Here, in more ways than one, is the heart of France: the vibrant region of the Auvergne, three hours from Paris and an hour from Lyon by autoroute. The Auvergne consists of four very different départements: Allier, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Puy-de-Dôme. For spectacular scenery, Puy-de-Dôme is hard to beat, an area with eighty extinct volcanoes, of an age long before the dinosaurs, indeed older than inhabited earth itself.
For those of a nervous disposition, it may be reassuring to mention that the last eruption in Puy-de-Dôme occurred, well, quite recently really, in about 5,750 BC, after 150,000 years of continuous volcanic activity. It left behind not just the fascinating craters but also an exceptional natural setting, with lakes, rivers and forests, populated by Romanesque villages and medieval castles.
The only way to appreciate fully the spectacular scenery is to take a flight over the volcanoes from Aulnat airport in the busy regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand. In 45 minutes you will be transported across the huge natural volcanic park, the sharp peaks of the Puy chain, 5,000 feet above sea level, and finally the Monts Dore Mountains to the south, famous for its thermal spas and ski resorts. On a clear day, you can see as far to the east as Mont-Blanc in the Alps.
The Puy-de-Dôme Mountain itself may also be accessed by car, using a narrow road with more twists and turns than a roller coaster. The more energetic can leave their vehicles halfway and take the direct route of the old mule track, which merges with an ancient path that led to the Gallo-Roman Temple of Mercury, traces of which can still be seen at the top. The view is truly breathtaking but the winds can be strong and unpredictable, a reminder of what a feat it was back in 1911, when intrepid aviator Eugène Renaud became the first to land on the summit.
The highlight for many visiting Puy-de-Dôme is likely to be Vulcania, the £60M theme park dedicated to volcanoes. Just fifteen kilometres west of Clermont-Ferrand, a 20-minute journey by car, Vulcania has an emphasis on science but its many interactive displays will appeal to children; and most of the explanatory texts are in English. Vulcania remains open late in the evenings during summer.
Also north of Clermont-Ferrant, in the Limagne plain, stands "Riom the Beautiful", the name given in the 13th century to the ancient seat of justice, Riom-ès-Montagnes. Many prestigious mansions with elegant inner courtyards survive from Riom’s heyday. Just south of Clermont is Château de la Bâtisse, begun in the fifteenth century, whose lovely manicured gardens were laid out by Le Nôtre before he moved on to Versailles. Bâtisse, near Chanonat, can be a little difficult to find but is most easily reached via junction 5 of the A75 autoroute.
To the south-west, Besse is worth a visit, a ski resort (known as “Besse-Super-Besse”) in winter, a tourist centre in summer. The old Renaissance bourg of Besse, a fiefdom of the powerful Médicis family, still has part of its walls, castle, fountains, and paved streets scarcely changed since the Middle-Ages. On alternate Wednesdays, it plays host to a flourishing street market, though not as good as the Saturday market at Issoire, due east. See here the striking architecture of Issoire’s ancient Benedictine Abbey, St-Austremoine. Just off the road back to Clermont is the Plateau de Gergovie where Vercingetorix, chief of the Celtic Arverni tribe (from whom the Auvergne takes its name), defeated the Romans. The site has a visitor centre and an interesting film in English.
Five miles east of Issoire, at the top of one of Puy-de-Dôme’s volcanic hills, Usson fully justifies its description as one of the most striking villages in France. Its romantic ruined castle is where Marguerite de Valois was imprisoned for almost twenty years in the sixteenth century, for betraying her husband, the future Henry IV. Not that Protestant Henry was loyal to his beliefs: he became a Catholic to undo his opponents, famously saying that “Paris is worth a Mass”.
Puy de Dome
Chaine des Puys
© Danyel Massacrier