Not really wanting to leave Vichy, but knowing we must, we clambered into the car and headed over the bridge once more. We were saying goodbye to chic city life and trading it for an altogether more rugged experience involving hiking shoes and plenty of stamina; we were heading to the French volcanoes.
The Auvergne is the land of the volcanoes. There are 450 of them scattered amongst the Chaîne des Puys, Cantal, Monts Dore, Monts d’ Artense, Monts du Cantal and Monts du Cézallier. We were heading to the small town of Orcines in the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne and booking into our simple down to earth country lodging, a complete contrast to our ‘luxurious’ hotel in Vichy! A quick check-in and we were back in the car and on our way again, to the Puy de Dôme, the highest volcano in the Chaîne des Puys at 1465m. The Chaîne is a set of 80 volcanoes located in a 45km long by 5km wide area, and they’re the “youngest” volcanoes of Auvergne.
The Puy de Dôme is certainly the most famous volcano in the region. In 2008 it was awarded the status of Grand Site de France and it is now having to meet the challenges posed by erosion and tourism. The top can now be reached all year round via the Panoramique des Dômes, a train with panoramic windows providing amazing views and taking just 20 minutes. All other forms of motor vehicles are now prohibited. One of the best ways to enjoy this particular volcano is to take this easy route up and then hike back down!
Once at the top the views are breathtaking, stretching out for miles and miles all the way down to the city of Clermont-Ferrand, and beyond.
As we wandered from view to view, we had a little run-in with the weather – one moment we were enjoying the sun and the next the heavens opened and we were bombarded with first hail and then rain as we ran for some form of cover. Ten minutes later, the sun came out once more and we could see both ends of the rainbow! Typical mountain weather, a little fickle to say the least!
By the evening we had all built up quite an appetite after hiking from one photographic opportunity to another, and we were keen to sit down and enjoy a delicious meal in the restaurant of our hotel; apparently it had an incredible reputation. And to further reinforce the fact that we were in the country, we enjoyed a very contrary dining experience compared to Vichy. This was a menu of the land, just as one would expect, with plenty of Foie Gras, beef and even Pieds de Cochon, pigs trotters,
and yet everything was served in a surprisingly stylish fashion. To be blunt, everything was incredible!
The next day we felt well rested and were raring to go once more. We stopped at a local grocery store and bought what was needed for the simplest of picnics; saucisson (of course), some fresh apricots, tomatoes, a baguette, and a good wedge of local cheese. With our goodies filling our backpacks we set off on our 3-hour hike to the top of another volcano……
…….stopping every now and then for a water-break and to admire the view.
Nearing the top the trees grew more scarce and suddenly we were out in the open; we’d hiked to the top of a volcano!
We found one of the few lone trees for shade and sat and ate lunch on the edge of a crater, that was certainly a first for all of us!
And then we asked ourselves the question – were these volcanoes extinct or dormant?
We later found that vulcanologists all agree that the volcanoes could wake up one day, especially as some of them were active a mere 7000 years ago; which qualifies them for just dormant status!
The descent was naturally somewhat quicker than the ascent, and we took yet more photos!
Our next destination was further south again, but instead of taking the fastest route, we turned off the beaten track and travelled tiny roads, so rarely used that in places grass grew in the middle.
Along the way we stopped and walked around little villages where time seemed to have stood still for centuries.
Driving deep in the countryside with nothing but stunning scenery, trees, hills, volcanoes and greenery in every direction the first inkling that we were once again approaching some form of civilisation was the sighting of the striking spire and tower of the 12th century Basilique Notre-Dame d’Orcival.
We took a break in this charming little town which dates back to the 11th century. In the winter this is a popular place for cross country skiing and in the summer it is popular with hikers.
And then we continued our journey, passing lakes and fields of grazing cattle, it would be hard to imagine a more bucolic scene.
Next up, the Puy de Sancy, the highest mountain in the Massif Central. It is part of an ancient stratovolcano which has been inactive for about 220,000 years.
In the winter it is a popular skiing resort but it is equally as popular it seems in the summer, with people like ourselves, loving the magic of the mountain in the warmer months, when they are covered in heather instead of snow, when shoes replace ski boots and when every breath exhaled no longer freezes in front of us!
Our final stop before we headed home was Mont-Dore at the foot of the Puy de Sancy. This is a renowned spa town with a warm and lively atmosphere.
To say that both Vichy and the volcanoes left a lasting impression on us would be an understatement; the two were like chalk and cheese and yet they went together hand in hand, making the most perfect combination of areas to visit. We all agreed it was one of our most memorable short breaks; the scenery was breathtaking and the people were lovely, so friendly and so welcoming.
We bought a few reminders of course – local saucisson in a range of flavours and a cheese, a rather strong and smelly one that has lived in quarantine in the fridge in the pantry since we got back! Its lingering odour is a constant reminder of a fabulous destination. A return visit is definitely on the cards, and to the Auvergne…..
……. a huge thank you, we shall most certainly return.