar. Unhappily for them (and of great satisfaction to Caesar) Vercingetorix was defeated at the Battle of Alesia. You may know Bartholdi from his less significant work, the Statue of Liberty.
Not only did I find the statue and spend some time admiring it, but I discovered that there were also some Christmas markets currently happening in the city, along with a ferris wheel. I didn’t really partake of either of these (who wants to ride a ferris wheel alone?), but I’m feeling happier and happier I decided to come to France at the end of the year – there’s a lot going on for a supposedly ‘slow’ season, but there’s not many other tourists. It’s good.
Incidentally, the inscription on the platform reads – “J’ai pris les armes pour la liberté de tous” (I took up arms for the liberty of all).
Clermont-Ferrand is also home to one of the most impressive cathedrals I’ve ever seen. To be fair, France is littered with cathedrals, but this one is built out of sooty black stone quarried from the local chain of volcanoes and rises impressively out of the confluence of a number of small alleys dotted with boutique stores. I’m not ashamed to admit I stood in its shadow gawking at it for a good ten minutes, occasionally wandering to a different vantage point and whispering ‘incroyable!’ to myself.
After a Cognac at the railway station bar, I took the train back to Vichy for dinner with my host family, which tonight was roast pork with sautéed vegetables in broth. Naturally this was served with crusty bread and I took inordinate pleasure in mopping up the broth on my plate. I was very full, so I opted for a small slice of chèvre (goat’s cheese) instead of dessert.
The following day was a Sunday, and cold! – I woke to see snow on the roof of the house next door – Olivier and Aurélie invited me to accompany them to their other house, which is located in a village named Charroux, about 30 minutes from Vichy. If anything could be a contrast to Clermont-Ferrand, it was this – Charroux is a tiny village, only home to a few hundred people in the area, and a handful in the village proper. It dates from the Middle Ages and it shows – it is beautiful, and contains a number of relics from history, including two gatehouses which form the remains of the walls which once protected the village. In my primer for writing blog entires, I ask myself the question “what advice would you give to someone considering visiting this place?” My advice to you about Charroux is this: Go, go now. It is stunning.
Aurélie and Olivier are in the process of transforming a former farmhouse/barn into a house here in Charroux. It is near completion and we took lunch there today, along with a number of Olivier’s relatives who came to visit. Comme d’hab, all of them were extremely nice to me and it was an afternoon full of tasty food, a roaring fire and easy conversation. Nothing could be better for my French, and it’s starting to show. My ability to produce French spontaneously has exploded in just a few days. Lunch today was sausages, creamy mashed potato and locally produced mustard, which was superb. The French take on bangers and mash.
After lunch, Aurélie showed me around the village. The highlight – by far – was the view into the valley below. The photo below does not even come close to doing it justice. It was, without exaggeration, one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen. Unsurprisingly, Charroux is regarded (and officially so named by the French government) as one of the most beautiful villages in France.
In the car on the way home, I happened to hear this song about growing up and (kind of) missed opportunities, living while you’re young, that sort of thing. I like it, even if it’s a bit melancholy. Check it out.