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The countryside in Auvergne. Photos by Richard Frisbie. Click on photo to enlarge.

Auvergne, France: Where Gabrielle Chanel Became 'Coco'

The Auvergne region is the least populated of France. It is a fertile, rural breadbasket for the rest of the country. Lush green wheat fields are checker-boarded with the bright yellow fields of rapeseed in the lowlands, while the hillside fields host herds of white beef cattle and sheep.

Dotted throughout are the centuries-old fortified farmhouses, and over 500 chateaux and castles. Picturesque villages and a few small cities pop up to complete this beautiful landscape.

The Bourbons, a family responsible for producing more French monarchs than any other, settled in the Auvergne, lending no little prestige to the towns and villages throughout the area.

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Gabrielle Chanel, a.k.a. Coco Chanel, the world famous fashion designer, spent her formative years in the Auvergne region of France. I decided to spend a week traveling around Auvergne learning more about her.

Clermont-Ferrand is the largest city in Auvergne. It has both a good airport and a train station. I know, because I arrived by train, thanks to the Iceland volcano with the unpronounceable name, and left by plane once the dust cleared. Both were comfortable and convenient.

It turns out not much is really known about Coco’s time in the region. Little bits of information kept popping up, though, such as: in Clermont-Ferrand, the grandparents of Coco Chanel sold socks on the Place de la Victoire, but there was not much family history of any substance. Still, it was a beautiful city to walk around.

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel is probably the most famous fashion designer in history.
Gabrille 'Coco' Chanel is probably the most famous fashion designer in history.

My whole week went this way, traveling from town to town gleaning the little bits of history that made up Mme. Chanel’s early years. I learned more about French history than about Coco.

The ancient Roman and Gallic presence throughout the region was very much still in evidence.
To the south of Clermont-Ferrand is the village of Issoire, in the area known as the "Tuscany of the Auvergne" for the delicate light in the rolling countryside.

The Chanel family lived here for a while in two different houses, the second being simpler and plainer than the first.

Next I toured the town of Courpière. Coco Chanel’s mother was originally from this little village of the Puy-de-Dôme, and it’s where Gabrielle Chanel spent the largest part of her childhood.

The Puy-de-Dôme is the area surrounded by more than 80 dormant volcanoes. It is amazing to be in blooming fields that fade into the distant hills, and see a snow-capped spine of mountains above them. It really is beautiful country.

History is all around us, especially when traveling in Europe. I continued on to Varennes-sur-Allier. That’s where I was reminded of my early school years studying Latin. We translated Julius Caesar’s writings as an exercise.

Clermont-Ferrand
Clermont-Ferrand

Here I was walking through my old textbook, "All Gaul is divided into three parts . . . " looking at the remains of the Gallo-Roman époque of French history that nearly smothered the village in antiquity. 

I walked outside the four levels of embattlements, along the old moat, surprised at how much remained. Here was the gate Louis XIV used when sneaking out to visit his mistress; there was the ripple in the running water where the bridge across the moat used to stand.

Over there was the site of an old mill that used the protecting waters to grind the flour the region is famous for. There were pieces of history peeking out of back yards and gardens, as the ancient terraces of the city walls survive in the lives and homes of the current inhabitants.

Coco Chanel's aunt's house in Varennes-sur-Allier
Coco Chanel's aunt's house in Varennes-sur-Allier

Coco Chanel’s aunt had a house in Varennes-sur-Allier. It was through her that she learned to sew, a skill she put to good use in her later life. She was close to her aunt and visited her as often as she could.

From there I traveled to Moulins. It is a city once famous for its mills (Moulins means mill in French) and its beautiful cathedral. Now it is known for the largest costume collection in the world, the Centre National du Costume de Scene.

It is unusual to have such a prestigious museum in Auvergne rather than in Paris, but the huge old military camp was vacant for years and the collection needed a home, so what seems like an odd stretch is actually a sensible and very natural solution.

The National Center of Theater Costumes is home to a prestigious collection of 9000 costumes from three national establishments: the Bibliotheque Nationale of France (Arts and Spectacle Dept), the Comédie-Française, and the Opéra National de Paris.

They mount two shows each year, closing three weeks between them to break down and erect the elaborate sets they create to display a fraction of their collection.

The show beginning in June 2010 is called DIVAS! It contains gorgeous gowns and accoutrements for the most famous divas of French history.

The National Center of Theater Costumes in Auvergne
The National Center of Theater Costumes in Auvergne, France

Le Grand Café is one of the Historic Monuments of Moulins. Its exquisite Art Nouveau décor is preserved from 1899. The walls are all mirrors, multiplying the size of the high-ceilinged interior into an endless series of identical spaces, each with a balcony and stained-glass skylight. It is an amazing sleight-of-hand, or, to be anatomically correct, sleight-of-the-eye, that makes the café seem huge! In the back was a raised stage where entertainers performed.

Gabrielle Chanel worked in Moulins as a seamstress by day, but her ambitions were too grand to settle for that as a life’s work.

At first, she fancied herself a singer. Her attempts to gain the spotlight on the stage were stymied by her limited talent. However, she was hired as an interim act, filling in between the 'stars' with a trifle from a popular play of the time.

She sang "Qui a vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro?" (Who has seen Coco in Trocadero?) It was a song ostensibly about finding her dog, Coco.

