lundi, octobre 08, 2007



On my last trip to France I decided to have a good look at the Gallic heartland. A cluster of dots on a map of central France represented places - Bourges, Nevers, Moulins, among others - that I had often driven through without stopping on the way to and from the Champs-Elysees.

A two-hour drive from Paris brought me the first night to Salbris, a village so small that it is easy to drive past the fine hotel there. Converted from an old chateau, the Parc is now a modern hotel of creamy stone with dormers and iron balconies. The 27 rooms are tastefully appointed, but the main attraction is a restaurant serving wild duck and boar during the season (October through mid-January) and freshwater fish the whole year. The breakfast croissants are as tasty as any in France.

Salbris was a good omen. The next day I set out at a leisurely pace for the short ride to Bourges, which in 52 B.C. Julius Caesar called the finest city in Gaul. Today it is the capital of the province of Berry, named after Jean de Berry, whose duchy this was in the 14th century. One of the most fanatical collectors of art in history, the duke spent a lifetime providing work for a small army of sculptors, painters and artisans in Bourges.

A medieval atmosphere still hovers over the old part of town, its maze of cobbled streets abruptly revealing one of the great Gothic churches of France. The Cathedral of St. Stephen features a magnificent set of stained glass windows that are best viewed with binoculars. A thorough study of these windows would take more time than most vacationers can spare for their entire holiday: One window, containing more than 1,600 figures, depicts the saint's life along with a variety of biblical legends.

In the crypt there is the marble tomb of the duke - from the carved image not a very handsome fellow - with a masked bear at his feet that represents, according to the version you like, either his wife or his political ambitions put under restraint. Each stone in the crypt bears the chiseled mark of a stonecutter, identifying his work for payment.

Beyond the cathedral grounds is a garden laid out in geometric splendor before the town hall. From the flying buttresses of the cathedral to the designed clumps of flowers the entire scene offers the sort of controlled beauty for which France is famous. An added pleasure, however, is the luxury of seeing it all without being stampeded; even in the peak season of summer Bourges has the leisurely pace of a city independent of tourists.

There are a number of other medieval attractions, but aside from the cathedral perhaps the highlight of this city is the palace of the 15th-century banker Jacques Coeur. It is a showy combination of Late Gothic and Early Renaissance architecture.

Of special interest in the Grande Salle is a fireplace as tall as Wilt Chamberlain, with a gallery for musicians who played for what must have been an exotic assembly of businessmen from the Orient as well as Europe. There are inside toilets connected to a plumbing system so advanced that it vies for the visitor's attention with anonymous but finely crafted 15th-century frescoes of the Virgin and saints; a timber ceiling in the form of an overturned boat, and two unusual chimney pieces: one of Jacques Coeur playing chess with his wife, and the other a humorous contrast of knightly and peasant jousts.

One appealing feature of my planned tour of central France then became clear: All the principal sights were within half a day's travel in any direction. Taking secondary roads I visited some of the chateaus south of Bourges, among them Chateauneuf-sur-Cher. Getting there through a countryside filled with sunflowers, hay mounds, red tiled roofs and stone cottages, all of which seemed to emerge from distant centuries, was the right preparation for coming upon the tall ramparts of the castle, perched high above the sinuous Cher River and a sleepy village. Needless to say, the view from the castle windows is spectacular, and for devotees of furnishings from the 16th through the 18th century, the Gobelins tapestries, Dresden china, paintings by the miniaturist Isabey and furniture in excellent condition are well worth the trip. Fun too is a tour of the old kitchen, where a huge iron spit is turned by a complicated system of pulleys and some of the copper pots weigh 25 pounds, empty. The Duke of Maille, the castle's owner, still lives in one wing.

Passing through Bruere-Allichamps, a village with a monument proclaiming it the exact center of France, I came upon the castle of Meillant, set in the middle of an extensive forest. For someone with an interest in architecture, Meillant is vast enough and hidden enough in its wooded park to reveal only by degrees its tower in the Flamboyant Gothic Style, a southern wall in Early Gothic, and a northern facade which with textbook clarity illustrates the passing of Gothic into Renaissance motifs.

