The Monts-Dore, part of the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, lie about 50km southwest of Clermont. Volcanic in origin – the main period of activity was around five million years ago – they are much more rugged and more obviously mountainous than their gentler, younger neighbours, the Monts-Dômes. Their centre is the precipitous, plunging valley of the River Dordogne, which rises on the slopes of the Puy de Sancy, at 1885m the highest point in the Massif Central, just above the little town of Le Mont-Dore.
Some 27km southwest of Clermont and about 20km north of Le Mont-Dore, lush pastures and green hills punctuated by the abrupt eruptions of the puys enclose the small village of Orcival. A pretty place, founded by the monks of La Chaise-Dieu in the twelfth century, it makes a suitable base for hiking in the region.
St-Nectaire lies 26km southeast of Orcival, midway between Le Mont-Dore and Issoire. It comprises the old village of St-Nectaire-le-Haut, overlooked by the magnificent Romanesque church of St Nectaire and the tiny spa of St-Nectaire-le-Bas, whose main street is lined with grand but fading belle époque hotels. The two sections are separated by a salt marsh, one of the biggest in France and an area of protected plant life. Among the town’s other curiosities are caverns, the Grottes de Cornadore, former underground Roman baths dug into 340-million-year-old granite, plus an exhibition on the cheese-making process and the chance to visit a ripening cellar at the Maison du Fromage.
Fifteen or so kilometres south of St-Nectaire, Besse is one of the prettiest and oldest villages in the region. Its fascinating winding streets of lava-built houses – some fifteenth-century – sit atop the valley of the Couze de Pavin, with one of the original fortified town gates still in place at the upper end of the village. Besse became wealthy due to its role as the principal market for the farms on the eastern slopes of the Monts-Dore, and its cooperative is still one of the main producers of St-Nectaire cheese.