Explosive scenery awaits in the beautiful region of Auvergne which is renowned for its volcanic landscapes and vast forests. Anna McKittrick experiences the charms of the undiscoverd heart of France
With dramatic scenery encompassing dormant volcanoes, vast coniferous forests, deep gorges and fast-flowing rivers, Auvergne is a beautiful and tranquil region waiting to be discovered. Located in the heart of France and bordered by six regions, Auvergne is the place to come to get a real feel for rural French life, but it’s somewhere that often falls off the radar of tourists and property-hunters alike.
In fact a straw poll among friends and family reveals that most haven’t heard of Auvergne – or if they have, it’s because they passed through en route to the south of France. But it’s a region that deserves to be a destination in its own right, whether you’re looking for a place to put down roots or somewhere to enjoy a relaxing break away from it all.
Auvergne is roughly the size of Wales, yet has just over a million inhabitants compared to three million in Wales, so it’s not surprising that it’s one of the least densely populated regions in France. Life seems to move at a slower pace here; whether you head out on the roads or walk through the pretty villages, you get the feeling that everyone is just taking their time and it makes the region all the more charming.
Aside from the regional capital Clermont-Ferrand located in the Puy-de-D�me department, Auvergne is a bucolic playground and shortly after driving out of the city you’re greeted by swathes of undulating countryside covered in blankets of green in every shade imaginable. In such a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere, it’s hard to imagine that this was once one of the most active volcanic areas in Western Europe.
The region’s most iconic landmark, the Puy de D�me volcano, is only 10 kilometres outside Clermont-Ferrand but rises 400 metres above the city, forming part of the Parc Naturel R�gional des Volcans d’Auvergne, Europe’s largest nature park, which was established in 1977 to preserve the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the area.
The Puy de D�me, towering at 1,465 metres, is the highest peak of La Cha�ne des Puys which encompasses more than 80 domes and craters stretching from north to south, forming the backbone of the Massif Central.
The area is a walker’s paradise and a challenging hour-long climb along the Chemin des Muletiers path off the D941A road is one of the most exhilarating ways to reach the peak of the Puy de D�me. And the panoramic views from the summit are a spectacular reward for the exertion. If you prefer a more leisurely but no less picturesque ascent, the newly opened Panoramique des D�mes offers a train to the summit and is open all year so you can experience the impressive vistas whatever the season.
Auvergne’s other natural gem is Le Parc Naturel R�gional Livradois-Forez which lies east of Clermont-Ferrand and encompasses the departments of Puy-de-D�me, Haute-Loire and Loire in neighbouring Rh�ne-Alpes. Here the dramatic volcanic landscape is replaced by pastures, thick forests, grazing cattle and meandering roads bordered by pockets of wild flowers, adding splashes of delicate colour to the palette of greens.
At the gateway to the nature park in the northern tip of the Livradois mountains on the outskirts of the village of Sermentizon lies Ch�teau d’Aulteribe – one of the many surprises waiting to be discovered in this region. The medieval ch�teau, which dates from the 14th century, offers a fascinating insight into what life was like in days gone by. The ch�teau’s late owner, Marquis Henri de Pierre had no children and bequeathed the castle and its entire contents to the State when he died in 1954. It opened to the public in 1965 and inside visitors can expect to find an impressive display of artwork, including an original portrait of Cardinal Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne, along with vast Flemish tapestries, porcelain and impressively preserved furniture.
From the outside you have no idea of the splendid rooms that await you but as soon as you walk through the doors you step back in time. Guide Sophie, who has worked at Aulteribe for 20 years, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of de Pierre and the ancestors who lived in the castle before him.
The region is renowned for its historic houses and you can follow the Route Historique des Ch�teaux d’Auvergne (www.routes-historiques.com) to discover more about the rich architectural and artistic heritage across Auvergne.
A short drive further south from Aulteribe brings you to the small commune of Saint-Gervais-sous-Meymont, which Martyn and Anne Earley have called home since they moved from Scotland five years ago. The couple had been planning a move to France since the late 1980s but it wasn’t until their children had gone to university that they began to give it more serious thought.
Coming from the Orkney Islands Anne says they were used to “big open vistas” so when it came to deciding where to settle in France they knew it had to have the wow factor. Martyn suggested they look in Auvergne where they were instantly taken with the beautiful scenery of the Livradois-Forez. They eventually found the perfect property with the exceptional views they craved which they transformed into a B&B. Martyn and Anne are only 40 minutes away from a downhill ski station and the cross-country ski possibilities in the area are endless, not to mention snowshoeing and dog sledding. Choosing an area that benefitted from both summer and winter tourism was a conscious decision for the Earleys who wanted to be open all year.
Staying in Auvergne year-round is something that Briony and Neill Tucker, who live just further south in Thioli�res, say gives you an instant seal of approval among the locals.
“One of the Auvergnats’ first questions is ‘are you here all the time?’ It doesn’t matter if you’re French, English or Dutch, if you’re here in the winter you get a tick. The winter is long and can be hard and most people who have a holiday home aren’t here in the winter. We might hibernate but we’re here,” laughs Neill.
For the Tuckers, who run a chambres d’h�tes, the simple life that Auvergne offers is perfect and they enjoy nothing more than exploring the stunning countryside that’s on their doorstep.
“It doesn’t cost anything to put your walking boots on or jump on your mountain bike and go off for the day,” says Briony. The affordability of property in the region was a big pull for the Tuckers who wanted a rural lifestyle but without a hefty price tag.