But there is also natural beauty here: in a nearby field some goats and cows are grazing as livestock must have done on this pastureland since the time of Charlemagne. White swans gliding above schools of fish in a shimmering pond encourage visitors to lean on the bridge or loll on the grassy banks. At Meillant, although you may not meet up with English-speaking tourists, you can get an English summary of a text delivered by a French student-guide, which explains that the residents of the 15th century changed their bedsheets twice a year and that four women slept naked under animal hides in a single bed.

Depending upon the time available, you can seek out other chateaus in the neighborhood, among them Jussy-Champagne, with a facade of harmoniously blended red brick and white stone. Its spiky baroque gate opens upon a precisely calculated vista of lawn and chateau. This is the French ordering of nature at its most impressive. From such a placid world of farmland and castles the network of country roads eventually brings you westward to Nevers.

Today there's no trace of the military base established there by the Romans, but the Middle Ages still exist alongside modern hotels and restaurants, all of which look down on an eastern curve of the Loire and a bridge that joins Nevers to the Bourbon country southward. It is a place where you can see an 11th-century Romanesque church, a cathedral featuring a compendium of architectural styles over a 600-year period and a ducal palace with a spectacular Renaissance tower.

But Nevers offers more than the past. Here are world-renowned faience factories where you can purchase both contemporary designs and copies of old porcelain in the famous blue-and-white format. Near a faience museum is the Montagnon Factory, turning out work for more than 300 years, with each piece signed today by the last of the family, Gerard Montagnon.

Taking the advice of a hotel waiter, I made a side trip from Nevers to a place scarcely mentioned in the guidebooks. My faith in his local wisdom was rewarded at Apremont-sur-Allier. What I found was a magnificent castle of yellow stone, dominating from its hill a landscape of farms and streams. Dur-ing the Hundred Years War the Burgundian fortress standing there was laid waste, but since that time various owners have rebuilt and refined its parapets and towers.

At the feet of Apremont lies a medieval village - as thoroughly medieval in appearance as any you are likely to encounter. In the 1930's a wealthy industrialist who owned Apremont hired an architect to restore each house in the village to the way it looked five centuries ago. Staring down from the castle, you have about the best chance available to know what it was like to stand at such ramparts and contemplate the hamlets of feudal France. And inside the castle of Apremont are treasures indeed: furniture, paintings, whole rooms preserved in their 18th- and 19th-century splendor. Taken together, the elegant castle and its rustic village afford a rare glimpse of Europe's past.

Another short haul brought me to yet another reminder of the Middle Ages: The cathedral city of Moulins. Lacking the hillside vantage point of Bourges and Nevers, Moulins nevertheless offers a similar design of narrow circling streets with sagging buildings out of medieval times. For centuries it was the principal city of the dukes of Bourbon, who gave their name to this region. Today it is a rather sleepy place, with easy parking - for me a superior luxury - and with all sorts of things to see in the old part of town: a folk museum containing ancient farm tools, the local finery of past centuries and a large collection of antique dolls; the old keep of the Bourbons, which until a year ago served as a prison, and of course the cathedral itself.

Begun on this site in 1097, the cathedral was not actually finished for 900 years, and in its present state is a striking example of the Flamboyant style, with delicate traceries and soaring arches. What perhaps most distinguishes this cathedral from other major Gothic works is its possession of one of the great paintings of Western art: the triptych of the Master of Moulins. Painted in the 15th century, it has for its central panel a transcendent Virgin and Child, with donors and saints on the side panels: austere, serene, yet somehow rapturous in glowing reds and blues.

Anything else seen on the same day as the triptych will suffer by comparison, yet a climb up the circular stairway of the clock tower in the town square is worth the effort. At least it was to me, for I'd been in Europe doing research on clocks for a novel. The belfry and the jacks that strike the hour were destroyed in a 1946 fire, but it is a measure of civic pride that the people of Moulins raised a public subscription to have everything restored.

