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.
Don’t expect anything overly refined from the cuisine of the Auvergne and Massif Central: it started as solid peasant food, as befits a traditionally poor and rugged region. The best-known dish is potée auvergnate, a kind of cabbage soup, with added potatoes, pork or bacon, beans and turnips – easy to make and very nourishing. Another popular cabbage dish is chou farci: cabbage stuffed with pork and beef and cooked with bacon.
Two potato dishes are very common – la truffade and l’aligot. For truffade, the potatoes are sliced and fried in lard, then fresh Cantal cheese is added; for an aligot, the potatoes are puréed and mixed with cheese. Less palatable for the squeamish is tripoux, usually a stuffing of either sheep’s feet or calf’s innards, cooked in a casing of stomach lining. Fricandeau, a kind of pork pâté, is also wrapped in sheep’s stomach.
Clafoutis is a popular fruit tart in which the fruit is baked with a batter of flour and egg simply poured over it. The classic fruit ingredient is black cherries, though pears, blackcurrants or apples can also be used.
The Auvergne and the Ardèche in the east produce some wines, though these are not of any great renown. Cheese, however, is a different story. In addition to the great cow’s milk cheeses – St-Nectaire, Laguiole, Cantal, Fourme d’Ambert and Bleu d’Auvergne – this region also produces the prince of all cheeses, Roquefort, made from sheep’s milk at the edge of the Causse du Larzac near Millau.
In the southwestern corner of the Massif Central, the landscapes start to change and the altitude begins to drop. The wild, desolate moorland of the Aubrac is cut and contained by the savage gorges of the Lot and Truyère rivers, in the confluence of which lies the unspoiled village of Entraygues (“between the waters” in Occitan). To the south, the arid plateaux form a sort of intermediate step to the lower hills and coastal plains of Languedoc.
The town of Rodez, the capital of the old province of the Rouergue – renamed Aveyron after the Revolution – also has much more of a Mediterranean feel, with its pink sandstone cathedral offering a stark contrast to the dark volcanic structures of the Auvergne. The town is certainly worth a visit, though its attractions need not keep you for more than a day. The two great architectural draws of the southwest are Conques, with its medieval village and magnificent abbey, which owes its existence to the Santiago pilgrim route (now the GR65), and the perfect little bastide of Sauveterre-de-Rouergue.
Conques is one of the great villages of southwest France. It occupies a spectacular position on the flanks of the steep, densely wooded gorge of the little River Dourdou, a tributary of the Lot. It was its abbey that brought Conques into existence, after a hermit called Dadon settled here around 800 AD and founded a community of Benedictine monks, one of whom is said to have pilfered the relics of the martyred girl, Sainte-Foy, from the monastery at Agen. Known for her ability to cure blindness and liberate captives, Sainte Foy’s presence brought the pilgrims flocking, earning the abbey a prime place on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
The village is very small, largely depopulated and mainly contained within medieval walls, parts of which still survive, along with three of its gates. The houses date mainly from the late Middle Ages, and the whole ensemble of cobbled lanes and stairways is a pleasure to stroll through. At the village’s centre, dominating the landscape, stands the Romanesque Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy, begun in the eleventh century, whose giant pointed towers are echoed in those of the medieval houses clustered tightly around it. Its plain, fortress-like facade rises on a small cobbled square beside the tourist office and pilgrims’ fountain, the slightly shiny silver-grey schist prettily offset by the greenery and flowers of the terraced gardens.
In startling contrast to this plainness is the elaborately sculpted Last Judgement in the twelfth-century tympanum above the door, which admonishes all who see it to eschew vice and espouse virtue. The treasury was a crucial destination for pilgrims on the Santiago de Compestela route; the main goal was to see Sainte-Foy’s relics displayed in the choir, encircled by a lovely wrought-iron screen. A piece of skull in the reliquary has been authenticated and the church was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1998. There is some fine carving on the capitals, especially in the triforium arches; to see them, climb to the organ loft, which gives you a superb perspective on the whole interior.
The town of Laguiole is synonymous in France with knives, characterized by a long, pointed blade and a bone handle that fits the palm; the genuine article should bear the effigy of a bee stamped on the clasp that holds the blade open.
The industry started here in the nineteenth century, then moved to industrial Thiers, outside Clermont-Ferrand, before returning in 1987. At this point, the Société Laguiole (the only outlet for the genuine article) opened a Philippe Starck-designed factory on the St-Urcize road, with a giant knife projecting from the roof of the windowless all-aluminium building.
They have a shop on the main through-road, on the corner of the central marketplace.
Laguiole is also known for its cheesemaking tradition, which dates back to the twelfth century; unpasteurized cow’s milk is formed into massive cylindrical cheeses, and aged up to eighteen months. To sample or buy, try the factory outlet on the north edge of town.
Forty kilometres southwest of Rodez, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue makes the most rewarding side trip in this part of Aveyron if you have your own vehicle. It is a perfect, otherworldly bastide, founded in 1281, with a large, wide central square, part cobbled, part gravelled, and surrounded by stone and half-timbered houses built over arcaded ground floors. Narrow streets lead off to the outer road, and are lined with stone-built houses the colour of rusty iron. On summer evenings, pétanque players come out to roll their boules beneath chestnut and plane trees, while swallows and swifts swoop and dive overhead.
The Cévennes mountains and River Ardèche form the southeastern defences of the Massif Central, overlooking the Rhône valley to the east and the Mediterranean littoral to the south. The bare landscapes found in the western edge of the mountain range are clearly those of the central Massif, but around Mont Aigoual and its radiating valleys, and the tributary valleys of the Ardèche, the feel is distinctly Mediterranean: deep, dry, and clothed in forests of sweet chestnut, oak and pine.
Remote and inaccessible country until well into the twentieth century, the region has bred rugged and independent inhabitants. For centuries it was the most resolute stronghold of Protestantism in France, and it was in these valleys that the persecuted Protestants put up their fiercest resistance to the tyranny of Louis XIV and Louis XV. In World War II, it was heavily committed to the Resistance, while after 1968, it became the domain of hippies – some of whom remain.
The Gorges de l’Ardèche begins at the Pont d’Arc, a very beautiful 54m-high stone arch that the river has cut for itself through the limestone, just downstream from Vallon, itself 39km south of Aubenas. The gorge continues for about 35km to St-Martin-d’Ardèche in the valley of the Rhône.
The gorge winds back and forth, much of the time dropping 300m straight down to the almost dead-flat scrubby Plateau des Gras. It’s beautiful, but a tourist trap; the road following the rim, with spectacular viewpoints at regular intervals, is jammed with traffic in summer, when you should book accommodation well in advance. The river, down at the bottom, which is where you really want to be to appreciate the grandeur of the canyon, is likewise packed with canoes in high season.