The heart of the Massif Central is the Auvergne, a wild and unexpected scene of extinct volcanoes (puys), stretching from the grassy domes and craters of the Monts-Dômes to the eroded skylines of the Monts-Dore, and the deeply ravined Cantal mountains to the forest of darkly wooded pinnacles surrounding Le Puy. It’s one of the poorest regions in France and has long remained outside the main national lines of communication: much of it is higher than 1000m and snowbound in winter.
If travelling by public transport, you’ll probably have to pass through Clermont-Ferrand, the Auvergne capital, and with its dramatic historical associations – it was the site of Pope Urban II’s speech, which launched the First Crusade in 109 – the city certainly doesn’t disappoint. The small towns in the spectacular Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, like Orcival, Murat and Salers, are attractive; at St-Nectaire you can see a beautiful small church displaying the distinct Auvergnat version of Romanesque; and even St-Flour and Aurillac have an agreeable provincial insularity.Read More
Vichy, 50km north of Clermont-Ferrand, is famous for two things: its World War II puppet government under Marshal Pétain, and its curative sulphurous springs, which attract thousands of ageing and ailing visitors, or curistes, every year. The town is almost entirely devoted to catering for its largely elderly, genteel population, which swells several-fold in summer, though attempts are being made to rejuvenate Vichy’s image by appealing to a younger, fitness-conscious generation. Still, with Clermont-Ferrand’s nightlife so close, the young people aren’t flocking here, except perhaps in July and August when Des Célestines, the rather good riverside beach, becomes a big draw.
There’s a real fin-de-siècle atmosphere about Vichy, and the best reason to come is to see its fine belle époque, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. The tourist office offers several afternoon tours (in French) showcasing different periods and also a brochure with suggested walking tours. If you are strolling on your own, you’ll find the most striking examples in and around the rue de Russie, rue de Belgique and rue Alquié and around the old town between the church of St Blaise, the river and the Sources des Célestines.
The Monts-Dore, part of the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, lie about 50km southwest of Clermont. Volcanic in origin – the main period of activity was around five million years ago – they are much more rugged and more obviously mountainous than their gentler, younger neighbours, the Monts-Dômes. Their centre is the precipitous, plunging valley of the River Dordogne, which rises on the slopes of the Puy de Sancy, at 1885m the highest point in the Massif Central, just above the little town of Le Mont-Dore.
Some 27km southwest of Clermont and about 20km north of Le Mont-Dore, lush pastures and green hills punctuated by the abrupt eruptions of the puys enclose the small village of Orcival. A pretty, popular place, founded by the monks of La Chaise-Dieu in the twelfth century, it makes a suitable base for hiking in the region.
St-Nectaire lies 26km southeast of Orcival, midway between Le Mont-Dore and Issoire. It comprises the old village of St-Nectaire-le-Haut, overlooked by the magnificent Romanesque church of St Nectaire and the tiny spa of St-Nectaire-le-Bas, whose main street is lined with grand but fading belle époque hotels. Among the town’s other curiosities are a couple of caverns, and the Maison du Fromage.
Fifteen or so kilometres south of St-Nectaire, Besse is one of the prettiest and oldest villages in the region. Its fascinating winding streets of lava-built houses – some fifteenth-century – sit atop the valley of the Couze de Pavin, with one of the original fortified town gates still in place at the upper end of the village. Besse became wealthy due to its role as the principal market for the farms on the eastern slopes of the Monts-Dore, and its cooperative is still one of the main producers of St-Nectaire cheese.
The Monts du Cantal
The Monts du Cantal
The Cantal Massif forms the most southerly extension of the Parc des Volcans. Still nearly 80km in diameter and once 3000m high, it is one of the world’s largest (albeit extinct) volcanoes, shaped like a wheel without a rim.
Aurillac, the lively provincial capital of the Cantal, lies on the west side of the mountains, 98km east of Brive and 160km from Clermont-Ferrand. Though it has good mainline train connections and has a population of around 30,000, it remains one of the most out-of-the-way French provincial capitals. The most interesting part of Aurillac is the kernel of old streets, now largely pedestrianized and full of good shops.
Salers lies 42km north of Aurillac, at the foot of the northwest slopes of the Cantal. Scarcely altered in size or aspect since its sixteenth-century heyday, it remains an extraordinarily homogeneous example of the architecture of that time. If things appear rather grand for a place so small, it’s because the town became the administrative centre for the highlands of the Auvergne in 1564 and home of its magistrates. Exploiting this history is really all it has left, but Salers still makes a very worthwhile visit.
Murat, on the eastern edge of the Cantal, is the closest town to the high peaks and a busy little place, its cafés and shops uncharacteristically bustling for this region. Rather than any particular sight, it’s the ensemble of grey-stone houses that attracts, many dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Crowded together on their medieval lanes, they make a magnificent sight.
- Le Puy-en-Velay