Over the last twenty years or so, I have explored much of France by travelling along its roads. As I approach a strange town, I always wonder what I will find. Sometimes the outskirts can seem a little dull and bland but the centres have never, ever disappointed me. French ‘Centre Villes’ are always bright, vibrant and full of ordinary busy life going on at a breakneck speed.
Some years ago, I was motoring in the Aine department in the Rhone-Alpes region and saw the signs for Bourg-en-Bresse. I stopped off to explore and, once more, found that fresh, Gallic style of life going on all around me. Bourg-en-Bresse was grand, upright and plainly proud of its solid French credentials. My visit to Bourg on that day has become one of my favourite travelling experiences.
Bourg-en-Bresse is situated at the base of the Jura Mountains at the western edge. It nestles on the left bank of a tributary of the Soane River and lies about 70 kilometres to the north east of the great city of Lyon.
I parked my car, headed off towards the centre and found the market place. The stalls cluttered the roads and mixed with the classic French cafe street life. Shoppers, diners and drinkers all mixed together in the beautiful sunshine forming almost a perfect portrait of a French society that I have always loved so much.
There are a number of splendid architectural features to visit in Bourg which is the capital town of the Aine district. The principal Church in the centre is the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It was completed in the sixteenth century and the exterior facade comes from the Renaissance period. The construction perfectly represents this era. The Church of Brou stands just a little away from the centre. The outside is highly ornamented and carefully preserved. On the inside, Brou Church contains beautiful and valuable works of art and sculpture of much importance. Bourg has an impressive and active theatre close to the market place presenting cultural and artistic events year round. Close by stands the imposing prefecture building which was used by the Gestapo during the occupation in the Second World War.
The principal street in the centre of Bourg is called the Avenue Alsace-Lorraine. Along here you will find the prominent commercial businesses of tourist offices, hotels and restaurants. There are several museums in and around Bourg, the best known being The Apothecary Shop Museum and the Machine Museum.
The local economy relies on natural resources and agriculture from around the region. Factories in the suburbs produce iron made products, pottery, and beer. Local farming contributes flour, grain and cattle.
Bourg lies in one of the principal gastronomic districts in France close to Lyon, known worldwide for its foodie prowess. Local restaurants are superb. George Blanc, the internationally known chef, was born in Bourg-en-Bresse and continues to maintain his influence on the town. The local cuisine speciality is home produced poultry known as Poulet de Bresse. Chickens are bred under very exacting conditions by local farmers on their tiny estates. These birds are of such high quality that all are sold locally and there are never any left over to supply an external export market. Each year, in mid-December the Bresse chicken festival takes place and is well worth a visit to get to discover the history and culture of this famous local produce.
Bourg is twinned with Aylesbury in England. Both towns preserve their joint association and the connection is publicly and proudly displayed on the ‘Bourg Walk Bridge’ in Aylesbury. Lyon, the third largest French city, is close by and easy to travel from. It has an international airport and major rail connections to all of France. Good road connections link Bourg far beyond into the wider heartlands of Europe.
My visit to Bourg-en-Bresse reminded me so much of my feeling for the cultural solidity of France. The town centre presented such a firm foundation for the practice of unchanging and unmoving Gallic life. Cafes and restaurants seemed to preserve their historic inheritance and provided a very special version of French good service. The stoutness of the buildings suggested a comforting sense of French permanence. The constant and energetic process of ordinary life going on amongst indestructible social foundations was for me a reminder of what I have always found so appealing about France. Bourg-en-Bresse is suave and sophisticated in a totally shameless way and the residents are plainly proud to sustain that image. Visiting Bourg gave me a real sense of being in France and of sharing the lives of the local people.
For information on places to visit, what to see and do: Bourg-en-Bresse Tourist Office website