Out and About in France: Auvergne

16 Feb

Another absurdly overdue post. This time I’ll take you back to my brief journey last May to heaven, or, as it is more commonly known, Auvergne.

Auvergne is a region in south-central France that has captured my imagination for quite some time. It is home to the Massif Central, a mountainous region shaped by dormant volcanoes. It is one of the least densely populated areas of the country (and in all of Europe) and has a plethora of tranquil nooks and crannies free of any tourists. There is a mystical allure to the place which, along with some photographs of its incredibly beautiful landscapes, compelled me to visit Auvergne at the end of my semester in France.

It began with a train journey from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand, the largest city and central hub of Auvergne. As the train reached the outskirts of the city, my attention was drawn to the towering cathedral in the city centre. Built of black volcanic rock, the rather ominous-looking Gothic spires are hard to miss. Like the Strasbourg Cathedral, I was fascinated by its massive size and stark contrast to the surrounding buildings.

From Clermont-Ferrand, I took a train that winded its way up into the volcanic highlands to the west of the city. As the train sped through dense deciduous forest, I knew I wasn’t in Paris anymore — this was a truly “wild” part of France. Eventually, the forest began to gradually give way to beautiful rolling pastures, carpeted in colourful spring flowers. The sun was shining over this idyllic scene and I had my first indication that I had found paradise.

My destination in Auvergne was Le Mont-Dore, a small town known for its thermal spas and winter skiing. Being there in the “off season,” the first thing that struck me was how remarkably quiet and peaceful it was. This wasn’t the sort of place that foreign tourists flocked to — in fact, the few other tourists mulling about town seemed to be 60-something French couples. Most of the activity was on the pétanque field, where some schoolchildren were playing under their teachers’ supervision.

The other thing that struck me right away in Le Mont-Dore was the purity of the air — it seemed so fresh, so cool — the weather was absolutely perfect.

The town retains a lot of Belle Epoque architecture and everything seems immaculately clean. I think this contributes a good deal to its charm. A park full of bright pink azaleas lines the famous Dordogne River, whose headwaters are found in this mountainous region and which runs through town. My first stop in town was my hotel, which, like many buildings in provincial French towns, was inexplicably closed in the middle of the afternoon. However, I called the hotel and the proprietor directed me to the back entrance, where I climbed a spiral staircase up to my room.

The room was unlocked, and I soon realised that I had no key and no way to lock the door when I left. What kind of hotel was this? Well, probably a hotel in a place where crime is practically unheard of. I wasn’t particularly concerned about someone stealing my clothes or anything, so I just went with it. It actually felt kind of liberating.

I set about exploring the small centre of Le Mont-Dore. Several closed ski shops. A handful of nice restaurants, which, as I later discovered, close much earlier than their big city counterparts (this also seems to be a truism of small French towns). The requsitie boulangerie and boucherie (with all kinds of Auvergnat specialties). I headed to the small grocery store near the marketplace for my lunch. Pretty much every item was cheaper than in Paris, especially the bottled water.

36 CENTS for a bottled water. That’s the cheapest price I’ve seen anywhere. This would make sense for the spring water that comes directly from Auvergne (Volvic), but the prices were universally low for all brands. Maybe Evian just wants you to think that their water comes from the Alps, when they’re secretly getting it in Auvergne.

My next stop in town was the tourist information office, where I inquired about hiking maps. The only one they had was a massive 3′ x 4′ map covering a huge portion of the area, but I dished out the 9 Euros for it (I only had to use a minuscule fraction of the map, but I figured it was better than getting lost). By this point, it was already late afternoon and I didn’t want to go on a major hike, so I set my sights on a couple of waterfalls not far from town.

A short jaunt along some quaint, winding streets brought me to the outskirts of town. I had to stop for a few minutes to photograph a knoll covered in a perfect springtime array of bright yellow, white, blue, and pink wildflowers. As I continued heading away from town, I was delighted to find the hiking trails well-signed and consistent with the map I had bought. My trail entered into a dense mixed forest of lush greenery, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the previous summer in New Hampshire.

Although the walk wasn’t terribly strenuous, there was at least one major hazard: black slugs. The trail was literally covered with these slimy creatures at points. They were probably three or four inches long, to boot. Yuck.

I proceeded on to discover the Cascade de Queureuilh and the Cascade du Rossignol (pictured above). Although I came across a handful of fellow afternoon walkers, for the most part I was on my own in what felt like a mystical ‘fairy tale’ forest. I know, that sounds wicked corny. Perhaps ‘Zeldaesque’ would be more apropos.

After a very enjoyable walk, I returned to town to settle in for the night. It was at this time that I realised how early all the restaurants had closed. I did manage to find a nice little pizzeria that was still open, so I ordered a pizza to bring back to my hotel room. The woman working at the pizzeria was remarkably friendly (even offering me some magazines to read as I waited), and I found this to hold true for my entire experience in Auvergne — the people were by far the friendliest I’ve ever encountered in France, and probably all of Europe for that matter. Just another reason to love the place.

The next morning, I got up early to embark on my major hike of the trip. My target was the Puy de Sancy, the tallest mountain in the Massif Central. Well, to be fair, I wasn’t planning to hike the mountain itself — I decided to take the ski lift to the summit, and then hike along the Massif du Sancy, descending and ascending some of the neighbouring peaks. My journey began with a trip to the boulangerie, where I stocked up on some pains au chocolat for energy.