Le Grand Café in Moulins
Le Grand Cafe in Moulins

She went from table to table entreating the gentlemen to help her look, promising affections that (presumably) the dog would return if they would only extent them; caress for caress, kisses for kisses.

Apparently she was very convincing. Not only did the nickname of Coco stick, but she met an officer from the nearby barracks (now the costume museum) who could help her climb the social ladder and get closer to the quality of life she so strongly desired.

It would be hard to say what my favorite site was in Moulins. There were several. One is a little unusual, but it is a courtyard next to the cathedral with beautiful specimen trees.

There’s a museum to one side, and a grand 19th century house that will open to the public in October, so there are four things to see while standing in one spot! For art lovers, the famous triptyque of the "Vierge en gloire" (Virgin in Glory) in a side room of the cathedral is a must see. I’ve never encountered anything like it.

The cathedral in Moulins
The cathedral in Moulins

I was first presented with a black and white two panel painting. Odd for a triptyque, I thought, and so monochromatic. Then they opened the two panels to reveal three spectacularly colorful and beautifully painted panels – a cinqtyque! It was unusual and stunning to view. The painting is known for its depiction of the most beautiful hands, and for the brilliance of the unrestored colors. It took my breath away.

A block or so away was the clock tower, or celebrated belfry of Jacquemart, with a family of four mechanized statues taking turns ringing the bell on the quarter hour. It was nice to see locals as well as tourists stopping to watch the noon "show" when mother, father, brother and sister all get into the act at once.

Moulins is an accessible collection of ancient-to-modern architecture, lovely parks, and nice people. With only 28,000 inhabitants it felt like a place to visit longer. Unfortunately, I could not stay. The trail of Coco Chanel beckoned.

Verneuil-en-Bourbonnais
Verneuil-en-Bourbonnais

The charming little village of Verneuil-en-Bourbonnais is unusual in that it did not boast a Coco Chanel site. They did have a laundry museum (really), ancient ruins, an older chapel and a spare little church.

It was a raw cold day on my visit, but I’d love to linger on the old embattlement-lined lanes in better weather. It is a sweet little village, one that someday may join the ranks of the "Beautiful Villages of France". But, I could not linger. The waters of Vichy were next on my itinerary.

Vichy really is a spa town. It has been a health destination for 100s of years. There is a huge tree-filled park with a quarter-mile long covered promenade around it so ladies and gentlemen could walk in all weather.

The park itself used to be a swamp, but a noblewoman in Vichy to "take the waters" complained to her son that the walking was terrible. That is how Napoleon Bonaparte came to design and lay out the streets and parks of Vichy, in the process filling in the swamp so his mother would be more comfortable.

The opera house in Vichy
The opera house in Vichy

At one end of the park is the Opera House. On the other is a glass pavilion where some of the springs come up. There are banks of faucets for the different waters. Some can be consumed by tourists for 25 cents a cup. Others are by prescription only, and can be accessed from an area open only to patients. I passed on the water, but stayed to enjoy the striking Art Nouveau architecture.

Coco Chanel first saw the elegant lifestyle the social elite enjoyed when she visited Vichy. That memory set the standard of achievement she aspired to. Her whole life was spent acquiring the wealth and social standing she first admired there. Vichy is a beautiful city, another I would have lingered in, but my time in France was nearly up.

Before I left Auvergne I knew I had to go to what is called "the prettiest village in France", Charroux. It is a village of craftspeople; a tourist destination for the specialty shops as well as the charm.

A well in Charroux
A well in Charroux

Several people I spoke to there, folks who bought and restored homes in Charroux, and who claimed a thorough knowledge of France, insist the claim is valid. Charroux is the most beautiful village, and an excellent place to live.

I enjoyed walking through it, admiring the courtyard gardens and the old stone walls that contained them. I tasted some fresh-pressed walnut oil, and purchased some stone ground mustard from the man who ground it. There was a chocolate and a pastry shop too. There were many others, but I only paid attention to the food ones.

In the unusual fact department, there are 300 water wells in Charroux, one for each of the inhabitants of the village. Many were accessible from the street. Each of them had a small boy, or boys peering into the depths, rattling the chain, turning the wheels, trying to raise a bucket of water. More attractive nuisances I haven’t seen.

I worried about their safety, but no one fell in, and they were all obviously having a good time. It was that kind of trip. With all the things that could go wrong, nothing did.

I learned more about Coco Chanel, and had a great time doing it. I’d forgotten how much I liked France, how beautiful it is and how nice the people are. I look forward to my return.

 

Further Information:

Centre National du Costume de Scene

Moulins, France

ATOUT FRANCE - France Tourism Development Agency
825 Third Avenue, 29th Floor, New York, NY 10022
Tél: 1 212 745 09 64/67
Fax:1 212 838 78 55
franceguide.com/us

Air France Airlines 


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Richard Frisbie Richard Frisbie has been writing culinary travel articles for more than five years as a columnist for his local newspapers, and as a regular contributor to many Hudson Valley, Catskill Mountain and other regional New York publications. His most recent addition to that list is a wine column called “Fruit of the Vine” for Life in the Finger Lakes magazine. Online, he writes frequent articles for EDGE publications and TravelLady.com, as well as Gather.com.

 

Read more GoNOMAD stories by Richard Frisbie:

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Tasting French Champagne: A Transcendent Experience

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France 1918-2008: Remembering the American Offensive in World War I

 

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