Auvergne - the four departments
Auvergne, land of mountains, valleys and wide open spaces
The Auvergne consists of
four departments or counties :
the Allier, the Puy de Dôme, the Haute Loire and the Cantal
The Allier in the north - mostly an area of plains and valleys, with small hills and good agriculture, covers more or less the historic province of Bourbonnais, the original fief of the Bourbons, one of the largest royal families of Europe. The Allier is best known cities are Moulins, Montluçon and Vichy. Moulins , lying on the river Allier, is very much a city of central France, in the style of the towns of the Loire valley. Montluçon and the nearby town of Commentry expanded in the nineteenth century on the back of a coal-mining industry. Vichy, also on the river Allier, is a famous spa town with something of an old-fashioned atmosphere. It was the capital of "free" France during the second world war, while the north was under Nazi occupation - a role that it prefers to forget today. It prefers to brand itself as a relaxed place where people still come to take the waters or go to the races.... rather like a small French version of Cheltenham. The eastern edge of the department is a hillier area, with a small area in the extreme south east of the department reaching over 1000 metres in the Monts de la Madeleine, bordering on the Puy de Dôme.
Leafy walk in the elegant spa town of Vichy
The "Puy de Dome" in the middle - largely mountainous, but with a large fertile agricultural plain, the Limagne, in the middle, to the east of Clermont Ferrand. With its tall old houses built of black volcanic stone, Clermont, the home of the Michelin tyre company, is a rather austere city; it lies at the juncture between the fertile agricultural plain called the Limagne, and the Massif Central mountains behind and is dominated by the 1500 metre Puy de Dôme, a massive dormant volcano. This is the most famous peak in the "chaine des Volcans", the largest dormant volcanic region in western Europe. South of Clermont lies the Massif du Sancy, a small alpine-looking cluster of mountains slightly higer than the Puy de Dome itself, and culminating in the Puy de Sancy, at 1885 metres, the highest point in the central part of France.
The western part of the Puy de Dome department is an upland area, well watered by the rain brought in on Atlantic airstreams. It is an area that traditionally remains green and mild in the summer. The waters that have fallen on these hills and mountains over the centuries emerge, well mineralised, at famous springs in towns such as Le Mont Dore, Volvic, or Saint Nectaire.. In the south of the department, bordering on the Cantal, lies an area known as the Cezallier, an area of high prairies not unlike parts of the American west, and a land grazed by large herds of cattle.
The "Chaine des Puys" - looking north towards the Allier. Photo Romary - Licence CC
The Haute Loire in the south east, the driest and sunniest part of the Auvergne, a lot of it at an altitude of over 800 metres. Virtually the whole department is hilly or mountainous, and a lot is forested. The northern area is centered round the market town of Brioude, with its magnificent romanesque basilica, the largest in the region. South of Brioude lies the "Haut Allier", a region with deep valleys, a generally warm and sunny climate and a definite flavour of the south of France.
The southern part of the department is known as "le Velay"; its capital, Le Puy en Velay, was a major pilgrimage centre in the middle ages, a starting point on the route to Santiago de Compostella, and to this day the city's cathedral and St Michael's chapel remain remarkable examples of early mediaeval architecture. Robert Louis Stevenson set off from Le Monastier, just south of Le Puy, in his famous travelogue "Travels with a donkey". In the south, the Haute Loire borders on the department of the Ardèche, and the top of the Cevennes mountains.
The Cantal, in the south west, is the highest of the four departments, a lot of it over 1000m altitude. The department boasts two main centres, the bustling market town of Aurillac, the department's capital, to the west of the high mountains, and Saint Flour, an ancient town perched dramatically at the top of a volcanic outcrop in the east of the department, and visible from the motorway. The centre of the Cantal is dominated by the Plomb du Cantal and the peaks around it, a massive volcanic cluster marking the heart of the Massif Central mountains. The Plomb du Cantal is very accessible, as it rises above the ski resort of Super Lioran, which is just beside the main trunk road between Clermont Ferrand and Aurillac. The department is famous for its cheeses, notably the eponymous "Cantal" cheese, and the delicious Auvergne Blue - bleu d'Auvergne - much of which is produced in the Cantal highlands. Another Cantal monument is a famous viaduct, the Viaduc de Garabit, designed by Gustave Eiffel. The viaduct spans the gorge of the Truyère river, and can be admired from a special visitor centre on the A75 motorway.