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.