The most dramatic approach to Clermont-Ferrand is from the Aubusson road or along the scenic rail line from Le Mont-Dore, both of which cross the chain of the Monts-Dômes just north of the Puy de Dôme. Descending through the leafy western suburbs, you get marvellous views of the black towers of the cathedral, which sits atop the volcanic stump that forms the hub of the Old Town.
Although its location is magnificent, almost encircled by the wooded and grassy volcanoes of the Monts-Dômes, in the twentieth century the town was a typical smokestack industrial centre, the home base of Michelin tyres. Today, however, focusing on the service industries and with two universities, Clermont-Ferrand is very different. Many of the old factories have been demolished, avenues have widened for tramways, and derelict blocks have become shopping malls. As a result, the old centre has a surprisingly hip and youthful feel, with pavement bars packed out in the evenings, as the boutiques and galleries that have sprung up start to wind down for the day. While the town’s central place de Jaude is largely a monument to garish modernism, the cafés are well placed to take in the morning sun. Here students gather with their laptops and iPads to take advantage of the free wi-fi connection offered in the square.
Clermont-Ferrand’s roots, both as a spa and a communications and trading centre, go back to Roman times. It was just outside the town, on the plateau of Gergovia to the south, that the Gauls, under Vercingétorix, won their only victory against Julius Caesar’s invading Romans. In the Middle Ages, the rival towns of Clermont and Montferrand were ruled respectively by a bishop and the count of Auvergne. Louis XIII united them in 1630, but it was not until the rapid industrial expansion of the late nineteenth century that the two really became indistinguishable.
Puy de Dôme
Puy de Dôme
Visiting Clermont-Ferrand without climbing the Puy de Dôme (1465m), the closest and highest peak of the Monts-Dômes, in the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, would be like visiting Athens without seeing the Acropolis. And if you choose your moment – early in the morning or late in the evening – you can easily avoid the worst of the crowds. You can climb to the top of the Puy from the car park of the Col de Ceyssat – accessible along the D941 and clearly signposted from place de Jaude – in about an hour (2.3km). There is also a rack railway, the Panoramique des Dômes, which takes you to the top in thirteen minutes; a navette runs to the entrance from the gare SNCF via place de Jaude.
The result of a volcanic explosion about 10,000 years ago, the Puy is a steep 400m from base to summit. Although the weather station buildings and enormous television mast are pretty ugly close up, the staggering views and sense of airy elevation more than compensate. Even if Mont Blanc itself is not always visible way to the east – it can be if conditions are favourable – you can see huge distances, all down the Massif Central to the Cantal mountains. Above all, you get a bird’s-eye view of the other volcanic summits to the north and south, largely forested and including the perfect 100m-deep grassy crater of the Puy de Pariou.
Just below the summit are the scant remains of a substantial Roman temple, dedicated to the god Mercury, some of the finds from which are displayed in Clermont-Ferrand’s Musée Bargoin.