The Volcanoes of
the Massif Central
Almost in the centre of France, straddling the départments of Puy-de-Dôme and Cantal is a wild landscape of extinct volcanoes contained within Le Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne.
Here there are strangely shaped mountains, deep crater lakes, green upland meadows, Romanesque churches, whimsical castles and quaint, dark stoned towns and villages. There are old spa towns and newly developed ski resorts, though these are less popular and fashionable than the celebrated resorts of the alps and Pyrenees as they do not receive such reliable snow. There is also some excellent walking and if you are lucky you may encounter better weather than is often the norm.
We spent some time here in September 1995 in weather which was declared by the local people to be "pas normal". Maybe the misty cloud, rain and cold temperatures that year were a bit abnormal for early autumn but this area is famous for its luscious green countryside and rich pastures these certainly don't indicate a dry climate.
Leaving Lyons and driving south towards a gîte in the Cantal we stopped first for a few days in Murol to explore the area of the Monts Dore. An imposing chateau, floodlit at night, towers over the town and, during the season, you can take a tour with a group of actors who give lively re-enactments of life in a mediaeval castle.
This is cheese country - St Nectaire, Blue d'Auvergne, Forme d'Ambert and huge rounds of Cantal - all made on the farm, oozing with flavour, and totally different products to the bland and pasteurised versions that are imported into Australia under the same names.
Instinctively then, exploration here started with a circular walk through the countryside, taking in St Nectaire and returning via the castle. Strangely, St Nectaire is the only town in the region where they don't make the St Nectaire, though its simple and beautifully proportioned Romanesque church is well worth a visit.
Around le Mont Dore
Le Mont Dore is a spa town sprawling along the banks of a babbling little stream which turns out to be the upper reaches of the Dordogne. From le Mont Dore you can walk, or take a cable car, up to the slopes of Puy de Sancy and then follow a variety of tracks around the mountains.
Nearby is the very deep and mysterious Lac Pavin which is circumnavigated by a walking track. You can follow the track all the way around while pondering the deeply mysterious legends about the lake that have been told over time.
It is hard to imagine that the benign countryside of the Auvergne was once a landscape of more than 100 active volcanoes. The huge upheavals of the earth that threw up the Alps and the Pyrenées weakened the granite plateau of the Massif Central. From these fissures and weak points molten material was able to burst through in the eruptions that created the volcanoes of the Chaîne des Dômes in the Clermont Ferrand area and those of the Monts Dore and the Cantal.
Afterwards, the ice ages gradually wore down the landscapes and many thousands of years of erosion by wind and water followed. Vulcanologists tell us that the peaks of the Cantal - Puy Mary, Puy Violent, Puy Griou and Plomb de Cantal - are in fact the remains of one huge volcano which was about 100 km around its base and over 3000m high before geological time and nature took their course.
The Gîte at Aris
Our gîte was in the hamlet of Aris, a few km up in the hills above the market town of Vic-sur-Cère which is 21 km from the much larger regional town of Aurillac. This was a comfortable small house which had fairly recently been split from a larger complex of farm buildings. It was fairly clear that the proprietor, who lived in Aurillac, had only recently acquired the gîte from the owners of the farm, perhaps as a hobby or business venture. She was a townswoman with a young family and didn't seem to have the shrewd savvy of the usual gîte owners. Despite the sale of the gîte, the farming continued all around us with the coming and going of tractors and long lines of cattle meandering along the road at milking time.
We were thrilled to discover that we had our very own vegie garden and orchard. The last pickings of a crop of beans and carrots and some herbs and parsley were ours and the apple and pear trees in the orchard still had some fruit.
We had the choice of two villages for shopping. Polminac was closest for meat, bread and patisseries and basic groceries; Vic-sur-Cère was a little further down the valley with proper supermarkets and a market on Tuesdays with the usual mobile charcuteries, boucheries, fromageries, truiteries and a good selection of local fresh produce. It also had a range of proper shops which was to prove useful in the quest for warmer clothes to ward off the "pas normal" weather.
The major towns and villages run along the valley of the Cère and on either side are steep hillsides dotted with farms, hamlets like Aris and, occasionally, a castle. The valley sides become progressively steeper as you climb towards the resorts of le Lioran and Super-Lioran which nestle in the valley between the volcanic peaks of Puy Griou and Plomb de Cantal.
Walking and Exploring
There was a wide choice of local walks which climbed up into the rocky hills and opened up to views up and down the valley. We did these while waiting for some clear days to take on the higher peaks. The serious walking was from le Lioran and Super Lioran where, after a few aborted attempts our patience was rewarded and we struck a glorious day, albeit very wind, but with cloudless clear skies rather than the rain, mist and complete lack of visibility.
After climbing gradually for a couple of hours we reached the uplands, studded with peaks with enticing names like Bek d'Aigle, Téton de Venus and Puy Griou and with wonderful views that took in all the mountains of the Cantal. After all the climbing we picnicked in a sheltered spot before an easy downhill walk which finished along the groomed ski runs of le Lioran.
Across the valley is the big lumpy Plomb de Cantal which, at 1855m, is the highest peak in the Cantal. You can take a télépherique to the summit and then walk out along the GR 4 or the myriad of other trails up there. This is really exposed country and is only worth doing in good weather.
Running roughly north east from Aurillac is the spectacular road called the Route des Crétes which takes you up to the Pas de Peyrol and Puy Mary. Puy Mary and the quaintly named Puy de Peyre Arse are the most northern of the peaks that remained after the eruption of the ancient volcano. Here we took the track up to the summit of Puy Mary where there is a vast panorama and a table d'orientation which helps put the whole area into perspective.
The climb up to the summit was in dense cloud but, as we continued on a track running along the high crests, the cloud broke up to consecutively reveal wonderful views and then bank up in huge threatening swirls around the peaks. This was all pretty dramatic and we took it all in for hours until retreat from rather more serious clouds seemed wise and we made it back to a cheery bar at the pass just as a true deluge began.
Round trips by car in this area can take in the walled mediaeval town of Salers, famous for its cattle - big red beasties with rough hairy coats and huge lyre-shaped horns - and its annual cattle fair. Around here they are used to Australians as many cattlemen come to the fair every year and compare notes with the original breeders of these beasts that have now become quite popular in Australia.
Other trips to the south can take in the Truyere gorges and to the west can pick up the Allier and much of the route of the GR 65 as far as Le Puy. Vic-sur-Cère is very well placed for a variety of experiences, so if "pas normal" weather strikes there is still lots to do.
Place Names
The curious place names that occur time and time again eventually have you searching for their meaning. Some explanations are
Puy, Dôme, or even Puy de Dôme - a volcano or volcanic peak.
Super, as in Super-Lioran, Super-Besse - signifies that there is one town without the prefix, eg le Lioran, and another higher up the mountains which gets the Super tag.
Téton, as in Téton de Venus - a familiar word for a breast which is usually ascribed to mountain peaks which jut up in the shape of a breast. Sometimes they even have nipples.
Chaos - a jumble of rocks
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Looking towards the extinct volcanoes
Murol Castle
The spa town of le Mont Dore
The Gîte at Aris
Farmland near Aris
Walking round le Lioran
View of Puy Griou
Walking up Puy Mary
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