“I think rural life in Auvergne is still the genuine article rather than the popular trend it’s now become in the UK, where you need a six-figure salary to live in rural England,” says Neill.
Auvergne is one of the cheapest regions in France in which to buy property and a peek through the windows of the immobiliers in the town of Ambert tells the same story, with prices starting from as little as €52,000 for a two-bedroom apartment in habitable condition.
Jon Robinson from FCH Immobilier, which is based in Auvergne, says there are other draws apart from the affordable price of property, and people moving to the region can expect a warm welcome: “The Auvergnats are well known for their friendliness towards outsiders. Some years ago I sold a large house that was situated in a small village to an English couple. They moved in towards the end of May that year and within a week had received a visit from the maire inviting them to the 14 July celebrations as his personal guests so that he could introduce them to all the villagers. They had also received three welcome baskets from neighbours with various fruit and vegetables. This sums up nicely what the locals are like!”
For Sylvia and Tony Mallinson, who moved from Yorkshire over a decade ago, their neighbours in the tiny village of Bertignat have been incredibly welcoming and embraced them wholeheartedly into their close-knit community. Sylvia says the locals are kind-hearted with a generous soul which reminds her of how life was in Yorkshire 20 years ago. The couple are happily settled in Auvergne and Tony says they “couldn’t have found a better place to live if we’d spent 10 years looking”.
I experienced this local warmth first-hand when I went to meet Sylvain P�raudeau at Moulin Richard de Bas, on the outskirts of Ambert. The mill dates from the 15th century when the Livradois-Forez was a thriving centre for paper-making due to the ample supply of water in the area that was used to power the mills.
It was between 1941 and 1942 that Sylvain’s grandfather purchased and restored the mill so it could start producing paper once again. During the 16th century there were over 300 water-powered mills in the area, but Moulin Richard de Bas is now the only surviving paper mill in Auvergne still in production, with 200 sheets of paper made per day. The quality of the paper is so high that the French constitution of the Fifth Republic was printed on it and artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dal� often used it for their paintings.
It’s fascinating to visit the mill and see how the paper is turned from raw materials into the finished product, still using the original techniques today to carry on a tradition that is such an important part of the heritage of the region.
Aside from paper, Ambert’s other famous export is its Appellation d’Origine Prot�g�e cheese Fourme d’Ambert. The delicate blue cheese is reputed to be one of the oldest cheeses in France along with Roquefort and it appears on menus throughout the area.
In Valcivi�res, just outside Ambert and en route to the Col des Supeyres, cheesemaker Antoine de Boismenu is busy making fantastic AOP Fourme d’Ambert and Tomme de Montagne. Antoine has only been making cheese for five years, since swapping Paris for rural Auvergne, but his heart has always been in the countryside and retraining as a cheesemaker has been a dream come true. Antoine uses traditional techniques to make his cheeses which can be bought direct from the farm or at his stall at the weekly market in Ambert.
With its abundance of lush countryside ideal for grazing cattle it’s no surprise that Auvergne is renowned for its cheese and the region alone accounts for over 25% of France’s AOP cheeses. Along with Fourme d’Ambert it has four other AOP cheeses; Bleu d’Auvergne, Cantal, Saint-Nectaire and Salers, and as you drive through the region you’ll notice the Routes des Fromages (www.fromages-aoc-auvergne.com) signs indicating the 40 stops along the cheese route. Expect to find producers and farms where you can discover more about the savoir-faire of the delicious regional cheeses.
Tasting the cheeses is a must, whether you enjoy them as part of a platter or in one of the many cheese-based dishes from the region such as truffade – a hearty combination of potato and Cantal cheese – which is often served with jambon d’Auvergne.
Other gastronomic delights can be found further south in Le Puy-en-Velay, the capital of the Haute-Loire department and home to green Puy lentils which have been cultivated in the Velay region for more than 2,000 years. Les lentilles vertes du Puy (www.lalentillevertedupuy.com), which are the only pulse in mainland France to have AOP status, are traditionally served with sausages and while it’s not the prettiest of dishes, it really is delicious. For places to eat head to Place du Plot, a lively square in the old town lined with multi-coloured buildings.
But it’s not just lentils that Le Puy-en-Velay is famous for and as soon as you arrive you’re welcomed by the dramatic sight of the three volcanic skyscrapers that tower above the town housing a 12th-century cathedral, a church and a statue of the Virgin Mary. From Place du Plot it’s a short walk to the impressive cathedral, which has Unesco World Heritage status, and en route you’ll pass many makers of lace, a skill which has been practised in the town for centuries.
Climbing the 268 steps to the chapel of le Rocher Saint-Michel-d’Aiguilhe, which is perched on an 82 metre-high volcanic pillar, is worth the effort as the views from the top are extraordinary. From there you can take in the Statue Notre-Dame de France, rising 757 metres high on the top of Rocher Corneille.
Le Puy-en-Velay is one of the four starting points of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques pilgrimage route that leads to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. As you explore Le Puy you’ll come across many people bearing the Coquille Saint-Jacques symbol, either on t-shirts, walking sticks or attached to rucksacks, to signify that they are walking the pilgrim route.
Whether you’re taking part in the pilgrimage or not, spending time in the region has a restorative and rejuvenating effect. It might be the clean air, lack of traffic or friendly welcome, but one thing’s for sure – this is certainly the place to come to experience true French life. It’s amazing to think that so many people pass through without stopping. So next time you’re racing to the south, take time to get to know this undiscovered gem in the heart of France and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. LF