Puy-de-Dome’s regional capital of Clermont-Ferrand is one of France’s oldest cities. Chronicled by the Greeks before AD24, Clermont has gone under a variety of names. It became one of the largest cities in Roman Gaul and later, following a period of pillage by Visigoths and Vikings, it emerged as an Episcopal city and starting point of the First Crusade. Finally designated as a royal city, Clermont was joined by edict in 1630 to neighbouring Montferrand.
Industrialisation defined twentieth century Clermont-Ferrand in the shape of the Michelin tyre company, which at one time employed 30,000 workers. Manufacturing has now moved abroad and today’s Clermont-Ferrand is a lively place sporting a university, boutiques, markets, and museums of archaeology, natural history and textiles. A modern tram service connects the city north and south. Streets are pedestrianised around place de Jaude where you can relax in street cafes and chic restaurants in the shadow of a dramatic equestrian statue of one of the city’s most famous sons, Vercingetorix, sculpted by Frederic Bartholdi who also created the Statue of Liberty.
Visit the Gergovia plateau outside the town where the Celtic chief led a victory against Julius Ceasar’s Roman invasion. Explore Clermont-Ferrand’s old quarter which takes its colour from local volcanic rock (used as a building material since the Middle Ages) rather than grime from Clermont-Ferrand’s industrial past. The black towers of Cathedrale Notre-Dame still reach out, dwarfed dramatically by the overshadowing Puy-de-Dome. Inside, light sparkles through fourteenth century stained glass on medieval frescoes and crusading battle scenes. In contrast, the church of Notre-Dame-du-Port is older and built in typical Auvergnat Romanesque style with fine carved pillars and capitals. It could have been here Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade.
Follow the city’s fountain route (there are 48 in all). A statue of Urban II surmounts one of the largest in place de la Victoire. Also worth a visit is L’Aventure Michelin, with the history and interactive models of the famous company. You will need to book. As a boost to tyre sales, Michelin produced their first guide to motor tourism in 1898. Of course, no visit to Clermont-Ferrand would be complete without a trip to the top of Puy-de-Dome mountain.
Puy de Dome (1,464m) is the oldest and highest extinct volcano of the Monts Domes chain. The summit was once a place of worship for Celts and Romans, and for sorcerers’ rituals. Today it is still a popular place of enchantment - though now sporting a restaurant, museum and information centre. The ascent is a gruelling leg of the Tour de France but most travel part by car or shuttle bus and on foot to enjoy panoramic views. Unfortunately from March 2010 for 2 years, works on the access road to the summit mean it will be closed to all vehicles. Park at the Col de Ceyssat car park and allow about 45 minutes to complete the climb on foot. Best visit early or late to avoid the crowds.
Europe’s largest volcanic theme park near Clermont-Ferrand. Take underground tours through lava tunnels and cross burning rivers. Experience the power of nature watching, with giant screening of 3D films of earthquakes, tornadoes and volcanic eruptions. Children over six will love the interactive earthquake simulator. Find plenty to educate and enjoy all day, plus outdoor picnic area for lunch.
The most striking building in this little village founded by twelfth century monks in the wooded Sioulot valley, is its spectacular Romanesque church created from the same black volcanic rock as the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand. Behind the high alter of Ocival’s Basilica of Notre-Dame is a fine Auvergnat black wooden statue of the Virgin and child, decorated in silver, gold and enamel, which has become an object of pilgrimage. Many small chapels accommodate the pilgrims, and capitals of the semi-circular choir pillars are decorated with foliage, birds, griffons and faces of soldiers. Orcival’s black Madonna is sometimes known as “Dames des Fers” or Lady of Chains because of her celebrated intercessions for convicts. Note the balls and chains attached to the wall of the south transept left in gratitude by freed prisoners. Orcival. Makes a great starting point for forest walks on marked trails to places like the lakes of Servieres and Guery, and Roche Branlante rocking stone.
Mineral waters from 40 springs flow unseen beneath the streets of grand nineteenth century houses and Belle-Epoque hotels frequented by families and those taking the waters in St-Nectaire-le-Bas. Gauls once worshiped the water in this little spa town tucked in a green hollow. Visit the sulphur springs of historic Cornadore caves, to see the remains of thermal baths used by the Romans for medicinal purposes. Open Feb - Nov, tel: (00 33) 4 73 88 57 97.
Above, in St-Nectaire-le-Haut, twelfth century Eglise de St-Nectaire is one of the oldest and finest of the Auvergne’s Romanesque churches. Outside, its stone changes from mossy green to violet black whilst inside carved capitals showing Old and New Testament scenes show hints of amazing colours which would have once transformed the space. The church’s rich treasures include a twelfth century gilded copper bust of Ste-Baudine. St-Nectaire makes a good base for skiing in winter and walking in summer. An hour long walk to Puy de Mazeyres will reward you with fantastic views of the countryside.
St-Nectaire gives its name to one of the Auvergne’s famous AOC cheeses. Maison du Saint-Nectaire offers a chance to visit a cheese ripening cellar and to learn more of the cheese-making process.
