The region of Auvergne consist of the four French Départments of Allier, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Puy-de-Dôme. The main town is Clermont-Ferrand.
Auvergne, one of the historic provinces of France and since 1960 an administrative region, lies in central France, extending over much of the Massif Central, and takes in four départements (Allier, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Puy-de-Dôme). Its chief town is Clermont-Ferrand. With its distinctive volcanic cones, its ranges of hills rising to almost 1,900m/6,200ft and the valleys between them, varying in form according to the extent of erosion, this is one of the most interesting parts of France. Less developed for tourism than some other regions, it has much to offer the visitor - large nature reserves, thermal springs emerging from the volcanic soil, numerous lakes either volcanic or artificial, rivers and mountain streams, the sources of the Loire, the Allier, the Lot and the Dordogne, excellent winter sports facilities, numbers of fine churches in the characteristicAuvergnat Romanesque style.From the economic point of view Auvergne is one of France's problem areas. Its plateaux, largely deforested, are suitable only for extensive agricultural use (dairy farming, producing such well-known cheeses as Fourme d'Ambert, Cantal and St-Nectaire). In the few larger towns like Clermont-Ferrand, St-Etienne, Le Puy, Rodez, Aurillac and Tulle, which lie in a ring around the region, there is some industry, namely metal-processing, pharmaceuticals, uranium mining and coal. Clermont- Ferrand has been a center of the rubber industry since 1832 (Michelin works).In pre-Roman times the people of Auvergne, the Arverni, occupied a leading place among the Gallic tribes, and it was the Arvernian chief Vercingetorix who led the fight against the Romans (52 B.C.). In 471-475 the region was conquered by the Visigothic king Eurich. From the early 11th century it was a county owing allegiance to France, and the Counts of Auvergne were at times also Margraves of Septimania and Dukes of Aquitaine. In the middle of the 12th century Auvergne was divided into two: one part, which the king had taken into his own hand in 1213 and made a duchy, passed to the Bourbons by marriage in 1425 and to the crown in 1527, while the county, held by the La Tour family from 1422, passed by inheritance to Catherine de Médicis in 1524 and later to Louis XIII.In northern Auvergne, to the west of Clermont-Ferrand, is a sparsely forested plateau in the Massif Central, lying at over 600m/2,000ft, known as the Chaîne des Puys or Monts Dômes - a 30km/20mi long chain of some 60 extinct volcanic cones (puys, from Latin podium), the best known and highest of which is the Puy de Dôme (1,460m/4,807ft).To the south of the Monts Dômes are the Monts Dore, a very much older (three million years) volcanic range, shaped by Ice Age erosion, which reaches its highest point in the Puy de Sancy (1886 m/6188ft). Perhaps the finest part of this range is the area round the spa and winter sports resort of Le Mont-Dore (pop. 2,400) with its valleys, waterfalls and lakes.Farther south again are the Monts du Cantal, the ruins of a huge volcano which was the oldest part of the whole massif (around 20 million years old). Lava from the volcano, which was originally 3,000m/10,000ft high, extended over a radius of 70km/45mi, breaking down into a soil which nourishes fertile pastureland. The highest peak in the range is the Plomb du Cantal (1,858 m/6,096ft).In the extreme south of Auvergne, between the valleys of the Truyère and the Lot, are the Monts d'Aubrac, a range of basaltic hills.North of Clermont-Ferrand lies the Limagne basin, a valley of non-volcanic origin traversed by the Allier, with many mineral springs. The plateau is cut by numerous valleys, which form deep gorges like the Gorges de la Sioule, the Vallée des Couzes, the Gorges de la Rhue, the Gorges de l'Allagnon, the Gorges de l'Allier and the Gorges de la Truyère.The Parc Régional des Volcans, the largest regional nature park in France, with an area of 345,816 hectares/854,165 acres, lies in the heart of Auvergne. The object of this park and of the recently (1984) established Parc Naturel Régional Livradois-Forez is to ensure that the native flora and fauna are not endangered by the increasing numbers of visitors in both summer and winter.
