I just returned from a wonderful press trip in the Auvergne, a pretty region in central France. “In the footsteps of Coco Chanel” was the theme of the journey. The fashion icon hailed from this part of France and spent her youth and teenage years in its towns and villages.
I must admit, the theme did not excite me. However, as I learned more about her early years, I became intrigued. And, during our five-day journey, we (a group of five US journalists) saw and did much that had nothing to do with Coco Chanel.
The trip began in Clermont-Ferrand, the capital of the Auvergne known for the black/gray volcanic stone that was used to construct most of its buildings. The Auvergne is a region of long dormant volcanoes, its landscape punctuated with hilltops that rise from the flats. The pièce de résistance in Clermont-Ferrand, a town that was built on the butte of an ancient volcano, is the cathedral whose construction went on for centuries, from the 13th to the 19th. The interior of the Gothic structure is a wonder. Black stone gives it a dark and spooky atmosphere with electric candle-like bulbs adding just enough dim light so that wandering up and down the aisles borders on a mystical experience. The profound colors of the stained glass windows provide a vivid, exquisite contrast.
In the town of Issoire, where the Chanel family lived between 1885-1887 (Coco, whose real name was Gabrielle, was born in 1883), we discovered another magnificent church, this one Romanesque. Auvergne is known for many churches in this style of architecture. The unique aspect of this church is its columns — all brightly painted in red. The guide told us that studies showed the columns were this color when the church was constructed in the 12th century, so during restoration they were returned to their original state. Other bright colors decorate the column capitals – all with detailed sculptures of figures. It’s a shock, albeit a delightful one, to see a church in such bright and cheery tones.
In Issoire, we also took a stroll down a side street to see the Chanel family house, now occupied by a woman who had no idea that Coco Chanel had resided there.
I enjoyed admiring the countryside as we drove from town to town. It’s pastoral perfect with the volcano-hills providing a scenic backdrop for lush green fields where white cows graze. We saw plenty of these white bovines. Auvergne, we were told, is famous for its cheeses. We had the opportunity to try many at sumptuous lunches and dinners.
Food on press trips, especially those in France, is a highlight. We had many outstanding four-course repasts, with a cheese-course preceding the dessert. My favorite was at the Domaine de Gaudon, a classy chambre d’hote (bed and breakfast) where hostess Monique Bozzo prepared a feast for us, beginning with champagne and foie gras mousse as an aperitif served on the terrace overlooking the surrounding picturesque countryside. For dinner, we moved inside to an impressive dining room in the 19th century house all furnished with antiques. The table, under a crystal chandelier, was set with fine china and silver. The meal began with scallops and a terrine of monk fish, then filet of beef and potatoes au gratin, on to a choice of numerous cheeses, all topped off with homemade strawberry ice cream and a slice of layered creamy mocha cake. We drank local Auvergne wines.
Monique’s husband, Allain, is a delight who entertained us with lively tales, including the story of their purchase and restoration of the stately house. We also met the family menagerie, two Golden Retrievers, and two cats, one of which is 23 years old.
During a visit to the National Center of Theater Costumes in the town of Moulins, we toured the museum’s current exhibit featuring costumes from Russian operas. And, we went behind the scenes to see how the museum, which opened in 2006, stores its collection of 10,000 garments.
Coco Chanel wanted to be a cabaret singer, and it was in the cafes in Moulins that she tried, unsuccessfully, to launch a singing career. We visited Le Grand Café there, declared a historic monument thanks to its remarkable Art Nouveau décor dating from the turn of the century. It was here that Gabrielle Chanel became known as “Coco” from the title of a song she frequently sang, “Who has seen Coco in Trocadero?”
Chanel also spent time in nearby Vichy, an elegant spa town put on the map by Napoleon III who ordered construction of a casino, chalets, boulevards and parks in the 19th century. During the Belle Époque, its Art Nouveau opera house, elegant thermal centers, and splendid parks were popular hangouts for the upper crust who came to take the waters.
Strange, but Vichy has no monuments nor museums in memory of the darker side of its past during World War II when it was the center of the right-wing government under Prime Minister Pétain after the country's defeat by the Germans in June 1940. The Vichy government cooperated with the Germans, imprisoning some 135,000 people, deporting 76,000 Jews and sending 650,000 French workers to Germany. “This is a city of pleasure,” commented a guide. After the demise of the Vichy regime, all remnants of it were destroyed in the town, she said. “People don’t like to discuss it,” she added.
We ended our travels in the medieval village of Charroux, declared “one of the most beautiful villages in France.” It’s a gem with sections of the old walls, towers and gates, as well as numerous quaint boutiques offering candles, lace, soap, pottery — and mustard. At the latter, a tiny shop with an adjoining workshop where the mustard is made, we watched proprietor Olivier Maenner operate a giant mill stone to grind the seeds, then add a combination of vinegar, water and wine to make the final product. We tasted several varieties of the 20 different kinds of mustard Maenner produces. And, we made purchases.
For our last night, we enjoyed luxurious accommodations at a castle, the Château de la Canière, where we were treated to yet another memorable and tasty dinner.
Coco Chanel left the Auvergne when she was 24 years old, moving on to Paris where she entered the world of fashion which brought her fame and fortune. However, it is said her youth in the Auvergne formed her character. “I am the last of the Auvergne volcanoes which is not extinct,” the couture goddess once said.
For more information on the Auvergne, contact email@example.com. For more photos, see the photo album in the center column.