It is a pleasure to sit in the square today and watch the bronze ''parent'' automatons sound the hour, while the ''children'' take care of the halves and quarters; they draw the deep notes from a hammered gong vibrating through the narrow streets. And when you've had enough culture in this fine little city, there are always the restaurants, a number of them, small and cozy and able to do wonderful things with specialties such as pate pommes de terre, unlike potatoes you've ever eaten elsewhere.

Again only a short drive away is another major city of the Bourbon country, Montlucon. But getting to Montlucon from Moulins is half the fun, if you halt on the way through a landscape of baled wheat and lakes and tiny villages with their churches spiking the air from high ground. In Verneuil en Bourbonnais the people won't come out of their houses to give directions, but stand at their doors and stare, while big dogs strain at leashes in the yards. You have gone back centuries to the days when wandering mercenaries terrorized this countryside. In Souvigny a very old church is a veritable laboratory of changing architectural styles. It is a noble building that houses the tombs of two Cluny saints and more of the Bourbon family. Even with stops such as these, however, it won't take you more than a few hours to reach Montlucon.

Unlike many other cities of central France, Montlucon on first encounter seems to lack charm, being a commercial and industrial center. Yet in the heart of the city, behind the department stores and commercial banks, rises a steep hill at the top of which is the remains of the old Bourbon castle, where the dukes reigned and schemed for centuries. The climb toward it through pebbled streets offers antique stores and many eating places. There are also two very old churches in this part of town, along with a number of authentic medieval houses.

But the goal of this gentle ascent is the esplanade of the castle with a panoramic view of the Bourbon countryside. Below, lining the labyrinth of tiny streets, are red-tiled roofs, seemingly jumbled together at odd angles, witnesses to a stormy past when the duchy struggled for power against king and court. That part of the castle that has been restored now serves as a museum. Perhaps the most interesting section displays musical instruments from the 16th to the present century. The vielle, which is played by turning a handle and depressing keys like an accordion, still accompanies village dances in the province. It has a sound uniquely its own, perhaps best described as a mixture of bagpipe and banjo. Although Montlucon is more industrial than other cities of this region, its people share with other Bourbonnais a sunny, relaxed manner that may be the result of a calm life set in the midst of plenty.

What is not especially calm, however, is Vichy, long a famous spa because of its natural springs. Forming a triangle with Montlucon and Moulins in the heart of the Bourbon country, it is a city that had a bad press during World War II when the government of occupied France collaborated from here with the Germans.

Today, however, the Vichyssoise have put that memory behind them in developing a resort that recalls the halcyon days when celebrities from throughout Europe gathered here for the cure and entertainment, when Napoleon III, enamored of the place, had his architects create the parks and townhouses that still adorn Vichy.

The season in Vichy stretches from May through September and revolves around events in the Grand Casino, which is set in an immaculately swept park serving as a promenade for people who have come to restore their health at the thermal baths or their fortunes in the gambling room. If you are going to win or lose money, the casino's gambling room is a pleasant place to do it, with high ceilings and copper railings around the blackjack and roulette tables, under immense chandeliers, surrounded by gamblers talking half a dozen languages. The casino's theater with its famous acoustics and ornate gilding has a venerable history: Strauss directed ''Salome'' here and Diaghilev produced his last ballet for this theater. Today there are operas, ballets, song recitals, concerts and variety shows at the casino; indeed, the frenzy of cultural activity rivals that of Paris.

For those who haven't gambled the night away, daytime in Vichy can be strenuous and healthy. At the Sporting Club there are tennis and swimming, at the Yacht Club water-skiing and wind-surfing. Greyhound races are popular at the Hippodrome. For shoppers the Rue Clemenceau near the Grand Casino features a variety of stores with Parisian fashions and regional antiques. There are candy shops with almond paste families of colored pigs - the papa sells for about $10 - and chocolates so wonderfully wrapped that you hesitate to eat them.

But it's all right to overindulge in this town, because the thermal establishments are here. There is an array of clinics, offering mineral water from both hot and cold springs, hydrotherapy, massages and sulfurous baths for the cure of ailments ranging from arthritis to hepatitis. I can't think of a better place to be sick in than Vichy with its grand hotels, parks and bands playing march music at sunset.

