Auvergne – In search of France’s rural past

To the ends of the earth with Nick Smith

Puy de Dôme in the Chaîne des Puys region of Massif Central soars to 1,465 metres – a lot higher than Wales’s highest mountain Snowdon

Tucked away in the heart of the Massif Central, Auvergne is one of France’s great unspoilt regions, where life rolls on as it has done for centuries in the shadows of its dramatic volcanic landscape. Bay’s Nick Smith borrows a 1964 Mustang and explores retro-style…

If you’re not sure where Auvergne is you’re not alone. So, if you’ll bear with me for a moment: open your atlas to France. Draw an imaginary line down from Le Havre on the English Channel to Montpellier on the Mediterranean Sea. Now draw another from Zurich in the Alps to La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic seaboard. At the intersection of these two lines is where you’ll find the Auvergne region. It is so close to the middle of the country that it’s where cartographers usually place the word ‘France’ on the map. Which is appropriate when you think about it, because what with all those fields of sunflowers, avenues of poplars and patchwork vineyards, this is about as close to our clichéd romantic view of sleepy, rural France as you can get. Throw in a beaker of rustic plonk, a slab of soft cheese and a decent sunset and you start to see why all those 19th century artists flocked here for inspiration.

Top: For those that don’t like a sharp uphill hike, there’s a small cog-wheel train that gently winds its way up the volcano’s side Below: Vantage point at the summit of Puy de Dôme, looking north over France’s appropriately named Massif Central

If you’re going to be fussy about it, you could object to Auvergne’s lack of coastline. But what this landlock-ed region lacks in limestone cliffs and bleached white sands is more than compensated for by some of the most stunning mountains you’ll see this close to home. To be precise, they are dormant volcanoes in the form of green, pleasant and enormous rolling hills as fine as you could hope for. But to see Auvergne properly (don’t be tempted to say ‘the Auvergne’ – it’s as grating on the ear to the French as it is for Swansea folk when people say ‘the Gower’), you need to get up high. And so, slinging my cameras over my shoulder I boarded a cog-wheel train that wound its leisurely way to the top of the Puy de Dôme, which my guidebook tells me with sonorous pedantry is “one of the youngest volcanoes in the Chaîne des Puys region of Massif Central in central France.” The dome soars to 1,465 metres, which is a lot taller than Wales’s highest mountain Snowdon, or for that matter the UK’s, Ben Nevis in Scotland (which is 1,345m). The train is fitted with vast picture windows so that you can enjoy by rail in a matter of minutes a panoramic journey that once took mule-drivers working in the local silver and lead mines a back-breaking day to complete.

Another view of Auvergne in the Massif Central, looking down an unspoiled valley where you’ll find the occasional auberge serving the local Saint-Pourçain wine

Cycling down from the summit of Puy de Dôme is great fun. Some take it more seriously than others…

From the summit, there’s a breath-taking view of the Chaîne des Puys stretching north for miles, and since I arrived there on a clear day, the air was filled with streams of paragliders that had made their way up the slopes by train and were peacefully wafting their way to the pastoral valleys below on the gentle mountain zephyrs. Once you’ve taken in the view, you can descend by train if you like (in the same way that you can return down the snowy Alps on the ski-lift if you really want to). But it’s much better to hire a mountain bike and cycle through the valleys the way nature intended, especially as there are plenty of auberges that will serve you a chilled glass of the local Saint-Pourçain, which I found so refreshing I didn’t trouble the waitress by asking her to take away the bottle. What looks like a straightforward Chardonnay is given a volcanic kick by the inclusion of the Sacy grape, the result of which is a wine as crisp as a fresh white linen shirt, and what I was assured by the maître d’hôtel was the true taste of Auvergne. Saint-Pourçain, would become a gastronomic fixture of my tour around the region for the next few days. It’s a shame it’s so hard to get back home.

The Temple of Mercury as it was a century ago (and still is)

Not much has changed here since the Romans set up camp two millennia ago during their colossal road building programme that threw its network of straight lines across Europa, as well as constructing the Temple of Mercury right at the top of the Puy de Dôme. Apart from the roads and the temples, what have the Romans… (please don’t do thated.) Well, they bought in viniculture after realising that the inland climate and the volcanic soils were perfect for producing what would become known today as Saint-Pourçain. Maybe the wine had something to do with the Decline and Fall, but once the Romans had gone, followed by the Visigoths and the Franks, it all went as dormant as the volcanoes. Apart from some half-hearted industrialisation of the region’s biggest city, Clermont-Ferrand (from which I’d catch my flight home), nothing these days disturbs the quiet slumber of the sunny landscape. Wine here – and cheese (which I’ll come on to later) – is a way of life: a quiet existence in which not much seems to happen very quickly, if at all. I’ve got to say, it’s my kind of place.

This is why I’m here, reporting for one of those fashionable London magazines for rich people about how the local artisan produce is made. As I’m determined to do this is a manner befitting the country whose gift to the world is style itself, my first evening is spent at a wonderful 14th century chateau in Saint-Genès-du-Retz, a picturesque village that looks like it’s straight out of Gérard Depardieu’s blockbuster movie Jean de Florette that was once all the rage. The chateau is called Des Roses et Des Tours, and the first thing that strikes you on arrival are the two conical turrets (and yes, one does have a library with a suit of armour in it) and the sumptuous rose garden planted by the proprietors Christiane and Gérard Greffier. My hosts take me on a gastronomic voyage around the region in the comfort of their rustic dining room, a feast of flans and soups, the ingredients for which are grown in their kitchen garden. Monsieur throws a log on the fire and opens a bottle or two of Saint-Pourçain, while Madame arranges the food on a sturdy oak table. An endless stream of simple food and wine flows for what seems like hours. Right from the start it’s obvious that the only real challenge to confront the visitor to Des Roses et Des Tours will be the act of leaving.

