The Auvergne region’s second largest town is an endearing medieval settlement on the banks of the Cher. Looking out over Montluçon from a hilltop is the regal Château des Ducs de Bourbon, a seat for the Dukes of Bourbon for hundreds of years. This sets the tone for a medieval centre of timber-framed houses, Romanesque churches and vaulted passageways.
The highlight in Montluçon has to be MuPop, which charts the history of popular music and has the largest set of musical instruments in France. For days out there’s a vast oak forest, medieval castles and cute old villages all in touching distance.
Lets explore the best things to do in Montlucon:
1. Château des Ducs de Bourbon
On a terrace at the highest point in Montluçon, the Château des Ducs de Bourbon is a venerable15th-century fortress-cum-mansion.
The panoramas from the esplanade are very photo-worthy, rolling out over the Cher Valley and taking in the Massif Central to the south.
The castle was started in the 1400s by Louis II de Bourbon during the 100 Years’ War, and later, in more peaceful times the more decorative elements you see now were added: There’s a fine timbered gallery, an elegant turret and gothic dormer windows.
The interior is now the archive for the MuPop museum, but you’re able to go in to look around.
This excellent pop music museum used to be at the Château des Ducs de Bourbon, but moved into a swish new home in 2013. This combines two historic mansions in the old town, one of which has kept its historic identity, and the other has been transformed with modern design.
Best of all is the assortment of instruments, totalling more than 3,5000, and the oldest from the middle of the 18th century.
This is the largest single collection in France, with anything from hurdy-gurdies to electric guitars.
You’ll see how old-time folk instruments were crafted at the workshop, and take a trip down memory lane at the big wall of record covers.
3. Église Saint-Pierre
The understated facade of this church was made in the 1700s, and doesn’t prepare you for the history that awaits inside.
The interior is Romanesque, from the 1100s, and has peculiar features like little passageways linking the nave with each transept on either side.
The interior is also loaded with works of art going back hundreds of years.
Be sure to see the stone pietà (Mary cradling a dead Jesus), which was carved in the 1400s and is an official French historic monument.
There’s also an octagonal baptistery from the 1400s, and an even older stone cross behind the altar, dating from the 1300s.
4. Old Montluçon
If ever there were a town made to be seen on two feet it’s old Montluçon.
Winding around the hill are steep, tight streets with an historic building to catch your eye every few metres.
The main street, Grand Rue, swoops below the castle and has timber-framed houses from the 1400s and 1500s.
Then occasionally there’s an opening and you’ll catch sight of the Château des Ducs de Bourbon above its ramparts.
One very cute nook is the Passage du Doyenné, which has 13th-century cross-ribbed vaults sheltering a little flower market on Saturdays.
5. Jardin du President Wilson
In the centre of town you can take a breather in this charming little park.
On the upper terrace is a French formal garden with square-shaped carpet beds and lawns bordered by low boxwood hedges.
There are also yew topiaries, sculpted into tall cones and cylinders, and a statue for the composer André Messager, who was born in Montluçon.
As you go you’ll also see a lot of old stonework, and this belongs to the original outer walls for the Château des Ducs de Bourbon.
On the lower terrace there’s a large circular fountain on a plaza skirted by pollarded plane trees.
6. Parc du Château de la Louvière
Resting on a hillside east of the town is a stately château that looks a lot older than it really is.
The Château de la Louvière was actually built in the first half of the 20th century by the industrialist François-Joseph Troubat.
It was modelled on Louis XV’s Petit Trianon at Versailles and nestles in lovely gardens that adapt to the slope.
The building only opens in summer but the gardens are free to enter all year round, and are worthwhile for the views, sculpture and landscaping.
7. Église Notre-Dame
Another of Montluçon’s catalogue of historic monuments, this church has a fusion of 15th-century Gothic and 12th-century Romanesque architecture.
The later redesign was ordered by Louis II de Bourbon, who also expanded the castle at the top of the hill.
But lack of funds meant the church was never completed: It’s been left with an irregular layout and has two parallel naves.
This only adds to its character, and there’s another trove of decoration to see inside.
Check out the Renaissance stained glass windows from the 1500s, another sensational pietà sculpture and a stone Christ dating to the 1400s.
