Right at the very heart of France is the Auvergne region. It’s an exceptionally rugged part of the nation’s countryside where the Central Massif’s unmistakable geological features make a unique statement and its intriguing history stretches way back to the Celts, the Romans and much further. With such incredible scenery, wildlife and diverse out door pursuits there’s so much to do and see that it’s small wonder the region is such an inspiration for the tourists who visit and the people who put down their roots in this untamed land.
At its hub is Clermont-Ferrand the regional capital, with its heavy industrial presence and a population of around 145,000 providing such a strong contrast to the other familiar towns of the Auvergne. For instance, you wouldn’t forget Vichy, probably the region’s most elegant city, or Aurillac, variously described as an ‘unpretentious provinciality”.
Then there is the seamless, unadulterated medieval charm of numerous other smaller towns and villages such as Sauveterre-de-Rouergue, Besse, Murat, Salers, Orcival and so on. Thiers, which supplies 70% of France’s cutlery, is another example where, built on a very steep hillside, the streets only run up and down. Then there is the ancient spa town of Bourbon-l’Archasmbault where many a famous French dignitary has bided their time taking its invigorating natural spring waters.
The Auvergne embraces France’s largest natural park covering 390,00 hectares where there is an abundance of natural spectacles such as the breathtaking mountain ranges rising to nearly 1,858m and stretching over 200km, volcanic peaks and crater lakes. Some areas have even been likened to a lunar landscape but fear not, the last volcanic eruption was nearly six millennia ago.
As it’s such a volcanic terrain there is a wealth of health-giving mineral and thermal springs - 30 to be precise - said to vary in temperatures from 12oC to 82oC especially at Chaudes-Aigues. These springs were very popular when the Romans occupied this part of France then slipped quietly out of use during Middle Ages but came back very much into vogue from the 16th century onwards and today are renowned for their medicinal spa treatments.
As you might expect in such a unique environment there is a Museum of Thermal Springs and Geothermal Science, dedicated to this geological phenomenon. You will also find amongst the wind-swept plateaus and deep gorges of the Auvergne other natural curios such as the fountains of petrification, hundreds of unique peat bogs and the Tronçais forest with its famous oak trees believed to be over 300 years old!
It is also the source of several of France’s greatest rivers. The Dordogne rises in the Monts-Dore, the Loire on the slopes of the Gerbier de Jonc, and the Lot and Tarn in the Cévennes. You will come across some very special wildlife in the Auvergne such as mouflon (wild sheep) which, especially in the summer months, gather on high pastures like the 'plomb du Cantal' or Mont Dore’s southern face. They tend to winter in the valleys sometimes close against the ski slopes.
Amongst the most impressive of the region’s museums are the Museum of Lightening at Marcenat, providing an extraordinary insight into thunderstorms and their fascinating electrical displays, and the Puy- en-Velay Museum of Religious Art, which protects 'The Holy Nail' claimed to be a fragment from the cross of Christ.
Football and rugby are favourites of Auvergnats, as the native people are known, but in an area with such diverse terrain there are all types of sports for people from near and far to enjoy. For example there is trail riding, hiking, downhill and cross country skiing, fishing, canoeing, sailing, white water rafting, canyoning, pot- holing, ballooning and paragliding. Indeed, there’s not very much you can’t do in the Auvergne!
When it comes to the region’s gastronomy there’s a strong peasant cuisine using good basic ingredients which has spread throughout France and is often to be found served in Paris bistro-type eating places. Salted hams and dried sausages are particular delicacies and Le Puy is especially famous for it 'superior' green lentils.
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