Clermont-Ferrand—Nestled in the very heart of France, Clermont-Ferrand is the global headquarters of Michelin and the birthplace of the great philosopher Blaise Pascal. But I’d never heard of it until I saw New Wave director Eric Rohmer’s 1969 masterpiece My Night at Maud’s. It’s the story of a devoutly Catholic engineer, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who spots a lovely blonde at Mass and impulsively decides that he will marry her. Then by chance he meets a smart, earthy brunette named Maud and spends the night at her apartment discussing Pascal’s philosophy while trying to resist her charms. Eventually he must choose between the two women.
Part of what makes My Night at Maud’s such a radiant film is its portrait of Clermont-Ferrand, a city of, to be frank, less-than-obvious charms. Shot in ravishing black-and-white by master cinematographer Nestor Almendros, it appears as a wonderland of narrow cobblestoned walkways, beautiful old churches, and cozy cafés.
When I mentioned to my most Francophile friend that I wanted to visit, he said crushingly, “Clermont-Ferrand, c’est de la merde.”
But as Pascal said, our lives are inescapably shaped by chance. When my wife’s movie was chosen for Clermont-Ferrand’s short-film festival, I had the perfect excuse to go.
To my delight I was able to find many of the places Rohmer shot: the Opéra Municipal, where the hero attends a concert; the Gothic cathedral, where he first sees the blonde; even Le Suffren, the bar where he runs into the friend who later introduces him to Maud.
I also made my own discovery—Brasserie Danièle Bath, a small old-school restaurant whose lobster cassoulet struck me as the Platonic ideal of great provincial cooking. After dinner, with the streetlights glittering like diadems, this homely city suddenly seemed absolutely lovely. I was reminded of the truth that Rohmer revealed decades before: You can find beauty, even glamour, in the unlikeliest of places.
Brasserie Danièle Bath serves a mix of traditional French and Spanish cuisine (dinner, $70; Place du Marché St. Pierre); Le Suffren was recently redone and reopened as Garden Ice Café (dinner, $20; 48 Place de Jaude; gardenicecafe.com); and, thankfully, My Night at Maud’s is now available through the Criterion Collection, part of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales.