Steve’s Sojourns – Allier France
Nine times out of ten if you took a map of France and stuck a pin in what you thought was the exact centre of the country you would be highlighting the Department of Allier.
Allier is the most prosperous of all the departments in Auvergne. It is also the flattest, with the countryside consisting of open fields and forests with the area being dotted with small market towns. The markets in these towns are a delight with their local produce and always guarantee visitors a particularly colourful and vibrant atmosphere. In fact the economy of the area tends to revolve around agriculture and tourism, with revenue from the latter gradually increasing each year.
Montluçon’s magnificent medieval old town is well worth a visit and seems to be always decorated with a colourful array of flowers. France has an annual award for the city that is best decorated with flowers and it is Montluçon always does exceptionally well in the competition. There is even a flower market held in the Passage du Doyenne on a Saturday morning if you want to join in!
You can get spectacular views of the whole area from the castle that was once the seat of the Dukes of Bourbon and we had a really good meal in one of the restaurants situated on the steep cobbled streets. Try the local Pompe aux Grattons a savoury brioche in which butter is replaced with grattons (diced pieces of fat pork browned lightly over a low heat) and is served warm as an accompaniment or for an aperitif.
To me though Montluçon’s greatest glory is its Sunday morning market which is simply huge and held in the new town just across the bridge that straddles the broad River Cher. Tiny side streets and wide main roads suddenly find themselves packed with stalls groaning from the weight of superb local produce. It’s enough just to walk and look seeing local housewives buying chicken stock from the bottom of the rotisseries, whilst men haggle over watermelons, sausages and cheeses to die for. When you’ve finished here walk back towards the bridge and in the Place Churchill stop and have a coffee at Le Winston with its unusual dome fountain outside.
We had booked a Chambre d’Hote to the east of the city near the small town of Doyet and used this as base for our long weekend. Doyet is a small town that suffers from the curse of French property laws with so many boarded up potentially beautiful houses seemingly left to crumble away as the family squabble over its future. Driving through it we were sadden by this and as we entered the outskirts of the similarly sized town of Montmarault we noticed the same thing.
Montamarault is one of those sleepy little towns that the French culture has produced in abundance and we soon found what these towns are best known for, the simply divine family owned Boulangerie hidden way in the back streets, stocked with local pastries, tarts and cakes.
Allier is a land littered with castles and chateaux waiting to be discovered and as we drove through it we noticed the wide open fields that were often filled with magnificent Charolais Cattle for which the area is famous. However you may have realized by now that like so many Francophiles the markets are where I love to find myself. We were heading for St Pourçain-sur-Sioule which I have to say is one of the best open air markets I have been to. Held on a Saturday it is situated in the town’s car park beneath the church. The original covered market is still used and sits above the car park and it’s in here you will find local meats and cheeses whilst the vegetable and fruits tend to be outside. The square has an excellent café that has that tell tale sign of quality, it’s full of locals reading the paper sitting with their children watching the world go by.
St Pourçain is also known for its wine with the original vineyards being planted by the Romans. The white is dry and fruity whilst the red is similar to Beaujolais. A popular dish is Canard à la Duchambais with the traditional Duchambais sauce being made from St Pourçain wine, liver and cream.
If you get time Le Cellier, in Boulevard Ledru-Rollin offers a good selection from the local producers. Incidentally most fine French wines are matured in barrels made of oak from the Allier forests.
Cutting westwards across the region we pass through Bourbon-l’Archambault, the birthplace of the Bourbon kings with its breathtaking castle built before the ‘100 years war’. We began to notice a change in the scenery. Instead of wide-open fields, flat roads and distant horizons, forests and steepsided river valleys began to appear. This area eventually arrives at the Foret de Troncais, a huge forest of great oak and beech trees, with deer and wild boar. Open to the public the forest has signposted footpaths, pools to bathe in and numerous hostelries where you can stay the night.
As the evening shadows start to lengthen we reliase it’s time to head south back to our base and in doing so stop at traffic lights in the pouring rain at yet another small town which this time goes by the name of Villfranche d’Allier.
Something doesn’t seem quite right about the house opposite and it’s not until we drive past them that we realize they are in fact an enormous trompe d’oil! This to me sums up the Allier, colourful and unexpected and just waiting to be discovered.