Some 200 miles north of Millau, in the Allier Department of the Auvergne, is the tiny village of Herisson; 600 inhabitants, a handful of shops, no hotels and only one bar-restaurant. We stumbled on the place while looking for somewhere to stay and it very quickly blew me away. It’s a picturesque medieval village in a most delightful setting on the River Aumance and it is brimming with history and character.
We parked the Van in the municipal campsite and made our way through the Parc Louis Bignon towards the centre of the village. In case you’re interested, Louis Bignon was born in Herisson some time in the 19th century and rose to become one of France’s most famous chefs and the owner of ‘Cafe Riche’ which at the time was Paris’s most fashionable and expensive restaurant.
From the park, there is a footbridge across the River Aumance which leads to La Porte de L’Enfer, one of two surviving medieval entrances into the village. The views from the footbridge, both up and down the Aumance, are splendid and some of the charming stone houses on the river bank are more than 500 years old.
The most obvious feature of the village and the one I was intent on visiting first is the castle. It is in ruins now but was constructed in the 14th century by the Dukes of Bourbon (on the site of earlier castles) and is steeped in history having been besieged by the English at least twice during the ‘100 Years War’ and again by Protestants in the French ‘Wars of Religion’. It was a small civil war between members of the Bourbon family which finally resulted in it being dismantled in the late 17th century by order of a certain Cardinal Mazarin. It’s walls were then used in the construction of many of the village’s existing houses but what remains of the castle is now protected.
For a village of just 600 souls, Herisson is very well provided with churches. There are four in total; five if you count the 12th century church of Saint Pierre de Chateloy which is just outside the village. My favourite is the 19th century Church of Notre Dame with it’s wonderful staircase at the entrance and some beautiful stained glass windows.
Others to be seen are the Eglise de Saint Sauveur in the village centre (most of the church is 17th century but the belfry dates back to the 12th century), the 16th century church of Saint Etienne and the 17th century Chapelle du Calvaire. This latter building sits on a small hill on the edge of the visit and offers a great view over the village towards the castle.
Originally there were three medieval gates into Herisson. Two still stand, the 14th century Porte L’Enfer (also known as the Porte de Varenne) and the Porte de Gateuil…
As mentioned previously, there is just the one bar-restaurant currently open in Herisson; that is the ‘Auberge’ and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the place. The service was friendly and attentive (despite the fact we were the only diners interested in eating at one of the outside tables), the wine was local and the food was fine given we were staying over for just the one night.
Although the last to finish our drinks at the restaurant, we weren’t too late. We had a fairly long drive the next day and there was still one more place to visit before we could leave in the morning. Herisson is the French word for hedgehog (see photo below of house with hedgehog tiles) and there’s a small distillery in the village (the Monsieur Balthazar Distillery) which produces a whisky called ‘Hedgehog’. Now that’s got to be worth a try.
post script: Hedgehog is actually bourbon with a high corn content, barley and rye – As Charlie Endell would say “That’s nae a whisky. That’s a dirty glass”.