Perhaps the best place to absorb the city's special brand of old world charm is Pavillon Sevigne, a hotel named after the witty writer of the Sun King's court, who once observed of a noblewoman burned at the stake for poisoning her husband, ''We are all breathing her now.''

The management calls this hotel of 48 rooms a grand petit - grand in a small way. Built in the reign of Louis XIII, it has gone through many restorations, leaving it today with an ivory-colored brick exterior trimmed in gray stone and with ceramic parquet floors and pastel rooms in the Empire style. The room in which Mme. Sevigne reputedly lived is still furnished in a 17th-century manner and overlooks a graveled courtyard, an arbor for outside dining and a wing occupied by the hotel restaurant. This is a superb restaurant, featuring a Napoleon III decor: long windows, sparkling chandeliers, huge pots filled with flowers. The wine list is a tome, ranging in price from expensive to very expensive, with a few Pomerols going for as much as $800. The menu is in the tradition of Les Freres Troisgros of Roanne. At times one of the brothers travels the 40 miles from his Roanne restaurant to discuss dishes with the Sevigne chef, Gerard Raimbault, and you can imagine the results. Lobster is a specialty.

Sometimes in the evening you can find Mila Parely sitting at cocktails in the hotel courtyard. For several decades she was a great star of the French cinema, perhaps her most famous role being that of Beauty in Cocteau's ''La Belle et La Bete.'' Whoever has seen the film will immediately recognize her profile at the Sevigne at dusk. Today, contented with her decision to give up the limelight, she is an enthusiastic booster of Vichy, her adopted city. Instead of discussing her film career with me, Mme. Parely sang the praises of central France. Acquainted at last with the region, its memories and its present blessings, I knew what she was talking about. And I agreed. For visitors to the heartland Following is a sampling of hotels and restaurants in central France. Room rates given are for two people; the price for dinner is the estimated cost for two, including wine, tax and tip. Hotels The Hotel du Parc, 10 Avenue Or-leans, Salbris (telephone, is a modern 27-room building, formerly a chateau. $43.

In Bourges, the Hotel d'Artagnan, 19 Rue de Seraucourt ( has 73 rooms and a restaurant featuring escargots. $23.

The Hotel Loire, Quai Medine, Nevers (, has a spectacular view of the river. $43.

The Hotel de Paris, 21 Rue Paris, Moulins (, has 21 rooms and a restaurant with two Michelin stars. $36-$58.

In Montlucon, the Hostellerie Chateau St. Jean, Parc de St. Jean (, has only seven rooms. $59.

The Pavillon Sevigne, 10 Place Sevigne, Vichy (, is set in a French garden. $76-$88. Restaurants Grenier a Sel, 10 Rue Notre-Dame, Montlucon (, has earned a Michelin star for its Bourbonnais cuisine. A specialty is bass prepared with vinegar. $56.

In Lapalisse, 30 miles from Moulins, the Restaurant Galland, Place de la Republique (, is also noted for regional dishes. $50.

La Rotonde du Lac, Boulevard de-Lattre-de-Tassigny, at the Yacht Club, Vichy (, specializes in seafood. $66. Chateaus The Chateauneuf-sur-Cher is open from 10 A.M. to noon and from 2 P.M. to 7 P.M from April through September; rest of year, open Sunday afternoon only. The Chateau de Meillant in Bruere-Allichamps is open every day from 9 A.M. to 11:45 A.M. and from 2 P.M. to 6:45 P.M.; it closes an hour earlier in the winter. At Apremont-sur-Allier, the park is closed from October to March; in April, it is open Sunday only. From May to Sept. 21, the park and chateau are open every day except Tuesday. Spas In Vichy, both the Grand Thermal and the Callou Thermal are open all year from 8 A.M. to noon. In season (Grand Thermal, March 1 to Dec. 21; Callou Thermal, May 2 to Oct. 12), they are open from 6:30 A.M. to 7 P.M. The season at the Institut de Vichy, a hotel with a health program, is from March 3 to Nov. 21. M. B.