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.