The high plateau terrain of much of Haute-Loire makes good biking country while the volcanic peaks of Velay and gorges certainly offer a challenge. Many hiking trails in Haute-Loire are also suitable for mountain biking such as the GR70 Stevenson’s trail.
Explore the Livradois-Forez Regional Natural Park along a 232km trail in 23 waymarked sections which can be divided into shorter rides. There’s a VTT centre in the park at Vernet-la-Varenne across the border in Puy-de-Dome. Le Pertius north of Le Puy is another good starting point. Tourist Offices are a good source of information. Brioude office stocks TopoGuides VTT trails, and Brivadois VTT Club, rue Croix Saint-Isidore, tel: (00 33) 4 71 50 10 07 has put together trail information. Tence Tourist Office has details of trails of between 7 and 28km around the Lavette Dam where you can find local bike hire. There are also 39 circuits around the Haut-Lignon area from 9 to 44km. The French Federation of Cycle Touring has a useful website with links to local clubs www.ffct.org
If you intend visiting the Auvergne, do pack some walking boots. The countryside is renowned for its dramatic volcanic peaks, deep river gorges and lush countryside sprinkled with lakes and forests and this remote and ruggedly beautiful place is patterned with hiking trails.
Haute-Loire has some of the best, including several historic long-distance walking routes (GRs) waymarked with red and white stripes. Via Podiensis (GR65), the most famous of 4 classic medieval pilgrim routes to the shrine of Saint-Jacques in Spain, begins at Le Puy-en-Velay and is flagged by the pilgrims’ talisman cockleshell. Each year, up to 10,000 modern pilgrims meet at Le Puy’s Cathedral de Notre-Dame to sign-up their intention to repeat at least part of the 1,600km journey to Santiago de Compostela first walked by Bishop Godescale in the tenth century.
Follow in a famous Scottish writer’s footsteps along the classic ‘Stevenson Trail’ - the GR70 - beginning at Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille. (See Culture and Events for more). Other long distance trails crossing Haute-Loire are the GR4, linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and GR3 Loire Valley Trail - one of France’s oldest footpaths.
Shorter PR routes, such as the themed mill and mine circuits around the Ally Plateau, are flagged in yellow.
Get maps from the French Walking Federation (FFRP) and find more in their TopoGuides, usually stocked in local Tourist Offices. There are lots of short unmarked trails and L’Association Rando du Haut-Lignon offers free accompanied walks. At least 30 circular walks traverse the amazing Allier Gorges with distances ranging from 3 to 15km. Start from places like Langeac, Lavoute-Chilhac and Prades.
If you’re visiting Le Puy, make time to climb beech-clad Mont Bar (1037m). The crater of this 800,000 year old dormant volcano forms a lost world of plants and flowers that have been around since the ice-age. Such a magical peat-bog habitat is rightly a conservation area. It’s also popular with mosquitoes in warm damp weather.
The 700 hectare lake at Lavalette was formed by damming the River Lignon. A sailing school at Lapte is open April to November and offers courses in dingy sailing and windsurfing as well as equipment rental and sailing trips. There are regattas too. Find more information at Lapte town hall. The lovely 30 hectare crater lake of St-Front is the highest lake in Haute-Loire and only 7m deep. It has a sailing school open May to September.
The clean lake and river waters of Haute-Loire are a fisherman’s dream. Proof of purity can be found in the shoals of grayling (‘ombre des rivieres’) which are highly sensitive to pollution and found in rivers like the Upper Allier and Loire. The Upper Loire is a great spot for trout and grayling. Downstream from Goudet, trout and grayling are still present but also larger fish like barbel and chub. River levels vary due to the Loire’s hydro-electric system. The bridge at Solignace-sur-Loire marks the boundary of the category 1 section of the Upper Loire and all types of fishing techniques can be used.
The Loire’s tributary, the Lignon, also has category 1 stretches and fario and rainbow trout can be fished as well as goujons and vairons. Le Chambon-sur-Lignon hosts a stage of the French National Fly Fishing Competition for grayling and Atlantic salmon. A variety of fishing competitions will be held on the Lavalette reservoir at Tence in 2011 on 22 May and 11 June with 2 family days on 16 July and 27 August. Fish for fario, rainbow and lake trout on Lac du Bouchet, where permits cost between 5 and 8 Euros.
Haute-Loire’s symbol is the Atlantic salmon but sadly the Upper Allier, one of France’s premier salmon fishing venues, is in the midst of a 5 year ban due to dangerous depletion of stocks. The National Wild Salmon Conservatory based on the river is the largest re-stocking farm in Europe and hopes to turn conditions around. Check the National Fishing Federation departmental website for an up-date plus where to fish, open dates, fishing for tourists and more. www.unpf.fr/43 (in French).
Brioude ‘s Maison du Saumon et de la Riviere aquarium-museum shows a film of the Atlantic salmon’s amazing 800km migration to the spawning grounds of the Upper Allier. Open all year except January with guided tours July and August. Tel: (00 33) 4 71 74 91 43.
The fast flowing young rivers of the Allier, Lignon and Loire,swollen by spring tides, are great venues for canoeing and kayaking. The wild waters of the Allier Gorges above Prades in particular are white water heaven. The main season runs from April to October. There are centres along the 90km of navigable waters of the Allier at Auzon, Langeac, Lavoute-Chilhac, Monistrol d’Allier, Prades and St-Privat d’Allier. Most offer a variety of activities from canoeing to hydro-speeding with beginners courses and equipment hire available. Club Omnisports Brivadois Danoe-kayak, based at Pont de Lamothe, Brioude, is open all year and runs a 2-star canoeing school.The Lignon is another great canoeing and kayaking river.
Thermal currents between the mountains of Haute-Loire’s rocky landscape are great for hang-gliding and paragliding (parapentre). Ancient volcanic cones make ideal take-off points.
You can go paragliding, skydiving and bungee jumping with the Para-Club of Le Puy at Loudes airfield, Chaspuzac, Yssingeaux, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and Tence. There’s also paragliding at Milan Vol in Vorey-sur-Arzon.
The peace and leisurely pace of ballooning holds a fascination for many people and although flights are not cheap, the panorama of Haute-Loire from the air is a wonderful sight. Montgolfiere offers year-round flights (weather permitting) from the fortress of Polignac, north west of Le Puy. Booking essential. www.montgolfiere-en-velay.fr
Aero-club de Beaumont-Chomeget-Brioude in Brioude offers first time glider flights and circuits over the Allier Valley, lakes and vocanoes www.brioudeclub.free.fr