Hopefully this looks like a century old wet plate still life, but in fact it’s just digital trickery

But leave I must, to visit all the places the Greffiers have added to my list. As the morning dawns with a thick fog, I pass the time taking some photographs in their rose garden in the style of some of the century-old ‘wet plate’ pictures they have hanging on their walls. I’m interrupted by the arrival of a red 1964 Ford Mustang cabriolet driven by the irrepressible Michel Treille, who owns the local vintage car rental company. Its only purpose, he tells me, is to drive his clients (such as me) around in a manner that will fill onlookers with envy – and I have to say I liked the cut of his jib. He tells me, with a certain amount of Gallic passion, that modern cars, with their satnavs and Bluetooth connectivity, have done as much to ruin the experience of motoring as the detested motorways (‘autoroutes’) that carve up the landscape. “All these things have taken the fun out of driving around France,” he explains. “If you want to see real Auvergne, you need to go down the backwaters that never get visited. And you’ve got to drive slowly: take your time and savour the unique qualities of the surroundings. People miss everything these days. There is so much more to France than the autoroutes.”

Top: If you’ve got to take a spin around Auvergne, you might as well do it in style… Below: The majestic 12th century abbey of Saint Austremoine and one of its stained- glass windows

Local delicacy – Bleu D’Auvergne is as delicious as it looks

As we weave along deserted single-track lanes through the autumnal landscape, now that the grapes have been harvested and the sunflowers are turning brown, you can’t help feeling that Monsieur Treille is right. His tour feels more like an adventure, where today’s process of driving becomes the old-fashioned art of motoring, where the pleasure is in the journey and not in reaching the destination. He takes me through ancient villages that are famous the world over, including Orcival and Charroux. But it is Issoire, with its majestic 12th century abbey of Saint Austremoine, that really sticks in the mind. Restored in the 19th century, it is widely considered to be the crown jewel of Auvergne’s baroque architecture. As Treille promised, there’s hardly a tourist in sight, and we start to feel that we have bucolic France all to ourselves. As the sun hits the Zenith, he pulls the Mustang up to his favourite lunch haunt, the Auberge de la Loue. Set in the heart of a mediaeval village festooned with wildflowers, time stands still here, and eating is a ritual rather than a meal. The highlight is a selection of local cheese, which is washed down with yet more Saint-Pourçain. Legend has it that the sharp, salty dairy product we think of today as ‘blue cheese’ was discovered by accident in Auvergne thousands of years ago as the result of some leftovers that were being stored in a nearby cave going mouldy. When I mention that I’ve heard this story in just about every Mediterranean country I’ve ever visited he backtracks a little, conceding it’s possible that someone other than a Frenchman may have discovered it too. But he’s resolute in his conviction that no-one, nowhere can beat his compatriots in the art of cheese-making. “I am a Frenchman,” he says, before adding, “and that means I understand cheese.”

Left: The ‘croix’ or cross at Chazelles Above: One of the cows responsible for making the milk that goes into Bleu d’Auvergne

To put his patriotism to the test we set off to the farm at Croix de Chazelles at the foot of the Sancy volcano (not to be confused with the Sacy grape), where the exquisite Bleu D’Auvergne that we have just eaten for lunch is made. The farm is run by three brothers who have devoted their lives to the family business of making cheese. Part of the fourth generation to produce Bleu D’Auvergne, one of the brothers Christophe tells me that what gives his cheese such a special flavour is the volcanic terroir that produces lush green grass, which is the secret ingredient. His cows are specially bred for the job of producing the milk that forms the basis of a process that has been perfected over time since the 19th century. As we amble around his farm, Christophe describes how everything that happens here is in some way linked to the local mountains. The Auvergnese, he tells me, have such a close relationship with their volcanoes that they have built the world’s first tourist attraction devoted to them.

The golden volcano art installation at Vulcana multi- media education centre, seen from inside it

Space age style and technology at Vulcana brings the volcanos to life

step of how volcanoes are formed as well as the destruction they wreak when they erupt. I have to say that when I hear the words ‘education centre’ my mind goes a bit blank in anticipation of a powerpoint snooze-fest, and so I was seriously impressed to be put into a simulator that not only took me to the centre of the earth, but threw me around, was extremely hot and smelled of sulphur. For those who prefer their volcanoes to be a little less exciting there is the chance to stand inside a golden conical art installation that is intended – as if you didn’t know already – to impress upon you just how big volcanoes are. As I step out of the education centre, I can see a red Mustang pulling away into the distance. With it departs a little of Auvergne’s magic, as the memory of the Roman remains, baroque architecture, Bleu D’Auvergne and Saint-Pourçain evaporates. I turn around to see that my beautiful classic car has been replaced by a boring grey people-shifter that will take me to the airport to return to Heathrow. Some places you just never want to leave.


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