Some years ago I was driving through the Auvergne on the A75 autoroute and the skyline of extinct volcanoes intrigued me – one can’t help imagining what that horizon looked like when they were active. This September, we finally got round to a short but serious visit. Despite almost continuous torrential rain and batting windscreen wipers, the experience was unforgettable – rolling green countryside, hedgerow, cattle and sheep cowering in the downpour, austere hilltop villages, viaducts, the omnipresence of dark volcanic rock, and of course 200 volcanoes, the last of which erupted some 6,000 years ago. Not to mention the faded glory of Belle Epoque spa towns, of which there are ten, with an elderly clientele – their “cure” paid for by social security – and many of their 19th-century hotels now transformed into flats. Our visit was also gastronomic, with a particular focus on the famous Auvergne cheeses – Cantal, Saint-Nectaire, Bleu d’Auvergne, Forme d’Ambert – and simple peasant dishes involving cheese, such as the extremely filling Truffade, a mash-up of potatoes and Salers cheese, served with salad and jambon du pays.
Surprisingly, the Auvergne does not attract as many tourists as other less spectacular regions in France, perhaps being somewhat off the beaten track, and property prices there are consequently low. For us, and for many visitors, the main attraction was the magnificent Parc des Volcans d’Auvergne which is the biggest regional natural park in France, dominated by the Chaîne des Puys – a “puys” being a rounded hilltop formed from unerupted hardened magma.
We began our trip at Saint-Gervais d’Auvergne, with a night at the Castel Hôtel 1904 which boasts one of the finest restaurants in the region, a reputation which we can now thoroughly endorse. In the village, we met Catherine Decultot, a professional milliner with her Aladdin’s cave of hats and bonnets. She speaks excellent English, having worked as a wig maker in London for Harrods in the 1980s, and with long experience of living in Martinique and confecting bright carnival-style headgear for Caribbean women, which she still does from her remote French hideaway.
One of the first natural sites we took in was the Méandres de Queuille, a breathtaking loop in the Sioule river which one observes from a rocky promontory 200 metres above (see main photo). The valley is composed of gorges and is almost inaccessible. It is like looking down from a plane on an isolated stretch of the Amazon. We later met a man who had been there, with his canoe, a tent, and fishing rod, and he confirmed that there was no human habitation, only nature in the wild.
From there we drove to the Puy de Dôme, the highest volcano in this range. There is a rack railway and a visitor centre at the foot of the Puys, but the rain and fog were so dense that we were advised not to waste our money on the upward trip. However, we waited an hour, the fog lifted, and we ended up taking the train to the summit which is dominated by a huge Stalinesque weather station and off-limits air force control base overlooking the foundations of a 2nd-century AD Gallo-Roman Temple of Mercury, itself – as was recently discovered – built on the site of an older Celtic temple. Our sympathies went out to the donkeys and mules who had to haul the big stones up the mountainside to build this folly to a defunct deity. The view from the Puy de Dôme is one of the major attractions here, taking in nearly all of the lesser volcanoes in the range.
We spent the night in the old Spa Town of Royat at the wonderful 19th-century Royal Saint Mart hotel which exudes the charm of bygone days, and also has an excellent restaurant where the waiters wear white tunics with gold buttons, as if on an ocean liner. The next day we drove back into the volcano region and visited Lac Chambon – like so many of the circular lakes in this region, the crater of an extinct volcano. A good brisk walk round the lake, then a trip up to the pretty nearby village of Murol for a much-advertised vide grenier, that turned out to host only five stalls, the rain having scared off most potential punters. An elderly man with a W. C. Fields nose and more than a whiff of pinard on his breath accosted us and tried to drag us to his house, where he said he wanted to give us a painting for free, but we shook him off, insisting that we had to hit the road – leaving some “What might have happened?” and « What painting? » question marks hovering over this chance encounter.
Thence we drove to a smaller volcanic lake further north before finding the Hôtel de Paris in Châtel-Guyon, another long-forgotten spa town, and in the evening headed up to the Croix en Fer auberge, a charming chalet atop a hill that overlooks the town of Riom – a sprawling metropolis of nearly 20,000 souls, of which we’d never previously heard. The auberge restaurant, with its jazz pianist, was a warm welcome on a cold night, and reminded me of the legendary Café Hafa outside Tangiers, mostly because of its towering position.
The next day, a visit to Vichy. When I was in my early teens, I read and loved Flann O’Brien’s books, in one of which the narrator’s favourite tipple – after the “pint of porter is your only man” – was “Vichy water”. The name appealed to me then, as did the absurd luxury of paying good money for water, and I went ahead bought a bottle of genuine Vichy mineral water from the local off-license – this, I add, at a time when virtually no one in the UK drank mineral water. The style choice was fateful and thenceforth I made sure I always had a bottle in my bedroom, an early manifestation of a pretentious addiction to all things French, that has long since apotheosised into a consummate and not uncomfortable Nemesis. So it was a personal and vaguely epiphanic moment discovering the Vichy spa in its splendid Victorian pavilion and drinking that sparkling, mineral-rich water.
In the nearby park, beside the river, we got talking to an elderly lady called Laure who was feeding the black swans. The conversation lasted an hour, during which we learned everything about her in exhaustive detail – her Catholic faith, her hatred of racism, her contempt for Vichy and its townsfolk, her halcyon days living in Morocco, her ex-husband who married six times and regretted every marriage, her conspicuous openness to others – and closed with a promise to stay in touch. The prolixity of the lonely. As we parted company, we stepped tentatively over the many donkey hind legs that littered our path…
There is, of course, a darker historical side to the town of Vichy, but the local tourist office seems to have erased this effectively from all documentation if not from the national memory.
Thus ended our little jaunt to the Auvergne.
I strongly recommend visiting this relatively unfrequented corner of France. Listen to Joseph Canteloube’s magnificent Chants d’Auvergne to put yourself in the mood, with a glass or two of Saint-Pourcain white wine and a slice of Cantal. We’re planning to return in the winter, to see those volcanoes capped with snow.