Riding high in the Auvergne
Steam trains once took visitors up to the finest viewpoint in the Massif Central. Almost a century later the railway is back.Anthony Lambert steps aboard
The extraordinary sight of so many volcanic plugs in close proximity has made the highest in the area, the Puy de D�me at 1,465 metres, a favoured viewpoint – and not just in modern times. The Gauls dedicated the mountain to their deity Lug or Lugh, which gave the city of Lyon its old name of Lugdunum. Today, it is the Roman remains that provide one of the fascinations of the summit. The largest mountain temple in Gallo-Roman history, covering 3,600 square metres, was built in the first two centuries AD and dedicated to the god Mercury. It is on one of four roads radiating from Lugdunum/Lyon, known collectively as the Via Agrippa after the Roman general who built them. The road later became the sentier des muletiers (mule track) and now forms part of the GR4 long-distance trail.
The temple ruins were discovered in 1873 by a physics professor at the University of Clermont-Ferrand while he was involved in building a weather station. The Puy de D�me was in the news again in 1908 when the Michelin brothers, �douard and Andr�, who had opened their tyre factory in the Clermont-Ferrand, offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to fly with a passenger from Paris, circle the cathedral in the Auvergne capital and land on the Puy de D�me. Three years later, on 7 March 1911, Eug�ne Renaux and Albert Senouque completed the feat in their biplane in five hours, ten minutes.
The idea of building a railway to transport the thousands of visitors to the summit was first considered seriously in 1886, using the novel power of electricity; Clermont-Ferrand, ten kilometres from the Puy de D�me, was the first town in France to have an electric tramway, in 1890. However, in 1905 the Conseil D�partemental came down in favour of a metre-gauge steam railway using a rack (or cog) system with wheels driven by chains and intersecting bevel gears gripping a central rail in the track.
Work began in 1906 and the line opened in July the following year operated by the town tramway company which added ‘…et du Puy de D�me’ to its title. The route began in Place Lamartine in Clermont-Ferrand (an altitude of just under 400 metres) and culminated 50 metres below the summit, where there was a loop and a shed big enough for two trains. The railway had five steam locomotives capable of 25km/h on normal track but just 8km/h on the 4.2-kilometre rack section.
World War I effectively put paid to the railway. The rails were requisitioned in 1917 and not re-laid until 1923, allowing a rival bus service to capture much of the business. The last train ran in the autumn of 1925 and its closure was authorised the following year.
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No one then could have anticipated the need to rebuild the railway, but by the 21st century, with almost 400,000 visitors a year going up the mountain, road traffic levels had become intolerable. The congestion, pollution and environmental degradation caused by so many vehicles crawling to the summit’s vast car park were destroying the beauty of the mountain and the visitor experience.
The courageous decision was taken by the Conseil G�n�ral du Puy-de-D�me to build a railway, to close the road to all but emergency vehicles and return the car park areas of the summit to nature. Stadler Rail, a company in Switzerland, the country most associated with mountain railways, won the contract to build four two-car electric trains, while Canadian company SNC-Lavalin was in charge of designing and building the railway, called the Panoramique des D�mes.
The five-kilometre rack railway, which can carry 1,200 passengers an hour, opened officially in June this year and the 15-minute journey is already being seen as an attraction in its own right. A large landscaped car park serves the attractively designed lower station building near Orcines, with a shop, caf� and exhibition about the mountain, volcanoes and the area’s national parks.
The train glides through woods before reaching the open part of the mountain where the overhead power cable is sometimes shielded to prevent any landing by an unwitting paraglider. The line spirals round the summit to terminate in a vast underground hall; this is partly to minimise the railway’s physical presence at the summit but also to provide enough room to accommodate crowds if trains are delayed.
Above the station are a shop, another exhibition area and two places to eat – a bar/brasserie and a gourmet restaurant; among the latter’s offers is a special dinner on Thursday evenings in July and August (€70 including train fare). Lunch on the day of my visit comprised magret de canard, blue cheese and fig jam on toast, and a dome of meringue with chocolate-infused raspberries.
The station is shy of the summit on which the weather station stands. A path leads up from the restaurant building to the Temple of Mercury and a museum that gives a history of the ruins and their excavation, as well as displaying some of the finds. The exhibits include interactive drawers and flaps beloved by children.
Of course, it is the summit itself and the panoramic views that are the main draw. All around are extinct volcanoes clothed in trees or grass. Sometimes cloud covers the lower slopes and the train breaks through the white fleece to reveal the peaks rising into the blue skies. Regulars recommend sunset when the lowering sun picks out the peaks and plunges the valleys into contrasting darkness.
On a clear day, the top of the Puy de D�me provides views of the Monts D�mes, Monts Dores, the Cantal and Velay mountains, Clermont-Ferrand, the Forez mountains and, occasionally, even the summit of Mont Blanc.
In Memoirs of a Tourist, the novelist Stendhal’s foray into travel writing in 1838, he wrote. “The view from the Puy de D�me, just a couple of leagues from the town [Clermont-Ferrand], inspires the imagination whilst the sight of the Limagne [plain] conjures up splendour and fertility.”
Most of Stendhal’s contemporaries, like today’s visitors, climbed the mountain to admire the exceptional panorama, but its volcanic origin had only been recognised in 1751 and it was during the 19th century that different types of volcano were categorised by scientists. The Puy de D�me is a Pelean volcano; that is, one without a crater where its mass hardened as soon as the flow of rocks and boulders was ejected, thus retaining its shape.
Appliance of science
Scientists had already made practical use of the mountain. The mathematician, physicist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who was born in Clermont-Ferrand in 1623, used the Puy de D�me in 1648 to take barometric readings to prove that air had weight (mass). A monument to his experiments can be seen on the summit.
As your train comes down the mountain, you can reflect on how the railway’s carbon footprint has been reduced by an onboard device that generates half the electricity needed to power an ascending train. Pascal would undoubtedly have approved.
By rail: Eurostar from London to Paris takes just over two hours. The onward train from Gare du Bercy to Clermont-Ferrand takes 3� hours. Fares from London to Clermont Ferrand start at �97 return through Rail Europe (Tel: 08448 484 064, www.raileurope.co.uk).
By air: Flybe serves Clermont-Ferrand Airport from Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton.
By road: Clermont-Ferrand is seven hours’ drive from the northern ferry ports.
WHERE TO STAY
Inter-H�tel des Puys
16 Place Delille
Tel: (Fr) 4 73 91 92 06
Doubles from €81.
Best Western Premier Princesse Flore
5 Place Allard
Tel: (Fr) 4 73 35 63 63
Doubles from €180, breakfast €19.
WHERE TO EAT
Tel: (Fr) 4 73 87 43 02
Menus from €30.
WHERE TO VISIT
Panoramique des D�mes
1 Chemin du Couleyras
La Font de l’Arbre
Tel: (Fr) 826 399 615
Trains run from 7am or 8pm up to midnight, depending on the day or season. Return tickets: Adults €9.50, over-65s €8, 4-12s €3.80, family €24.50.
Route de Mazayes
Tel: (Fr) 4 73 19 70 00
Theme park dedicated to Auvergne’s volcanoes, featuring rides, spectacular exhibits and cinema shows. Adult tickets from €21, 6-16s from €15.