I followed the road south of town towards the Puy de Sancy, stopping at a seemingly deserted campground by a pond to eat my breakfast. Some ponies near the campground provided a picture-perfect scene with the Puy de Sancy in the background:

After another 2.5 miles following the Dordogne through this pastoral landscape, I reached the Mont-Dore ski station and hopped on the ski tram to the top of the mountain. On the ride up, the tram operator pointed out a chamois perched on a nearby cliff.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that mountaintops are climatically quite different places than low elevation valleys. But I wasn’t entirely prepared for the strength of the wind at the top of the Puy de Sancy. The gusts were easily in excess of 70mph, comparable only to wind speeds that I’ve experienced at the summit of Mt. Washington. Since the ski lift doesn’t bring you all the way to the summit, I had to trudge my way to the top whilst fighting against the wind, which really wanted to blow me off the mountain.

After my struggle, I was a bit humbled to see the summit crowded by a large group of white-haired retirees. These fit 60-year-olds were apparently on a lunch break during a rather intense hiking trip. I needed a breather, so I took in the expansive views across the Auvergne landscape.

I followed the hiking group during the slightly treacherous descent of one of the mountain’s rocky slopes, but then diverged from the crowds and headed northward along the Monts Dore range, climbing up and down several summits. The wind died down a bit, and although there were still patches of snow on some of the slopes, temperatures were probably in the high 50s or low 60s and it wasn’t bad at all with the sun shining. The only major challenge came when the trail was hugging a fairly steep slope, but was unfortunately covered by a patch of ice and mud. I had to carefully tread across the couple of metres of ice at the risk of rolling down the mountain, but I made it.

At one point, I noticed a man with binoculars gazing intently at something on a nearby cliff. He called out to me and said that there was a chamois with a pair of baby chamois, then gave me his binoculars to have a look. I’m not quite sure if I ever spotted them (I did notice a couple of brown smudges that might be mountain goats), but I kept trying to see something without luck and didn’t want to hog his binoculars for too long. So I thanked him and gave them back. Just another example of Auvergnat courtesy.

The scenery at every turn was absolutely breathtaking. The hiking reminded me a bit of the Lake District in England, where you have an uninterrupted view across expansive grasslands. There is a very open, exciting, and epic feel to these landscapes — very Lord of the Rings, if you will. I had bought a baguette sandwich for lunch, so I sat down in the grass and ate while my eyes feasted on the beautiful scenery all around me.

Eventually, I began to descend along a trail that would lead me right back to town. First, the trail passed by the postcard-perfect Grande Cascade (pictured below), a stunning waterfall with a small rainbow effect that made for an amazing photograph. The mist from the falls were refreshing at this point of the hike, especially since it was getting warmer in the lower elevations. From the cascade, I entered into thick forest and began the steep descent into town. I felt bad for the people who were doing the hike in the opposite direction — a couple of 50-somethings stopped me and asked how much longer it was to the waterfall. I encouraged them by saying it was well worth the hike.

In all, I think I spent about 8 hours hiking, but it was extremely enjoyable. I even entertained the idea of doing another shorter hike that evening, but I decided to take it easy and watch some TV in my hotel room. I stumbled upon a French equivalent of The Amazing Race, which was just the kind of mindless entertainment I needed.

The next morning was my last day in Le Mont-Dore. I had to leave in the afternoon, so I decided to spend the morning on a moderately easy hike towards the Puy de la Tache, at the northern end of the Monts Dore range. I retraced my steps along the woodsy trail towards the two waterfalls, continuing on through some more cool pine forest and eventually reaching some breathtaking farmland. A shepherd dog even ran up to me to say hello.

Since my backpack had all my clothes in it, I had left it with the hotel staff. This meant that I was carrying my camera, my map, my lunch, and two water bottles in the small plastic bag I got at the grocery store. It wasn’t long before I realised that the bag wasn’t very sturdy — with every step it seemed to stretch a little more, gradually opening up a hole for my water bottles to fall through if angled the wrong way. I was starting to get a little concerned, since it would not be practical to carry all that stuff in my hands.

Although my original plan was to summit the Puy de la Tache, I wanted to play it safe so I wouldn’t miss my bus back to Clermont-Ferrand. So I settled for a very brief ascent just to give myself a decent view of the valley. Heading back, my little plastic bag was reaching a critical state — miraculously, it seemed to hold out right until I got to town, when it virtually disintegrated. Close call.

I enjoyed my time in Auvergne immensely. The landscape was a wonder to discover and the climate was absolutely perfect. The sunny, breezy weather held out for all three days I was there. On the ride back to Clermont-Ferrand, I got a glimpse of even more of the region’s fascinating and breathtaking scenery, including a number of the distinctly volcanic peaks (particularly the epic Puy de Dome). If I do get a chance to return to France as a teaching assistant in September, I’d be more than happy to wind up somewhere in Auvergne.

For more photos of my trip to Auvergne, click here.

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3 Responses to “Out and About in France: Auvergne”

  1. Shane 16 February 2010 at 17:59 #

    Looks beautiful. Yet another place to add my list of places to visit in France. Been lucky enough to see paris, the Loire Valley and Provence.

  2. squamloon 14 March 2010 at 06:47 #

    Wonderful. I just read the whole post aloud to Pam… who knows, Auvergne may be our next trip!

  3. Anne-Claire 28 June 2010 at 00:50 #

    Hi,
    I was searching stuff about the differences between the west coast and the east coast, and I found your post about CA vs N.E. – very interesting!
    But I’m very amazed by this post about Auvergne! The pictures are beautiful too. I got convinced a little bit more to this unknown part of my country 🙂 I’ll read more your other posts about France later I think.
    Hope you’ll have the chance to come to France as a T.A.!
    Anne-Claire

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