The Auvergne is one of France’s neglected remote regions. So I hope this Auvergne travel guide will show you the glories of this relatively unknown region of France.
Why visit the Auvergne?
Ask people why they should visit the Auvergne and even those who come to France fairly often are hard put to it to answer. Invariably there’s a blank look and an answer such as ‘Why visit the Auvergne? Where exactly is that?’
So where is the Auvergne?
The Auvergne is in central France at the heart of the Massif Central. Historically one of the poorest and most rural areas of France, it’s still a relatively wild area. Extinct volcanoes (puys) march across the countryside, offering walks across a landscape that seems to be the roof of the world. Rivers make their way majestically through deep gorges; forests, still home to deer and wild boar, cover much of the land.
The Auvergne may sound inhospitable but it’s not. I bought a house here just after leaving university (quite a time ago I have to admit) in a tiny hamlet near Le Puy-en-Velay. The local farmers were initially baffled by us (there are still very few foreigners in the region and when we bought the house, we were definitely a novelty). But they took us to their hearts, starting with help on rebuilding the large roof. The main farmer in the village brought timber for the roof down through the logging trails that surround the village, and appeared at 4am one morning to sheet over the exposed house when the weather broke and the heavens opened. His wife gave help when my son burnt his hand on an oil lamp, and as for the bee sting… But that’s another story. (To be continued!)
So to continue with my Auvergne Travel Guide…
Look at a map of France from almost any normal tourist point of view: châteaux; vineyards; major attractions; and there’s a big blank hole in the middle which is the Auvergne. It’s one of the reasons why I love this region with a passion. It’s unspoilt, lacking the sophistication of its big neighbor Rhône-Alpes, but with the biggest heart and soul you could hope to find.
About the Auvergne
Four departments make up the Auvergne. The Allier (03) is in the north, Puy de Dôme (63) lies in the middle, and the Cantal (15) and Haute Loire (43) (where the Loire rises) are in the south. The main city, and capital of both the region and of Puy de dôme, is Clermont-Ferrand. The city might be the home of Michelin, but it’s a long way from an industrial conglomerate.
Allier Department (03)
Moulins is the capital of the Allier. Located on the river, it’s a delightful city well worth a visit if just for the Centre National du Costume de Scène. The national centre holds a vast collection of stage costumes, stage sets and theatrical accessories, as well as the Nureyev Collection with costumes and artefacts from his astonishing career.
Puy de Dôme Department (63)
Clermont-Ferrand is the capital of the Puy de Dôme department, as well as the whole of the Auvergne. It’s famous as the home of Michelin tyres, but with its medieval quarter and old cobbled meandering streets, it feels more like a typical French city than an industrial centre.
Michelin is still big here, supporting the local football team and a host of local projects. Well worth seeing is the Aventure Michelin which tells the story of the company, still owned by the private Michelin family. There’s an impressive cathedral built of black basalt and good restaurants. The nearby Puy de Dôme is easy to visit.
Cantal Department (15)
Aurillac holds the honours as capital of the Cantal. It’s a lively town, with ancient streets and the beautiful Place St-Géraud. The town is best known for its annual Street Theatre Festival which has to be seen to be believed. In 2020 it’s from 19th to 22nd August.
Haute-Loire Department (43)
The capital of the Haute-Loire, tucked down in the south of the Auvergne, is the splendid town of Le Puy-en-Velay. I have seen it change, from remarkably sleepy provincial and rural capital to a more prosperous place. It’s dominated by its religious icons, perched on top of volcanic outcrops. The cathedral dominates the old town and it was from here that countless medieval pilgrims set out on their long journey to Saint James of Compostella in Spain. Today, the most popular pilgrim walking route starts here at the cathedral.
More Auvergne Towns and Cities to Visit
50 kms (31 miles) north of Clermont-Ferrand, Vichy still suffers as the place for the puppet government of Marshal Pétain during World War II. Forget that and concentrate on its famous springs. It’s still a city where the French flock to for treatments, so is rather staid. But it’s also full of Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings and gardens, that helped nurse the ailing visitors back to rude health.
St-Flour in the Cantal is 92 kms (57 miles) south of Clermont. A long and august history gave it its 14th-century Gothic cathedral with its remarkable interior. The bishop’s palace houses the Musée de la Haute-Auvergne with furniture and musical instruments. There’s a very good market on Saturday mornings. It’s in the Aubrac, a high region where the cattle graze peacefully in summer and the snow sweeps over the high plateaus in winter.
