Vichy – spa treatments, gingham and sweets
Setting out from Lyon, the easiest thing to do is start your trip in Vichy. The town, nicknamed ‘Queen of the Spa Towns' will immediately win you over with its green setting and a gentle lifestyle which is both simple and elegant.
Take time to discover everything that has made Vichy famous, from its thermal baths to its famous mint sweets, from its springs to its mineral waters, and, of course, not forgetting some of its iconic former residents. It was Napoleon III who was the catalyst for the spa resort developing and subsequently becoming the in-place to be. Suffering from kidney stones, the Emperor chose to come here every year for treatment. Accordingly, impressive modernisation and planning schemes got underway so that Vichy could offer both health treatments and entertainment.
Stop off at the Hall des Sources. There, you can sample the waters from four of the mineral springs that come up from the ground and are tapped in the Vichy area: Chomel, Grande Grille, Hôpital and Lucas.
Whatever the season, head down to the banks of the Allier River, completely planned and kitted out with relaxation in mind. The boardwalk brings the town closer to the river: kids run playfully around, sporty types go jogging and there are also pontoons for sailboats. If you fancy, why not go for dinner at Tahiti Plage, one of the many open-air cafes on the bankside, where a friendly, laid-back atmosphere is guaranteed.
Hall des Sources
7 avenue du Général Dwight Eisenhower
Parc des Bourins
Avenue de France
+33 (0)4 70 32 70 94
Driving along the Sioule River
Continue on your journey, heading north through the département of Allier. Your first stop is Charroux, an ancient fortified town. Wander peacefully through the cobbled streets of the medieval village. You will appreciate its relatively high altitude – 413 metres – when you look out over the surrounding valleys. Between Cour des Dames and Cour de la Tour de l'Horloge, you might want to stop and buy a jar of Charroux mustard, a local speciality whose special ingredient is a spoonful of white wine which gives it its characteristic flavour.
As lunchtime approaches, drive a few minutes out of town to Ferme de Saint Sébastien where chef Valérie Saignie is there to greet you. She is the heart and soul of this renovated old farmhouse. Savour her chicken in Duchambais sauce – a speciality of the region, made from vinegar, shallots and crème fraîche – and, when in season, her courgette fritters served with cream and chopped chives.
Hopping back in the car, you continue to Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule, about 20 minutes from there. The small town owes its fame to its vineyard which is one of the oldest in France. These wines were in fact served at the royal table as early as the 13th century and were particularly admired by Saint Louis, King of France. Stop off at Domaine Ray to sample the whites, rosés and reds produced by the family-run concern. It is up to you to decide which wine will go best with the highly acclaimed local andouillette sausage!
Ferme Saint Sébastien
Chemin de Bourion
+33 (0)4 70 56 88 83
8 rue Louis Neillot
+33 (0)4 70 45 35 46
Moulins' hidden heritage
Your tourist trail through the heart of Allier takes you to Moulins, the historic capital of the Bourbonnais region. You simply have to visit the Chateau of the Dukes of Bourbon whose unusual truncated roof earned it the nickname of the ‘Mal Wearing'. This chateau's moment of glory came in the 15th century when Charles de Bourbon-Montpensier was appointed Constable of France by King Francis I.
Take the guided tour of the castle: for an hour and a half, you will step back in time and understand the role that Moulins and the Bourbonnais region played, giving France several of its kings from Henry IV up to Charles X. The last 200 steps leading to the curtain wall gives a tantalising hint of the superb panorama over the town, the nearby Allier River and the countryside beyond.
Besides its many historical monuments, Moulins has a treasure all of its very own: the National Centre for Stage Costume. No fewer than 10,000 costumes from the Comédie Française theatre, the Opera and the National Library of France are stored within its walls. Theatre, dance, ballet, opera… the oldest pieces go back to the 18th century. The costume worn by the celebrated Sarah Bernhardt in a production of Ruy Blas (Victor Hugo) dates back to 1872. Admire this satin dress, embroidered with pearls, braiding and gold sequins; it is absolutely magnificent.
Chateau of the Dukes of Bourbon, Mal Wearing
Place Colonel Laussedat
+33 (0)4 70 20 48 47
National Centre for Stage Costume
Route de Montilly
+33 (0)4 70 20 76 20
It is an hour's drive from Moulins to Montluçon in the south-west of the Allier département. Here too, you will find a signpost to yet another ‘Chateau of the Dukes of Bourbon'. In actual fact, the Bourbons built an imposing castle in Montluçon, before the one in Moulins. You can only visit one tower, but it is well worth it for the view over the town and surrounding area.
After you leave the esplanade, take a stroll in the pedestrianised streets of the medieval town. Half-timbered houses and other private townhouses from the era are very well preserved. There are lots of shops, creating a pleasant and lively atmosphere. In amongst them, you will find cafes where you can have a quick break before continuing on your exploration.
If you are in town on a Saturday morning, you will have the undoubtable pleasure of wandering around colourful market stalls, piled high with tasty regional produce bursting with flavour. And if you fancy a gourmet finale to this last stage of your trip, you will enjoy the dishes on offer at the Grenier à Sel restaurant, an enchanting period house whose chef Jacky Morlon puts a clever spin on typical Bourbonnais delights. If it is warm enough, ask for a table out on the terrace, in the lush-green garden overlooked by age-old trees. What a wonderful end to your Bourbonnais adventure.
Chateau of the Dukes of Bourbon in Montluçon
Rue du Château
+33 (0)4 70 02 55 00
Le Grenier à Sel
10 rue Sainte Anne
Place des Toiles
+33 (0)4 70 05 53 79