Auvergne: Romanesque, Medieval, vernacular and spectacular
8 days from & to Vichy
How to get there:
From North America: Fly to Paris, then on by air to Vichy, or take the train.
From the UK: Cross to Cherbourg and spend the night at Le Mesnil de Créances; Full but rewarding day's drive via Le Mans and Bourges to Vichy
Riom to Clermont-Ferrand
Night in Clermont
RIOM, once the administrative and still the judicial centre of Auvergne, was the home of the Duc de Berry in the 14th century, and still retains a splendid medieval centre.
CLERMONT-FERRAND, a modern industrial city surrounded by volcanic hills, was the starting-point of the first Crusade in 1095. It was formed by the union of two towns Clermont and Montferrand. The ancient centres of these still exist. Montferrand is a medieval Bastide, laid out to a geometrical plan in the 13th century, with many of its houses and churches still unchanged. Clermont houses two jewels; the Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-du-Port, and the superb gothic cathedral built of black volcanic lava.
This combination of medieval town centre with romanesque churches will be one of the recurring themes of our tour.
Morning exploring Clermont-Ferrand
Afternoon to Royat, the Puy de Dôme, Volvic and Tournoël.
ROYAT, in the suburbs of Clermont, one of many spas in the region, has a fortified romanesque church more typical of the South than of Auvergne. The PUY DE DÔME, once the site of a Roman temple, is a perfectly conical volcanic mountain, 1465 metres high, highest and most central of a whole chain of extinct volcanoes. The view from here takes in one-eighth of all France.
VOLVIC is a famous spa, its waters on sale even in English supermarkets, and also the site of a lava quarry; and
TOURNOËL is the first castle of our tour, and the one whose keep is the most solid It dates mostly from the 14th century. From here, too, the view is exceptional, especially at sunset.
Parc Régional des Volcans:
Gergovie, Issoire, Murol, Besse, Saint-Nectaire, Lac Chambon, Orcival
Night in Clermont
GERGOVIA was the site of one of the few battles lost by Julius Cæsar, against the Arverni led by Vercingetorix, whose statue in Clermont-Ferrand is by Bartholdi, sculptor of the statue of Liberty. ISSOIRE, SAINT-NECTAIRE and ORCIVAL are successively smaller villages, each with an astonishing romanesque church built up in rounded masses like a small mountain of dressed stone. The castle at MUROL, near the crater lake of Chambon, is one of the glories of Auvergne. The buildings of its three concentric walls become higher and more ornate as the centre is approached. BESSE is an entirely medieval hill town, chaotically unplanned within its confining walls, completely constructed from the black lava of the region.
Billom, Brioude, La Chaise Dieu, Le Puy,
Langeac, Saint-Flour, Garabit
Night in Garabit
A day of contrasts. BILLOM is a well-preserved medieval town whose gothic church has a fine romanesque crypt. BRIOUDE has the biggest of Auvergne's many vast romanesque churches. The Abbey at LA CHAISE-DIEU, by contrast, is Gothic of the Southern type, its choir and sacristy lined with splendid 16th-century tapestries.
LE PUY, perhaps the most touristy of all our calls, has a notable cathedral and two volcanic pinnacles crowned, one with a statue, the other with a chapel. From there we go by picturesque mountain roads to Langeac towards Saint-Flour, turning off just East of the latter town to our next hotel at GARABIT.
Note: LE PUY is included here simply because lots of people have heard of it. It is not relevant to any of the themes of the tour, and I personally could do without it. The road from Brioude to Saint-Flour via Massiac is far less daunting. Prettier, too.
La Margeride, Gorges de la Truyère,
Château dAlleuze, Chaudes-Aigues
Night in Garabit
The Hôtel du Viaduc at Garabit occupies one of the finest sites in France. Whats more, its modern, has two stars, is a Logis de France, offers everybody a private shower and serves a 50-franc menu which starts with an hors-d'oeuvre trolley from which I could live for the rest of my life. It overhangs the Lac de Grandval, which is set in a gorge crossed by the spectacular railway viaduct designed in steel by Gustave Eiffel.
LA MARGERIDE is an upland plateau of gentle forested hillsides and snug valleys, drenched in sunlight and the sound of crickets, where the vernacular architecture of the Auvergne can be seen at its purest and least spoilt. The Écomusée de la Margeride is a collection of such houses preserved as they were at the beginning of the century; each in a different village, there is a peasant farm, a smithy, a village school, a manor house and a tower. The latter was the wartime headquarters of the Resistance in the area, and has a small museum on the subject.
The GORGES DE LA TRUYÈRE, now filled with the lake produced by the Barrage de Grandval, can be visited by road or by boat. In a bend of the gorge stands on a peninsula the Château dAlleuze, a fairytale ruined keep with four round towers. CHAUDES-AIGUES is a little Roman-medieval town with this peculiarity, that most of its houses are heated by the water from a thermal spring, which has been coming out of the ground at a temperature of 82° for the last 2,000 years.
Saint-Flour, Murat, Le Lioran, Gorges de lAlagnon,
Night in Aurillac
SAINT-FLOUR is the very type of the hill-city, set on a rocky peninsula 100 metres above its river - like Durham, but much higher. The massive, simple gothic cathedral is atypical of the region, having a wide nave and no transepts after the Northern pattern. The Museum of High Auvergne is housed in the old Bishops Palace.
The road from here to Aurillac follows the river Alagnon to its source on the Col du Lioran, between the Puy Mary and the Plomb du Cantal, the two of the highest peaks of the Haute Auvergne. The pass is crossed by a high road or through a tunnel, depending on the driver's nerve. On the other side, a more gentle descent through Vic-sur-Cère completes one of the most beautiful stretches of road in all France.
AURILLAC (free afternoon and evening) is a modern town with an ancient nucleus and a romanesque central square. There are several museums, including one on the subject of volcanoes.
Château dAnjony, Mauriac, Bort-les-Orgues,Tauves
Night in Clermont-Ferrand
ANJONY is another fairytale castle with four pepperpot towers 40 metres high, where the forest meets the valley of the Doire. MAURIAC has the most famous Romanesque church in High Auvergne, mostly of the 12th century, and a Gallo-Roman museum. At BORT we reach the valley of the Dordogne, here dammed into a spectacular lake. TAUVES shows us our last fortified romanesque church, and from here to Clermont we see another aspect of the Parc Régional des Volcans, passing close to La Bourboule, Le Mont-Dore and the Puy de Sancy, highest point of the Massif Central.
Châteaugay, Vichy and departure
Châteaugay, our last castle, has the best-preserved keep of the tour, and a view which takes in Clermont and the chain of volcanoes round it. VICHY is really just outside Auvergne, a taste of a different life, an elegant spa in a flat countryside; perhaps a useful bridge between our humdrum world and the wild but splendid country where we have spent the past week.