Aurillac, the old capital of Auvergne (pop. 30,551) has a picturesque old town which grew up round the abbey of St-Géraud, founded in the 10th century and rebuilt after its destruction in the mid 17th century The first French Pope, Silvester II (Gerbert; 10th-11th century), came from its monastic school. The church of Notre-Dame- des-Neiges (14th century, restored in 17th century) has a fine 17th century Black Virgin. The 19th century Château St-Etienne, which has a wing dating from the 11th century, now houses the Maison des Volcans, with a collection of minerals and displays illustrating volcanic activity.
The ruined castle of Alleuze (13th C) lies south of St-Flour in a setting of great beauty.Alleuze became a base for the bishops in this area of Saint-Flour. The castle was built on the top of a hill in a valley, providing great views.
The little town of Bort-les-Orgues (pop. 3,534), prettily situated in the Dordogne valley, has a church of the 12th-15th centuries. Near the east end of the church are remains of the old town walls. 3km/2mi to the southwest are the "organ-pipes" from which it takes its name - massive columns of phonolite 80-100m/260-330ft high extending for some 2km/1.5mi. The Barrage de Bort pounds water from the Dordogne and its tributaries, forming a reservoir with a capacity of 477million cu. m (105 billion gallons). On the bank of the lake (water-sports) stands the 15th century Château de Val.Bort is also a good setting-out point for the Dordogne Gorges as far as the Barrage de l'Aigle, a reservoir some 85km/53mi southwest.
Brioude (pop. 6,818) lies in the plain of the Allier. The Basilique St-Julien (11th-12th century) is the largest Romanesque church in Auvergne, with multi-colored masonry, frescoes in the porch and the nave, and richly decorated capitals. Also in the town is the recently opened Maison du Saumon, a large salmon aquarium.
La Chaise-Dieu, France
Between Le Puy and Thiers is La Chaise-Dieu (from Latin Casa Dei, the House of God), with the most celebrated church in Auvergne. A monastery was founded here in the 11th C and rapidly grew. The three-aisled church of St-Robert, built in the 14th C, has a Gothic cloister. The interior, with shallow vaulting, is divided into two by a Late Gothic rood screen (15th C). The choir, which has carved oak stalls (15th C), contains the tomb of Pope Clement VI. The church also has fine early 16th C Brussels and Arras tapestries and a famous wall painting, 26m/85ft long, of the "Danse Macabre" (15th C). The little walled town of Conques (pop. 500), on the southwestern borders of Auvergne, is huddled around the beautiful Romanesque church of Ste-Foy (11th-12th C).
In Issoire is the church of St-Austremoine (12th C), the largest Romanesque church in Auvergne after St-Julien in Brioude. The choir has polychrome mosaic and sculptural decoration.
The town of Moulins (pop. 22,667), which grew up in the 10th century around a castle, takes its name from the many mills which once lined the Allier. In the 14th century it became the chief town of the district of Bourbonnais, which was raised to the status of a duchy. In the center of the picturesque old part of the town is the Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville, in which is the Belfry (1455), with a remarkable jacquemart ("Jack-o'-the-clock", a clock with animated figures). The Musée de Folklore et du Vieux Moulins displays old craftsmen's tools, a model of a peasant's house, traditional costumes and furniture.
Cathedral of Notre-Dame
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame has a late 15th C choir in Flamboyant style and a 19th C nave. The ambulatory has fine 15th and 16th C stained glass, and in the sacristy is the famous triptych by the Master of Moulins (late 15th C). Opposite the cathedral is the Tour Mal Coiffée, the keep of the old ducal castle, of which the Pavillon d'Anne de Beaujeu on its north side was also a part. The Pavillon now contains an interesting museum of art and archeology. To the north of the cathedral is the mausoleum of Duke Henry II of Montmorency (1653).
25km/15mi southwest of Clermont-Ferrand, between the Monts Dômes and the Monts Dore, is the village of Orcival, which grew up round the church of Notre-Dame, founded by the abbey of La Chaise-Dieu in the 12th century and partly rebuilt in the 15th and 19th centuries. This is one of the finest Romanesque churches in Auvergne. In the choir is a much revered 12th century statue of the Virgin enthroned. Near the village is the Château of Cordes (15th and 17th century), with gardens laid out by Le Nôtre.
Puy de Dôme
A fantastic view of the Chaine de Puys, with the craters from their ancient volcanic activities now covered with pastures of rolling grass, can be obtained from the peak of the Puy de Dôme.Pascal also conducted one of his two experiments that proved the existence of a vacuum.
