St-Bonnet-le-Château stands in a dramatic location on the end of the Forez mountains looking down on the flat Loire plain of the Forez. Boules-lovers from far and wide visit this historic hillside town, self-styled Capitale Mondiale de la Boule - no mean claim in a country where people adore this leisurely sport, with some 10 million reckoned to practise it on a casual basis and half a million registered as regular practitioners.
St-Bonnet-le-Château has gained pre-eminence in this sphere as home to one of France’s major metallic boules makers, Obut, and its Musée International Pétanque et Boules (t 04 77 50 15 33, email@example.com). At this appealing centre, glean all sorts of information on the sport, from antiquity to the present day, passing via the major schism between boules and pétanque, from its stars to the abject, comical humiliation reserved for total losers, the kissing of Fanny’s bottom, explained with gravitas. To avoid such public ignominy, there’s no substitute for practice, and you can invest in fine boules and the true boulomane’s accoutrements in the shop.
On a more elevated note, make for the church (must book tour via tourist office to see mummies and murals) beyond the slightly jaded old squares and streets lined by tall mansions, signalling how this little merchants’ town once prospered from its metal-working trade (hence the boules). The Gothic edifice stands aloof on its cliffside terrace, its main entrance reached, quite originally, by a bridge. The views at the back of the church will take your breath away. The interior offers a lesson in sober Gothic style at first sight, but the place has skeletons in the cupboard. On the guided tour you’re taken down to a chamber whose walls are hung with scary brown mummies, not from antiquity, but thought to date from the end of the 17th century. When they died here of natural causes, their bodies were buried in ground containing alum and arsenic, natural chemicals that preserved them in this leathery state, with horrifying grimaces.
In heavenly contrast, the tour also takes you round to a lower chapel concealing one of the most uplifting arrays of frescoes in southeast France, probably commissioned for Anne, Duchess of Bourbon and Countess of Forez. In the Annunciation scene, the Virgin appears blonde, but turns brunette for the sumptuous arrival of the three kings. The musical angels on the ceiling playing a whole array of medieval musical instruments will leave you elated, even if many of them wear pained expressions.
For more information on the Forez and the département de la Loire, read the Cadogan guide to the Rhône-Alpes.
Copyright text : Philippe Barbour 2011.