Thickly forested and sliced by numerous rivers and lakes, the once volcanic uplands of the Massif Central are geologically the oldest part of France and culturally one of the most firmly rooted in the past. Industry and tourism have made few inroads here, and the people remain rural and somewhat taciturn, with an enduring sense of regional identity.
The Massif Central takes up a huge portion of the centre of France, but only a handful of towns have gained a foothold in its rugged terrain: Le Puy, spiked with theatrical pinnacles of lava, is the most compelling, with its steep streets and majestic cathedral; the spa town of Vichy has an antiquated elegance and charm; and formerly industrial Clermont-Ferrand, the biggest town in the Massif, has a certain cachet in the black volcanic stone of its historic centre and its stunning physical setting beneath the Puy de Dôme, a 1464m-high volcanic plug. There is pleasure, too, in the unpretentious provinciality of Aurillac, in the untouched medieval architecture of smaller places like Murat, Besse, Salers, Orcival, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue and La Couvertoirade, and in the hugely influential abbey of Conques. But, above all, this is a region where you come to see the landscapes rather than towns, churches or museums.
Many of France’s greatest rivers rise in the Massif Central: the Dordogne in the Monts-Dore; the Loire on the slopes of the Gerbier de Jonc in the east; and two tributaries of the Garonne, the Lot and the Tarn, in the Cévennes. It is these last two rivers that create the distinctive character of the southern parts of the Massif Central, dividing and defining the special landscapes of the causses, or limestone plateaux, with their stupendous gorges. This is territory tailor-made for walkers or lovers of the outdoors.