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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.
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 cafés on the central place de Jaude – well placed for the morning sun – often full of students taking advantage of the free wi-fi offered around the square; come evening, nearby pavement bars fill up as the city’s boutiques and galleries shut up shop for the day.
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.
Visiting Clermont-Ferrand without climbing the Puy de Dôme (1465m), the closest and highest peak of the Monts-Dômes, in the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, would be like visiting Athens without seeing the Acropolis. And if you choose your moment – early in the morning or late in the evening – you can easily avoid the worst of the crowds. You can climb to the top of the puy (“peak”) in about an hour (2.3km) or take a rack railway, the Panoramique des Dômes, which brings you to the top in thirteen minutes.
The result of a volcanic explosion about ten thousand years ago, the Puy is a steep 400m from base to summit. Although the weather station buildings and enormous television mast are pretty ugly close up, the sense of airy elevation and the staggering views (as far as the Cantal mountains and even to Mont Blanc when conditions are favourable) more than compensate. The on-site café-bar is a great spot to watch paragliders jumping off from the summit, and you’ll also get a bird’s-eye view of the other volcanic summits to the north and south, largely forested and including the perfect, 100m-deep grassy crater of the Puy de Pariou.
Just below the summit are the scant remains of a substantial Roman temple, dedicated to the god Mercury, some of the finds from which are displayed in Clermont-Ferrand’s Musée Bargoin.
Right in the middle of the Massif Central, Le Puy-en-Velay, often shortened to Le Puy, is one of the most remarkable towns in the whole of France, with a landscape and architecture that are totally theatrical. Slung between the higher mountains to east and west, the countryside erupts in a chaos of volcanic acne: everywhere is a confusion of abrupt conical hills, scarred with dark outcrops of rock and topknotted with woods. Even in the centre of the town, these volcanic thrusts burst through. Le Puy is also somewhat inaccessible: the three main roads out all cross passes that are more than 1000m high, which causes problems in winter.
In the past, Le Puy enjoyed influence and prosperity because of its ecclesiastical institutions, which were supported in part by the production of the town’s famous green lentils (lentilles vertes). Recently, however, Le Puy has fallen somewhat on hard times, and its traditional industries – tanning and lace – have essentially gone bust. However, in the maze of steep cobbled streets and steps that terrace the Rocher Corneille, lacemakers still do a fine trade, with their doilies and shawls hanging enticingly outside souvenir shops. Le Puy was – and still is, to a lesser extent – also a centre for pilgrims embarking on the 1600km trek to Santiago de Compostela (history has it that Le Puy’s Bishop Godescalk was the first pilgrim to make the journey, in the tenth century). The specific starting point is place du Plot, scene of a lively Saturday market, and rue St-Jacques.
If you happen to be in town in the third week of September you are in luck: the five-day King of the Birds festival engulfs the old town in a colourful feast of Renaissance costumes. The event celebrates the traditional bird-hunting competition introduced to Le Puy by Charles V in 1524, where the winner would be proclaimed “king” for a year. The modern-day festival celebrated its thirtieth edition in 2015 and brings in some six thousand costumed revellers each year.
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.
The cheese of St-Nectaire has been growing in reputation ever since Louis XIV had it regularly served at his table; only cheeses made from herds grazing in a limited area to the south of the Monts-Dore are entitled to the appellation contrôlée. The cheese is made in two stages. First, a white creamy cheese or tomme is produced. This is matured for two to three months in a cellar at a constant temperature; the resulting mould on the skin produces the characteristic smell, taste and whitish or yellowy-grey colour.
There are two kinds of St-Nectaire cheese: fermier and laitier. The fermier (farmhouse) is the strongest and tastiest, and some of it is still made entirely on local farms, using just the milk from one herd of cows. Increasingly, however, farmers make the tomme using the milk of lots of different herds and then sell it on to wholesalers to produce the laitier (dairy) cheese, which is more of an industrial product, with an automated refining stage.
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.
Vichy, 50km north of Clermont-Ferrand, is famous for two things: its World War II puppet government under Marshal Pétain, and its curative sulphurous springs, which attract thousands of ageing and ailing visitors, or curistes, every year. The town is almost entirely devoted to catering for its largely elderly, genteel population, which swells several-fold in summer, though attempts are being made to rejuvenate Vichy’s image by appealing to a younger, fitness-conscious generation. Still, with Clermont-Ferrand’s nightlife so close, young people don't flock here, except in July and August when Des Célestines, the rather good beach on the banks of the Allier in the west of the city, becomes a big draw.
There’s a real fin-de-siècle atmosphere about Vichy, and the best reason to come is to see its fine belle époque, Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, of which a prime example is the hôtel de ville near Place Charles de Gaulle. The tourist office offers afternoon tours (in French) showcasing different periods and also a brochure with suggested walking tours. If you are strolling on your own, you’ll find more striking examples in rue de Russie, rue de Belgique and rue Alquié, and around the old town between the church of St Blaise, the river and the town’s main spring, the Sources des Célestines. There are also four parks on the right bank of the Allier, providing pleasant, wooded river walks. The most famous is the Parc de Napoléon III, an English garden created for Napoléon III.