By Renée S. Gordon
Auvergne was the region from which many Bourbons ruled and as such its cities are filled with architecturally unique buildings, ornate chateaus and charming farmhouses. The first Bourbon king was Henry IV in 1589 and the French line continued until the end of Louis-Philippe I’s reign ended in 1848.
The earliest document in which Moulins is mentioned is a bill of sale dated 990. The name means “mill’ and is probably a reference to the many mills in the area. The town began on a rise on the right bank of the Alier River and in the 14th century a semicircular wall was constructed, buttressed by the existing ducal castle. A larger pentagonal wall was added in the 16th-century because of the city’s growth.
The medieval core of the city is filled with narrow winding streets and structures and squares that date from the period when Moulins was the capital of the Bourbonnais. The golden age of the city began in 1232 when Archambaud VI, Sire of Bourbon, awarded a franchising charter and transformed the small village into a city with more than 1,000 residents.
Visits to Moulins should begin in the history museum where dioramas, artifacts and models that provide a comprehensive, visual overview of the city’s history. www.pays-bourbon.com/uk
Construction on the Bourbon’s Ducal Castle began in 1340 and additions were made over a period of 150 years. In 1755, it was damaged by fire but the 14th-century Louis II Keep, the “Mal Coiffée”, remains. This 148-ft. square, seven-story, tower functioned as a prison until 1983. The keep’s nickname, “unkempt hair,” refers to the four-sided roof. This building is believed to be one of the first Italian Renaissance buildings in France.
People gather daily in front of the Jacquemart, a belfry atop the town hall named after the original bell ringer. The sandstone original, built in 1445, contained a clock and bells to strike the hour and to warn the town in emergencies. An automaton, a male bell ringer, was added to the clock. In 1655, a fire destroyed a large portion of the tower and an animatronic wife and two children were added to the reconstruction. The tower burned again in 1946 when fireworks were launched to celebrate the end of WWII and was rebuilt to replicate the original.
The structures around the 19th-century town hall are wonderful examples of historic architectural styles. Their preservation is due to the fact that Moulins began protecting their historic area shortly after the French Revolution. The Rue des Orfévres contains excellent examples of medieval, non-gabled homes with stone ground floors and Rue de l’Ancien Palais and Rue de Berwick also feature outstanding structures.
Joan of Arc stopped here for two days in November of 1429 and the house in which she stayed still stands. Only three alleged examples of Joan’s signature exist and one is at the bottom of a letter she wrote from Moulins to surrounding towns and villages requesting their support.
The crown of Moulins is the splendid Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame was constructed during two distinct periods, 1488-1540, with a 19th-century addition. The earliest portion, the unfinished nave and chancel, are pink stone. The later nave and two bell-towers are white limestone and black volvic stone. Notable on the exterior are the Bourbonnais characters that adorn the exterior eaves. The 19th-century busts are clad in the attire of the era. The cathedral’s interior 15th-century stained-glass windows relate Louis IX’s crusade adventures and functioned as pictographs for the non-literate.
The jewel in Moulins crown is a Gothic triptych painted by the Master of Moulins in 1502. A grisaille painting, The Annunciation, can be seen on the outside when it is closed. When opened the 6-ft. by 11-ft. reveals “The Glorification of the Virgin” on the central panel with the donors painted on the panels on either side. The entire work is set in a gilded frame. The painting, deemed a Historic Monument in 1898, has never undergone restoration. Also in this side chapel, directly opposite the triptych, visitors can view a 12th-century black Madonna and child and a photographic display of close-up details of the triptych.
The National Center of Costume, the largest in the world, opened to the public in 2006. This marvelous facility is a museum, educational center, library, conservatory and separate building to store an additional 10,000 costumes. Museum displays, in 10 galleries, are changed every six months.