Puy de Pariou
This young volcanic crater still shows signs of the lava flow that erupted from it.
Puy de la Vache
Puy de la Vache is a volcanic crater noted for its long ridge of volcanic rock that was formed when one side of the crater broke, releasing a flood of lava.
Puy de Sancy
The highest peak in Auvergne and in the Massif Central, the Puy de Sancy (1,886m/6,188ft), can be reached with the help of a cableway, from which it is a 20-minute climb to the summit (wide-ranging views). The Dordogne rises in the Puy de Sancy massif.
St Flour, France
The old fortified town of St-Flour (pop. 9,200) lies at an altitude of 881m/2,890ft on a petrified lava flow. The impressive Gothic Cathedral of St-Pierre-et-St-Flour, built of black basalt, was founded by the abbey of Cluny in the 11th century. It possesses a large crucifix of black wood (13th or 15th century) known as the "Beau Dieu Noir".
Viaduc de Garabit
This iron viaduct spanning the Truyère, to the south of St-Flour, was built by Gustave Eiffel in 1884, and the experience he gained here no doubt stood him in good stead a few years later when he built the Eiffel Tower.
Above the spa of St-Nectaire is one of the finest Romanesque churches in Auvergne (12th century), with over a hundred capitals depicting Old and New Testament scenes. The church has a rich treasury, including a gilded copper bust of Ste-Baudine (12th century).The central feature of the St-Nectaire Abbey Church is the crossing tower.
The Cornadore Caves were developed by the Romans, who took advantage of the sulfur springs for medicinal purposes. The arsenic and lime was thought to cure kidney diseases. A thermal center and numerous baths were installed in the caves, two of which are still on display. The caves also include natural wonders, such as limestone formations, stalactites, stalagmites, pisolites and aragonite flowers.
The little medieval town of Salers (pop. 368), picturesquely situated at an altitude of 951m/3,120ft, has preserved its old walls, many old gabled and tower houses and some Renaissance houses. The 15th century church of St-Matthieu, which preserves a Romanesque arch, has old Aubusson tapestries and a Holy Sepulchre of 1495. The Maison des Templiers contains a small exhibition on the history of Salers and some material illustrating the folk traditions of the area. The Grande Place is one of the finest squares in France.
This annual three-week festival transforms the town of Salers to the Renaissance period. From late July to early August visitors can see Salers as it was in Renaissance times, complete with period costumes, food and entertainment.
Cheese Presentation Festival
This week-long festival takes place in mid-August.
In northern Auvergne, on the very edge of the region, is its only major spa, Vichy, which had its greatest days in the 19th C and for a brief period during World War II played a political role. By far the most important tourist resort in the hills is Le Mont-Dore, lying at an altitude of 1,050m/3,445ft below the Puy de Sancy. Other resorts are Chaptel-Guyon (a mineral and thermal spa), Bourbon-l'Archambault (thermal spa), Néris-les-Bains (thermal spa), Chaudes-Aigues (thermal spa), Royat-Chamalières (thermal spa), La Bourboule (thermal spa, with baths for children) and St- Nectaire (thermal spa).
Hérrison (Chateloy - Bourbonnais Music Festival)
Chateau du Chareil-Cintrat, Chantelle, France
Château du Chareil-Cintrat was built in the 16th C with a sculpted interior decoration characteristic of the second French Renaissance. All the rooms are decorated with murals from 1560-1570 depicting mythological and astrological themes.
World Folklore Festival, Gannat, France
Festival de Gannat les Cultures du Monde is an annual 12-day festival that takes place from mid- to late July. Events includes performances by folk dancers, singers and musicians, as well as expositions and conferences.
Maison de la Pierre, Volvic, France
Maison de la Pierre in Volvic is an underground museum featuring a recorded commentary telling the various phases of volcanic eruptions. The feature attraction is the lava flow that descends from Puy de la Nugere.
Arboretum de Balaine
An exceptional selection of large tulip trees, oaks and other plants are found in the attractive gardens of Arboretum de Balaine. A windy path weaves its way through shrubs, small trees and across streams.Arboretum de Balaine consists of over 20 hectares with 2,500 plants. The arboretum began as an English garden in 1804.