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.