St-Nectaire has two parts: the old village of St-Nectaire-le-Haut and St-Nectaire-le-Bas, a spa with turn of the century architecture. In between there’s a huge salt marsh.
Salers, 42 kms north of Aurillac, is one of the very pretty towns and villages of the region (and it’s official; it’s on the Plus Beaux Villages de France government list). It’s like stepping into a 15th– and 16th-century picture book with splendid old houses and squares.
The Puys of the Auvergne
The Monts-Dômes, the Monts-Dore and the Monts du Cantal make up the impressive Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne. It’s a lonely, beautiful spectacular area.
In the Mont- Dômes surrounding Clermont-Ferrand, the Puy de Dôme is one of the highlights of the region. At 1465 metres high, it was the result of a mighty volcanic explosion some 10,000 years ago. Take the railway to the top for truly wonderful views and the sight of paragliders leaping into nothing from the summit.
The Monts-Dore is more rugged. Here the Dordogne river rises near the little town of Le Mont-Dore on the Puy de Sancy, at 1885 the highest point in the Massif Central. Take the cable car for more of those views.
Don’t Miss Attractions
In a landscape of volcanoes, it’s not surprising to find a theme park devoted to them. Vulcania is interactive with a 3D film on eruptions in the Auvergne and enough attractions for a good family day out.
Tourist Train through the Allier Gorges
If you’re in the Haute-Loire, take the tourist train that runs through the Allier Gorges between Langeac and Langogne. It’s a great ride through the gorges, looking down at the flowing river and up at the little villages that cling to the hillside. It’s 2-hour trip through 53 tunnels.
Sports in the Auvergne
This is the region for all kinds of sports. It’s one of the great walking areas, with grandes randonées, walking paths that are well maintained and signposted snaking through the region. The best one is the route that takes you from Le Puy-en-Velay, the start of the medieval pilgrims’ way to Spain.
The Allier offers white water rafting, and high puys offer paragliding. Check in each local town or village for information.
Food of the Auvergne
Being a rural region, the Auvergne’s food reflects its roots. Unlike the refined cuisine of nearby Burgundy, this is peasant food. Try heartening dishes like potée Auvergnate, a pot-au-feu made of cabbage, potatoes, bacon, beans and turnips. Cabbage features again in chou farci where the vegetable is stuffed with beef and pork. L’aligot mixes puréed potatoes and cheese to make a rib-sticking superb filler of stomachs.
Try all of these dishes and more. I hope this Auvergne travel guide gives you an appetite for rustic cooking.
There are five major Auvergne cheeses, all of them with the Appellation d’Origine Controlée designation.
St-Nectaire is the best known, a cheese made from cows’ milk. It’s made either on the farms themselves (Saint-Nectaire fermier), or in dairies (the Saint-Nectaire laitier).
Cantal is one of France’s oldest cheeses. It gets its different tastes from how long it has been aged.
Fourme d’Ambert is a mild blue cheese, while Bleu d’Auvergne is punchier and to my mind, better than the saltier Roquefort.
Salers is the fifth of Auvergne’s great cheeses. It’s farm produced during the summer months (mid-April to mid-November using unpasteurized milk.
Getting to the Auvergne
There are 2 major airports to use. Clermont Airport is at Aulnat, 7 kms (3.5 miles) east of the city center.
Major airlines like KLM, Air France fly to Clermont-Ferrand from the UK but you have to change in Paris. During the holiday season (starting at Easter), Ryanair flies direct to Clermont-Ferrand from London Stansted. There are connections to Paris Orly or Charles de Gaulle, Lyon, Nice, Corsica and other European cities.
Lyon is a much better bet as there are numerous well-priced flights from the UK. You can easily hire a car at the airport.
If you’re taking your car, the journey will depend on your Auvergne destination. But Clermont-Ferrand is a good starting point. It’s 423 kilometers (262 miles) from Paris and the drive takes around 4 hours.
If you are coming from the UK by car, take the ferry to Calais. From Calais to Clermont, the distance is 720 kms (448 miles), so it’s best to break the journey.
Clermont-Ferrand is 423 kilometers (262 miles) from Paris and by car takes around 4 hours. If you are coming from the UK by car, take the ferry to Calais. From Calais to Clermont, the distance is 720 kms (448 miles), so it’s best to break the journey.
Check out the ferry possibilities here.