A Mystery Tour on the Way to Cantal

Thiezac - Sept 11 Puy Griou
Le Puy Griou, one of the Monts de Cantal

Revisiting old haunts can be tinged with disappointment. I once returned to a place where I had lived 30 years before and was saddened to see how much it had changed. Happily, Cantal has never fallen into that category. This mountainous, formerly volcanic, area of the Massif Central draws us back as often as we can get there, although our last visit was two years ago.

Cantal is one of the least densely-populated départements of France with 26 inhabitants per square kilometre. Only four other mainland départements are even more sparsely populated and three of those are mountainous areas. You can see why. The terrain doesn’t lend itself easily to highways and railways. Those that exist are marvels of engineering, with tunnels and cuttings hewn out of the volcanic rock. The more local lanes are often little more than glorified tracks. Where we stay, in the Cère Valley, which runs north-east of Aurillac, there is one mountain pass over into the parallel Jordanne Valley, often snowbound in winter. To live here all year round, you need a 4×4.

Last Monday, we were full of anticipation for long walks among magnificent scenery, tranquil villages built of the dark local stone enhanced by scarlet geraniums and robust mountain meals taken in no-frills hostelries. But before heading to Thiézac, the village which is normally our base, I had a mission to accomplish. Let me take you on a mystery tour to a place that is well known to a reader, thanks to whom we took a detour to visit it.

Happy detour

We turned off the main road in the town of Maurs, which used to describe itself as the “Nice of Cantal”. Presumably, someone decided this was a rather extravagant claim and its moniker is now “La porte du Midi” (gateway to the South of France). Following winding roads through rolling countryside dotted with shaggy-coated cows, we arrived at our target.

You go along here…

Marcoles 1

Getting closer…

Marcoles 2

Through this archway…

Marcoles 3

It’s just around the corner…

Marcoles 4

Coming into view…

Marcoles 5

We’re here!

Marcoles 6

There it is – la Maison Carrée – the Square House, although it sounds better in French. Where are we? The medieval town of Marcolès in the area of southern Cantal known as la Châtaigneraie, owing to the prevalence of sweet chestnut trees.

Important town

The town (or City, as it was called) developed in the Middle Ages, since it was on an important trade route between the mountains of the Auvergne and the regions of southern France. Wines from the south were exchanged there for cheeses from the north. The 15th and 16th centuries saw the apogee of this commercial activity and the construction of houses by merchants keen to show off their wealth.

Marcolès lost out after the Revolution, when the main road was moved further westwards. The railway also passed the town by.

La Maison Carrée was once a much taller watchtower, first mentioned in records in 1203, but no doubt dating from before that. At some point, it fell into ruin and, as so often happened, the stone was pilfered and used for other buildings. Later on, someone felt it worth restoring and rebuilt it in its present form.

Marcolès sports a very well-kept church with an unusually light interior. French churches are often rather gloomy inside.

Marcoles church
Eglise de Saint-Martin

Marcoles church interior

The town also has a Michelin-starred restaurant. Below, the SF looks hopefully at the menu, but we had other fish to fry and needed to be on our way.

Marcoles Auberge de la Tour

Dear O, I hope you’ve enjoyed our little mystery tour – being, of course, the surprise to which I referred last week.

You can learn much more about the story of la Maison Carrée here.

More about Cantal to follow in future posts, including a recipe for a typical Cantalien dish, pounti.

Marcoles gateway 1

Marcoles gateway 2

You might also like:

Awesome Auvergne
Cantal le Beau
Cantal Revisited

Copyright © 2018 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


    • Thank you. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. We love the Auvergne. May/June or September are probably the best times to go: the former for the wild flowers, the latter for the more settled weather and the turning trees. It’s about 2.5 hours’ drive from us, so really not far at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Lovely! I have exactly the same photo of the church interior that I took last August. The most delightful man opened it up for us and took us around, but we didn’t linger as we were meeting friends for the street theatre in Aurillac. We should go back as there is so much we missed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were fortunate that the church was open when we turned up. Even better as far as I was concerned, the loo next door was open, too. And it was a proper one.

      We went to the street theatre in Aurillac years ago when we were on holiday from the UK. Oddly, we have been to Cantal many times but have never really made our acquaintance with Aurillac, except for that one time.


