Since we travel long distances by train, our decisions of where to go next are often tied to a rail map of Europe. The one we use highlights scenic routes in green and although we’d already been to Clermont-Ferrand we returned there via the rails that traverse the Cévennes national park near some of the same pathways that author Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey followed over 140 years ago. It’s convenient to find a base city from which to make day trips as we did a month ago for both Montauban and Rodez and now we wanted to do the same with today’s post about Thiers and next time for Figeac and its connection to the Rosetta Stone.
As in much of the country, this part of France was colonized by the Romans around 50 BC so we wanted to make the site of that settlement our first stop. While we didn’t notice any vestiges of those first buildings we did see what was likely to have been built on their foundations. The 11th century church Église Saint-Symphorien du Moutier and its accompanying abbey were constructed as a base for the religious community that had been formed 500 years earlier. Their riverside location gave us easy access to our next destination, the Valley of the Factories.
With the force of the rushing La Durolle river providing an endless supply of power, it’s no wonder that factories, mostly for knife making, were built along its edge. Le Creux de L’Enfer, (The Hollow of Hell) was named for both the legend of the devil living behind the waterfall and the reality of the working conditions inside these buildings. A contemporary art center has replaced the inferno here while next door at L’Usine du May (the May Factory) the city has converted it into a cultural and exhibition center.
To get back into the heart of the city we used the pedestrian walkway beside the 17th century Pont du Navire (Boat’s Bridge) so named because it was the furthest navigable point before reaching the waterfalls upstream. Since we had just seen where the knives were manufactured that make Thiers famous even today (surprise ending below), it was logical to go by the museum dedicated to that.
At the Musée de la Coutellerie (Cutlery Museum) they have assembled 700 knives and blades of all types that have been made in Thiers over the last five centuries. There are also workshops and demonstrations that show how this one city creates more than 70% of the cutlery used in France.
Just steps from there we entered the medieval quarter with a glance inside the church St. Genès. A church was originally built on this site in 575 then destroyed by invaders 300 years later. A recently restored mosaic floor tile believed to have come from that original building is now on display.
We continued our ramble through narrow, cobbled streets, lined with half-timbered houses with our destination being the Château du Pirou, a mansion built in 1410 for the Duke of Bourbon. Like the riverside factories that we had seen earlier in the day, the city has totally renovated this landmark and turned it into the tourism office and an art display space.
For an unusual and much more modern site, we stopped to see the Jacquemart de Thiers in action. Since 2008 this automated craftsman has been sounding out the hours daily (currently 11 AM to 9 PM) pounding his hammer on an anvil while raising and lowering a knife with his other hand. There’s a 3-minute video of this moving sculpture on YouTube and I’ll put a link below.
We often stay in vacation rental apartments or houses and sometimes find the knives too dull to cut our daily baguette. To remedy that we carry a few kitchen supplies in our suitcase, including a serrated knife that I just looked at to see where it was made. You can probably guess that to my surprise it says, “Fabrication Thiers France”.
If you go: It’s a steep 30-minute downhill walk from the train station to the river so give yourself plenty of time to walk that same distance back uphill to your return train. Although the Jacquemart de Thiers sounds out on the hour, on the day that we were there his performance began about 3 minutes ahead of time.
YouTube Link to the Jacquemart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7YsXbjZO5A