The current exhibition, “Christian Lacroix”, will be replaced in November with the long-awaited “DIVAS!” It will showcase costumes worn by some of the world’s greatest female performers from opera stars to actors. Highlights of the displays include costumes worn by Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Isabelle Adjani, Sarah Bernhardt, Grace Bumbry, Kiri Te Kanawa and Shirley Verrett.
A smaller museum dedicated to Nureyev within the larger complex will open in 2011. The center’s boutique offers unique items for sale and the on-site café is a great place to dine. It is open daily and it is not to be missed.
Prior to the golden stone 18th-century building becoming the National Center of Costume it served as a cavalry barracks and it is here that one of Gabrielle Chanel’s lovers, Etienne Balsan, was stationed. He is credited with helping her start fashion career.
Coco lived in Moulins from 1901-07. She moved here after the death of her mother to attend the Notre Dame boarding school, Rue du Lycée, with her aunt Adrienne. In 1903, she and Adrienne worked as seamstresses in A Sainte Marie, a shop at 1 Rue de L’Horloge.
In 1904, Gabrielle made her first appearance in the Grand Café in the Place de L’Allier where she entertained the audience between the main performances. She sang a humorous song,” Who Has Seen Coco in Trocadero?” It is from that song that she gained the nickname Coco.
A visit to the 1899 Grand Café is the perfect way to end your time in Moulins. The mirrored Art Nouveau café is all original and it is not difficult to picture her in this ornate setting. It is probably here that Coco met Etienne in 1905. www.allier-tourisme.com/dolce-vita
Gabrielle Chanel left Moulins in 1906 to launch a singing career in Vichy. She had no success as a singer but in Vichy she gained a taste for a life of luxury. She and her aunt took jobs as “donneuses d’eau,” women who served water at the Vichy Grande Grille Springs.
She lived here for one year and then moved on to become a fashion maven. She is credited with the creation of the little black dress, iconic suit, quilted leather, bell-bottoms and the ever-popular Chanel No. 5 perfume. Coco wanted a non-floral scent for women and requested that a perfumer provide her with samples. Legend has it that the 5th scent she smelled was the one she chose, hence the name. Later in life she visited Vichy from her permanent residence, The Ritz Hotel, in New York.
Vichy is a Gallo-Roman city that was always famous for its mineral springs. In 52 BC, the Romans became the first documented people to use the springs. They referred to the area as the “Village of the Waters” and went there to bathe, not drink, the waters. There were 11 springs, each said to cure a different ailment and Henry IV established a building with two bathing pools, one for men and one for women, and an outside pool for the poor and animals. The city pools gained importance during the time of Louis XIV, but it is Emperor Napoleon III who built many of the structures from 1861-1866. Vichy is now renowned for its world-class shopping along Rue Wilson and its springs with 80 distinct minerals. www.vichy-tourisme.com
A tour of the historic area begins at the second largest Opera House in France, an Art Nouveau structure in Italian stone. The adjacent park was the biggest café in Europe from 1910-25. It was once a swamp but was turned into a park in 1812 at the request of the emperor’s mother.
The Hall des Sources is a large greenhouse-like building in which visitors may sample the waters of the active springs.
Vichy also boasts the first building in Europe with Art Deco elements, the 1903 Grand Établissement Thermal. The baths are no longer located there but the design makes a visit worthwhile. The exterior is reminiscent of a mosque with gold and blue tiles. The interior lobby features two murals “The Spring” and “The Bath,” that trace the area’s history from the Romans. Just inside the entrance is a Roman milestone that dates from 3 AD.
The Auvergne region of France has something for everyone, unique attractions and breathtaking scenery. You can stay in a castle and enjoy gastronomic delights and fine wine in historic farmhouses. Trust me, this can be the vacation of a lifetime. Information is available online at www.franceguide.com
I wish you smooth and fragrant travels!
You need not travel with full-sized bottles of perfume to maintain your allure on vacation. Stop in any department store and ask for samples of your favorite scents and Voilà!