  2. I am thrilled that you detoured to Marcoles though disappointed that we were not there …. it was absolutely wonderful to see the pictures and you do great justice to the village (or indeed, city as it is correctly referred) with your lovely pictures. Tell the SF that the Auberge de la Tour is well worth a visit … Renaud’s Michelin Star was well-earned. Funnily enough the shutters on the house are due another change but that, as they say, is another story. Nessa – you hit me on a day when I am missing France more greatly than usual (the change of seasons, perhaps and realizing that I have missed the French summer) so your surprise was even MORE welcome. Finally, thank you for linking to my blog – if anyone dares take the plunge, I hope they will enjoy my frippery in the telling of the story of the very slow transformation of our Maison Carrée.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I realise that, for you, this post might have a bitter-sweet flavour, so I hope the nostalgia isn’t too poignant. The changing seasons are indeed a time when one thinks of places left behind. I hope, also, that it was okay to link to your blog, but I’m sure my readers will find your posts about la Maison Carrée fascinating – as I have. One day we will meet there – or here – and share our many and varied experiences of la vie française. In the meantime, for me it was a wonderful opportunity to see in person a place that you have written about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not too poignant at all. It was a wonderful surprise. A good surprise and I am grateful to you for taking the time out to go and see for yourself and to write about it. And yes, we will certainly meet at yours or ours or somewhere in between … I think we both know we need to set aside more than a short interlude for that!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, that was, indeed, quite interesting but?…..more interesting to me (And perhaps you can sleuth this out for me)????????

    Why does the Maison Carree in Nimes have that name? This was the first question I had when I first visited Nimes……and everyone, including my French partner, acted as though the question were UTTERLY STUPID. I knew, of course, that the name translates quite accurately to “Square House”. I’m not so very blind as not to notice that the building’s not at all “square”, but rectangular. Having, since then, looked this up on the internet, all I can find are articles saying the obvious……that it’s called “Square”, but is rectangular.. Duhhhhhhh…. It’s obviously rectangular, with or without the portico.

    The French, as I’ve learned over the years (and I was married to them for twelve of those), can be such an irritating combination of obtuse and obdurate (when they please to be so). I would explain “But this is NOT a stupid question. If you pointed out a painting of a black cow to me and identified it as ‘La Vache Blanc’, it would not be STUPID of me to ask why the painting is called that.”

    So, can anyone tell me WHY the former temple is called “La Maison Carree”?…..perhaps, also, when it began to be called this? And, yes…….I’m pefectly prepared to hear that this is yet another example of Gallic high-humor (Which I never “get”) or their finely-tuned sense of “ironie”…….”Oh, but it is SO FUNNY, you see?!?!? Like when you call a big mountain a little mountain!!! OR when you say the moon is a triangle shape when it is really round!!!!”.

    Thanks in advance for any help,
    David Terry
    quail roost farm
    North Carolina

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I’ve never been to Nîmes, so I may not be of great help on this one. Like you, I did a quick Google tour of articles about the former temple, but none of them explains the name. However, I then got to thinking that maybe “carrée” means something other than simply “square”. Having gone down that route, I remembered that it also means well-defined or straight (the latter actually as well as figuratively). A person can have “épaules carrées”. Looking at images of the temple, it’s certainly a building of straight angles, although clearly not square.

      So that’s as far as I’ve got, but if I find out any more I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll throw it open to other readers who might be able to shed some light on it.

      And it’s not a stupid question at all. It’s the first thing that would have occurred to me on seeing it. (Perhaps the people you asked didn’t know the answer, either….)


      • Oh, Nessa…..thank you for offering that secondary meaning of “carree”. I wouldn’t, of course, know that (nor, of course,had it occurred to me to look in Larousse and see if “carree” had meanings other than simply “square”). I think you’ve already answered my question. I don’t think we have an equivalent, in English, to that sense of “Carree”. We say that a building is characterized by “classical” or “strict” proportions…..and we say that a man has “elegant” or “military” or “upright” posture. Presumably, the French might refer to any house built according to the strict outlines, dimensions, and proportions as “Carree”……..whereas we’re left with the clunky “built according to Palladian Standards”. As ever?……French adjectives, unlike those in American English, are capable of many shades of meaning (which goes a long way towards explaining why the French section of a French/English dictionary is 1/3rd the size of the Engllish section).

        Thanks, David Terry

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m not saying that my interpretation is correct, but it struck me that maybe that was the reason why a rectangle was described as a square. It seems plausible, at any rate, but I’ll be interested to know if other meanings are behind the name.


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