France is a country full of quaint and historic towns and villages, many of which go unnoticed due to the sheer quantity of beautiful French villages. Billom is one such overlooked village. Located in the heart of Auvergne, tucked into the shadows of the mountains of the Massif Central, is the little medieval village of Billom. Its quiet centre is full of medieval houses, gothic churches and wandering alleyways, though the site itself dates back to ancient times. In fact, the name Billom comes from Biliomagus – of which bilio means “wood” and magnus means “market.” It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Billom grew, becoming an important market and university town in an otherwise rural region. Due to its micro-climate, rolling hills and southern-European architecture, Billom is ‘capital’ of the region nick-named Toscane Auvergnate, or the Tuscany of Auvergne. Legend has it that it was Catherine di Medici who gave it that name while visiting Auvergne during the Renaissance – supposedly, Auvergne reminded her of the native Tuscany of her childhood. Today, Billom is a peaceful and beautiful town. It still has its markets – notably the annual the fete de l’Ail or the “Garlic Festival” – as well as food and antique markets galore.
Pro tip: Billom is a lovely day trip from Clermont if you have a car. Also in the area is the Chateau de Montmorin, a beautiful ruined castle. For something truly unique, visit for the Fete de l’ail, held each August.
The Loire Valley is one of the most spectacular castle regions in Europe. Full of what can only be described as French chateaux, the Loire Valley houses some 300 extravagant palatial buildings!! Among the most famous are the immense Chateau de Chambord and the spectacular Chateau de Chenonceau. Spanning the River Cher in a unique castellated bridge, the river literally runs through the castle. Though it has had many owners, Chateau de Chenanceau is really a tale of two women and their rivalry for King Henri: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Diane de Poitiers was a noblewoman – beautiful, talented, intelligent and elegant – who fall in love with young King Henri II. In order to take control of Italian states, Henri was married to the much younger Catherine de Medici. Despite his marriage, Henri spent his entire life dedicated to the beguiling Diane de Poitiers and their children, culminating in gifting her Chateau de Chenanceau. Though it took many years of delicate legal manoeuvres to make Diane the true owner of Chateau de Chenanceau, she loved the castle and was responsible for the phenomenal bridge across the Cher, as well as the flower and vegetable gardens. When Henri died in a jousting accident, his jealous widow Catherine de Medici illegally forced Diane to yield her the castle – though she was then forced to offer Diane Chateau de Chaumont in exchange. Catherine further renovated the gardens and the castle interior, as well as adding new rooms and a service wing (of course she did, she’s Catherine de Medici…). Unlike her more enlightened rival Diane, Catherine was a girlish socialite whose favourite activity was hosting lavish parties at Chenanceau, including France’s first ever fireworks show. Chenanceau’s third notable woman was the enlightened Louise Dupin, who hosted countless literary salons in the chateau – Louise saved the castle during the French Revolution by claiming that it was essential to commerce as it was the only bridge for miles. Though Catherine may have stolen the chateau from Diane and Louise saved it from demolition by angry hordes, Chateau de Chenanceau remains synonymous with Diane de Poitiers and her love for King Henri.
Pro Tip: Chateau de Chenanceau is far more lovely when visited in the off season – despite the lack of flowering gardens, the lack of tourist crowds allows you to feel the romance of the castle. No car? It’s a short and easy train ride from the town of Blois.
“Bouchon.” What a funny word. In French, it could mean either “cork” or “traffic jam,” “stopper” or “plug”…or even, strangely enough, “typical Lyonnaise restaurant.” Lyon tops the list for highest concentration of restaurants as there are over 1,000 places to eat in Lyon. This, of course makes sense–Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France! But how did this come about? One important factor dates back to the sixteenth century. Catherine de Medici imported cooks from Florence, and combining their skills with local products and recipes, they created a revolutionary idea: regional specialties that were consumed by nobles and royalty. This tradition carried up through the centuries, shaping Lyonnaise cuisine into what it is today. In addition to the Medicis, the “Mères lyonnaises” gave birth to Lyon’s gastronomic success. These women, 19th century middle-class cooks, rose up and decided to put their extraordinary culinary skills to use. The rise of tourism connected with the automobile (the newly-formed Michelin Guide helped a bit), brought more and more hungry mouths to their tables. Today, France is well-known for its fine cuisine, but it is Lyon that wins the first-place ribbon. A “bouchon” refers to a traditional Lyonnaise restaurant, where you can find such items as andouillette (type of sausage), duck breast, the salad “chèvre chaud” (a salad with baked goat cheese wrapped in puff pastry), foie gras, “saucisson chaud” (literally ‘hot sausage’; it’s delicious!) or Lyon’s specialty, the quenelle, (a mixture of creamed fish and chicken, with an egg binding and covered in cream. It’s mouth-watering!). Of course, you can visit a high-end Paul Bocuse restaurants where the food will be of the highest quality–but nothing beats the snug feeling of the quaint restaurant terrace with checkered tablecloths and cobblestones underfoot. Not only is the atmosphere fantastic, but the food is so delicious you’ll never want to leave–and it never seems to stop coming!
The beautiful Château de Chenonceau, dating back to 1513, owes its life, beauty, and survival to its beloved mistresses. Katherine Briconnet brought it to life, Henry II’s mistress Diane de Poitiers made it beautiful, Catherine de Medici made it extraordinary, and Madame Dupin protected it during the time of the French Revolution. The Château owes its existence and splendour to these women and others who created and cared for this beautiful French château, located in the infamous Loire Valley—a region famous for its regal residences. Chenonceau owes it all to these women who made it into the magnificent, iconic and historic gem that stretches elegantly across the River Cher today. Though all Loire Valley Châteaux are something special, a visit to the Château de Chenonceau will takes one’s breath away by its sheer extraordinary beauty!