The red roofs and corbelled half-timbered houses of Thiers’ old quarter (some dating back to the fifteenth century) line steep streets descending to the River Durolle. Waterfalls in the Durolle’s narrow valley have for centuries provided power for forges and blade-maker’s wheels to support the cutlers’ craft. From the sixteenth century, the town grew to be France’s most important cutlery making centre now employing about 12,000 people. Follow the fascinating Vallee des Rouets (cutlers workshops route) along the Durolle valley and visit Thiers’ Musee de la Coutellerie to learn more of the craft’s history and shop for samples. Open daily July and August and Tuesdays and Sundays Sept - June. An international cutlery festival is held in Thiers each May - see Culture and Events for details. As you stroll around the terraced streets, enjoy magnificent views of the Monts Domes and Monts Dore and the Limagne Plain. Thiers’ twelfth century church of St-Genes is worth a visit for its Merovingian mosaics and thirteenth century tomb.
This small town on the River Dore was the most important papermaking centre in France from medieval times until the eighteenth century with around 300 mills operating in the area during the 1500s. The Musee Historique du Papier (open June - Sept) at Moulin Richard-de-Bas, a restored fourteenth century working paper mill just outside the town, gives a fascinating history of the craft using techniques thought to have been brought from the Middle East by Crusaders. See ancient processes handed down by the Chinese and Arabs, pulp making with linen, wonderful early manuscripts and modern flower papers made with petals of cornflowers and marigolds. Ambert’s Gothic St-Jean church dates from the fifteenth century but has additions of a Renaissance belfry and interesting trade guilds coats of arms. Look out for Ambert’s unusual circular town hall (originally a grain market). Be sure to sample the rather pungent cylindrical blue Fourme-d’Ambert cheese: a regional speciality which receives weekly injections of white wine during its fermentation period. A cheese museum on Ambert’s outskirts gives tours and tastings. Train travel is an effortless way to explore the countryside and from Ambert visitors can take the diesel Chemin de Feu Touristique to Sebadel. If engines are as important as the view, ride from Ambert to Arlanc with an original steam train called ‘Picasso’. Enthusiasts can see more at the town’s museum of small steam engines and tractors.
Arlanc lies in the heart of the Livradois-Forez Regional Natural Park surrounded by pine forests in an area of clean air and great natural beauty. Visit the lace museum in the basement of Arlanc’s town hall. In the town’s 6 hectare Garden for Earth you can tour the world in the footsteps of explorers with lawns for oceans and planted spaces representing continents. Over 2,000 varieties and 700 species of plants are each grown in their appropriate position.
Riom, once capital of the whole of the Auvergne, is set in the fertile Limagne plain only 15km from the departmental capital of Clermont-Ferrand. The region’s judicial capital is still based here amongst the red roofs of its fine black basalt Renaissance architecture. The current Palais de Justice is built on the site of a much older fourteenth century palace belonging to the Dukes if Berry, parts of which can still be seen in the Gothic Ste-Chapelle decorated with beautiful fifteenth century stained glass windows.
The whole town is surrounded by boulevards and has an ‘old fashioned’ air compared to lively Clermont Ferrand. Ancient houses around the rue de l’Horloge have unusual windows and courtyards and there are lovely vistas from the viewing platform of Riom’s sixteenth century clock tower. Visit Notre-Dame-du-Marthuret to view the beautiful sculptures of a Black Madonna and Madonna with bird. Musee Regional d’Auvergne, open daily except Mondays from April to Sept, exhibits fascinating objects relating to farming and home life in the region, including costumes.
Partly ruined, Chateau de Murol occupies a commanding position above the quiet village of the same name close to Lake Chambon. Construction of this irregular polygon-shaped feudal stronghold was begun in the twelfth century, building on rock of an ancient volcanic cone where 3 major roads meet. At times, the buildings have been a prison and bandits’ hideaway before falling into disrepair. Classified as a national monument at the end of the nineteenth century, the chateau is now an important tourist attraction. Behind the walls of this fine example of medieval military architecture lie cellars, courtyards, living quarters, staircases and 2 chapels. The rampart walk and watchtower offer wonderful views over the Couze Valley, Lake Chambon and the Monts Dore. The grounds provide a perfect setting for medieval martial arts displays, son et lumiere pageants of medieval life and historical plays performed by local groups in summer. Open daily April - Sept and afternoons on weekends and holidays Oct - March.
The remains of eleventh century Chateau de Tournoel north of Volvic, are set high on an ancient lava flow at the entrance to the Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans d’Auvergne. The keep originally belonged to powerful Guy II of Auvergne who was constantly warring with his brother Robert, Bishop of Clermont. Visit the chatelaine’s chambers with secret entrance. There are amazing views over the Limagne Plain towards the Forez Mountains from the chateau’s highest point. Restoration work begun in 2000 is still continuing and all money from entrance fees is put towards the work. Open July and August and by appointment at other times. Tel: (00 33) 4 73 33 53 06 for details.