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 deep ravines of the 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 many roads fall victim to snowfall in winter.

If travelling by public transport, you’ll have to pass through Clermont-Ferrand, the Auvergne capital and a city of dramatic historical associations – it was the site of Pope Urban II’s speech, which launched the First Crusade in 1096. The small towns in the spectacular Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne are home to numerous treasures, including the Basilique Notre-Dame in Orcival, the lively market town of Murat and the surprising grandeur of Salers; 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.

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