A recent geocaching trip Chris and I took was to Hérisson in Allier. Hérisson is French for hedgehog, so that’s a rather nice name, and, as it turns out, it’s a rather nice place. And lots of people think it’s nice: it’s been awarded the label of ‘Petite cité de caractère’ = Little city of character. This is a label that’s been dished out to quirky, rural ‘cities’ since the 1970s. The city part actually reflects that these places, now with few inhabitants, were once fairly crucial centres of population.

Hérisson dates back to the fifth century. By the twelfth century it had a magnificent castle with twenty-two tours along its walls. The local river, the Aumance, in whose bend the castle sits was deviated to provide even more protection to the city. The castle belonged to various Dukes of Bourbon (known as Sires until 1327) for most of its active life. Louis II of Bourbon did a lot of work during the fourteenth century on it, most of which was undone three centuries later by Cardinal Mazarin. The castle gradually declined and changed hands numerous times, including those of a bishop, a Parisien café owner and the Touring Club de France. This club dissolved in 1983 and the castle became the property of the town of Hérisson. Since 2005 an association, SCH, has been working on restoring the castle – or at least stopping it from decaying further.

Having prowled round the castle, we – Chris, Tobi and I – set off on our geocaching trail. This meandered around the town and provided lots of beautiful views of the picturesque town. We came across the village of Châteloy. Châteloy comes from the Roman term ‘castellum d’oculi’, castle of the eye. The Romans had a settlement here on what was the River L’oeil (= eye) before it was renamed as Aumances. The church of St Pierre marks the site where an early Christian martyr, Principin, met his untimely and probably gruesome end. This church is on the route of ‘des églises peintes du Bourbonnais’ (painted Bourbon churches) that has no fewer than twenty-three stops. It’s certainly lovely inside.

Next we came to the statue of the Virgin of the Grapes. Mary has often been depicted with a young Jesus and a bunch grapes, the latter being symbolic of the Eucharist and a portent of the future troubles coming Christ’s way. (French artist Pierre Mignard is very famous for his painting dating from the 1640s of the same name as our statue.)

We returned via another footpath to Precious, the campervan. We passed by the scant remains of an oppidum.

After a restorative brew we carried on our explorations. This time we followed a trail up to this enormous cross that overlooks the valley and the castle. It wasn’t quite as impressive close up, being a concrete creation, but it was still worth the trek.

On our way we passed by a swathe of prickly pear cacti that had spread out of someone’s garden along the side of the path, and even to the other side of it. This was an impressive and unusual sight. I asked the garden’s owner, who was outside doing something with vinegar judging by the strong smell of it, if I could take a photo of the prickly pears but was told ‘no’ in a very long and roundabout way. Typically French! Anyway, I’ve since sourced and bought some of this very resistant strain of prickly pears (Opuntia Compressa) which can withstand temperatures down to minus 20 C, which should cover us nicely here in Creuse. I also found a slightly less resistant one (Opuntia Sheeri) which will be fine down to merely minus 15, but given the continued trend of milder winters should be cosy enough.

Hérisson is also famous for its Balthazar distillery that produces 45% proof Hedgehog whisky, but I didn’t find out about that until after we got back home.

So there’s a lot of history and interest packed into this very small, charmingly-named town and its surrounding paths and villages. Very well worth a visit. I’ll leave you with this lovely book swap box slash insect house that we passed at Châteloy. There were even hand-written-out poems to help yourself to and a thoughtful bottle of hand sanitiser.