8. Musée Canal de Berry
From 1840 to 1955 the Canal de Berry was more than 260 kilometres of waterways and locks, connecting the Loire and the Cher, but also providing a branch for Montluçon.
This museum is in old lime kilns a few kilometres north of the town and reopens a forgotten chapter of the region’s past.
Inside, among the antique tools, models, paintings and documents, there are some old lock gates, with an explanation of how they worked.
And moored out front are two genuine barges that actually navigated the canal, and were saved from the scrap yard when the museum opened in the 70s.
A matter of minutes from Montluçon, Néris-les-Bains is a spa town in the early foothills of the Massif Central.
The thermal springs were discovered back in Gaul and were developed by the Romans who built two palatial baths here.
Then, after centuries of neglect, the town came back into fashion in the 1800s when a spa, casino and theatre were built, attracting eminent guests like Chateaubriand and Empress Eugénie.
This lavish heritage is still visible and Néris-les-Bains keeps that aristocratic ambience.
Visit to check out the palatial architecture and maybe book a massage or soak in the warm spring water at the Spa Les Nériades.
The best location if you’d like to experience the Canal du Berry firsthand is the picturesque village of Vallon-en-Sully.
Here a length of the canal has been made navigable once more.
So in July and August you can hire a pedal boat or four, five, six or eight-seater electric vessels for a little voyage through the Allier countryside.
These craft are simple to manoeuvre and you won’t need a licence.
For those travelling on foot there’s a specially laid-out interpretation trail on the towpath, helping you picture the kind of traffic that once sailed along this waterway.
11. Forêt de Tronçais
If you want to stretch your legs you need look no further than this mature 10,600-hectare forest a short drive north of the town.
Most of the trees in the Forêt de Tronçais are sessile oaks, descending from a crop planted on the orders of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances under Louis XIV. He wanted to build up a large stock of hardwood for the navy, and this was one of many forests selected for the job.
There are large numbers of deer and wild boar, and 130 hectares of ponds deep in the woodland.
Also plot a course for the Viljot spring, the most famous of some 40 natural sources in the forest.
On a loop in the Aumanche River, is the medieval village of Hérisson, dominated by a crumbling castle and still defended by large sections of its historic walls.
The streets have houses going back to the 1400s and there are traces of old fortified gates like the Porte de Varenne.
The best place to start a tour is on the bridge across the Aumanche, with the village laid out in front of you and the towers of the castle rearing up behind.
This imposing structure dates to the 1300s, and was also built by the Dukes of Bourbon but has been in ruins since the 17th century.
13. Château d’Ainay-le-Vieil
On the western cusp of the forest is this very romantic 14th-century castle.
At the turn of the 16th-century it was transformed from a defensive fortress to a Louis XII-style luxurious home.
It blends medieval hallmarks like crenellated walls, spiral staircases, a drawbridge and arrow loops with more sophisticated elements like former windows and flamboyant stone carvings . The curtain of walls and towers has earned it the nickname “Le Petit Carcassonne”! The castle has been in the same family since 1467, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert is among its ancestors.
Be sure to spend as long as possible in the grounds, which is a “jardin remarquable” and has collections of rare roses, a cloister and a delicately trimmed orchard.
14. Donjon de la Toque
This handsome tower in the village of Huriel is the last vestige of a castle raised in the 1100s.
It was passed down by a succession of Lords and then Barons of Huriel whose story is told by the museum inside.
You’ll see the changes made to the Romanesque tower in more peaceful times, to add a bit more luxury in the form of enlarged fireplaces and mullioned windows.
There’s also an exhibition about the once healthy local wine industry, which was struck by blight at the turn of the 20th century and is restricted to only 10 hectares today.
Climb up to the terrace to see the village framed by gentle green hills.
15. Local Delicacies
In a rural destination like Montluçon there’s a directory of local producers and farms with shops attached.
Right in the town you can take a look around the Brasserie Blondel , which opened in 2011 and brews blonde, white and amber beers.
There are apiaries, snail farms and a host of dairy farms to call in at.
And for the cuisine, this tends to be meaty and hunger-busting: A traditional preparation is pâté aux pommes de terre, literally a pâté in a puff pastry crust made with crème fraiche and slices of potato.
The beef (Charolais), poultry and lamb are all superb.
As are andouillettes, traditional coarse tripe sausages that come with mustard and sautéed potatoes .