The Monts du Canal, also known as 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 volcanoes (albeit extinct), shaped like a wheel without a rim. The hub of the Monts du Cantal is formed by the three great conical peaks that survived the erosion of the original single cone: Plomb du Cantal (1855m), Puy Mary (1787m) and Puy de Peyre-Arse (1686m).
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, just northeast of the central place du Square.
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, nestled against the backdrop of the steep basalt cliffs of the Rocher Bonnevie, that attracts – especially as you approach from the east along the D680. Many of the houses date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and are packed in together on the town’s medieval lanes, which meander around castle ruins and are overlooked by a huge white statue of the Virgin Mary.