Hidden Gem – Walking in the Auvergne, France's ancient volcanic landscape
The Auvergne forms the major part of the Massif Central of France. It's a stunning area of ancient volcanic scenery, crossed by numerous waymarked paths which thread through a landscape covering 25,000 square kilometres. It's easily accessible, the climate is not too extreme, the towns and villages offer historic interest and the walking opportunities range from gentle short walks to vigorous day-long mountain excursions, but never approaching the challenges of alpine walking.
This region of France is truly a walkers' paradise. In words from the introduction to the guidebook by Rachel Crolla and Carl McKeating;
From the Christmas pudding-shaped domes of the volcanic Châine des Puys (also known as the Monts Dômes) to the high steep ridges of the Cantal supervolcano, the Auvergne has hills to suit every hiker. The ancient tracks, high gentian meadows and immaculate forests of rural Livradois Forez and Montagne Bourbonnaise are also a rambler’s paradise. The Auvergne’s charming historic villages, castles and churches are interspersed with picturesque hamlets, pastoral valleys and lofty cattle pastures. Unspoilt volcanic lakes nestle within pine forests and languid rivers trace their sinuous courses through beech copses.
The guidebook covers much of the Auvergne region, with a selection of walks split conveniently into five sections; The Cantal in the south west, the Châine des Puys (Monts Dômes) which lies to the north of the Cantal, and the Monts Dore lying between in the heart of the ancient volcanic region, then to the east of the Allier river which splits the region, there is the Montagne Bourbonnaise in the north and the Haute Loire (Livradois Forez and Velay).
Most of the walks described will take between two and three hours, which is ideal for a morning before it gets too warm, or maybe a late afternoon ahead of a delicious meal of local cuisine and wine. Each region also includes one or two longer or more challenging routes of over 12km which will take upwards of four hours, when you can reap the rewards of fine views and a more strenuous mountain day.
If you were to pick one area of the Auvergne from the guidebook, which would you select?
The superb Cantal range would be the first port of call for those seeking high mountain adventure. The compact geography of the massif – formed by one supervolcano – would lend itself to an energetic week exploring its major summits. Murat is a small medieval town with good facilities which acts as a gateway to the mountains and makes a sensible base for exploring the region.
Châine des Puys (Monts Dômes) and Monts Dore
Rivalling the Cantal for its unique landscape and scarred by intense volcanic activity are the Châine des Puys and Monts Dore ranges. These are two separate mini areas but run into each other. Châine des Puys is perfect for shorter hill walks as there are no real elongated ridges and multi-peak link ups. The Monts Dore centre on the Massif de Sancy (at 1885m the highest peak in the Auvergne) and lend themselves to mountainous circuits.
The large village of Orcival has many good restaurant choices and is ideally situated between the two mini-ranges of the Châine des Puys and the Monts Dore. All the walks in both sections can quickly be accessed from it by car.
The Haute-Loire is a vast area but the walks in the guidebook concentrate on the southern part of the department and focus on the historic area of the Velay and exploring the Parc de Livradois Forez.
Allegre is a small but pleasant base, while in Le Puy-en-Velay there are innumerable Chain and independent hotel options, reflecting its importance as a pilgrimage centre.
Montagne Bourbonnaise is a compact and beautiful unspoilt walking area. Mayet de Montagne is a good base which offers a decent range of accommodation and facilities including a supermarket, while another good choice for a base is the quaint village of Ferrieres sur Sichon.
It's France – so what is the food and wine like? Here are some notes from the guidebook...
The region is a hotbed of cheese-making and the cattle providing this traditional sustenance will inevitably be encountered roaming the hills on the walks. There are five celebrated cheeses of the Auvergne, which have each gained the coveted Appellation Contrôlée mark, and visits to these dairy meccas can easily be combined with nearby walks.
Cantal is the oldest Auvergnat cheese and also the biggest seller, with nearly 14,800 tonnes of the stuff being churned each year. It varies from mild to extra-strong, and is a pressed hard cheese with a distinctive nutty taste made in huge 40kg blocks, using 400 litres of milk per block.
Saint-Nectaire is the other bestseller, a soft cheese which is produced in farms and dairies around the town of the same name in the Puy de Dome département. It earned its name after the Marshal of France La Ferte-Sennecterre introduced the cheese to the court of the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV.
Bleu d’Auvergne is produced across the region and originated with the brainwave of a 19th century farmer who decided to mix mouldy bread with milk. If that doesn’t get your tastebuds tingling, rest assured that nowadays the powerful blue veins are produced by mixing the milk with penicillium roqueforti instead.
Fourme d’Ambert is a milder blue cheese made near Ambert in the Livradois Forez. According to legend it was popular with the Druids, who used it in rituals they performed in the Monts du Forez.
Salers comes from a town considered one of the most beautiful in France, which is found in the east of the Cantal département. This hard and pungent cheese can only be made for six months a year from the milk of cows exclusively fed on grass from volcanic mountains. It is aged for three months before getting to the fromagerie.
The Auvergne has a wealth of culinary resources, as well as excellent water filtered by volcanic rock. The Auvergne’s vineyards are among the oldest in France and the region produces one PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) wine called Saint-Pourcain as well as the respected Côtes d’Auvergne and Côtes Roannais.
The cuisine is based around hearty staples and typical dishes are the potato based truffade, a hotpot called la potée Auvergnat and a kind of meatloaf with prunes called pounti. The area – along with much of the rest of France – is not easy for strict vegetarians. Local beef is very prevalent and can be served cured, as mince, pâté, sausages or sautéed.
The main vegetable curiosity is the green Puy lentil, while interesting varieties of mushroom also feature, as do bilberry tarts.
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