Auvergne is somewhat off the beaten path on a trip to France. Known for its spectacular natural beauty, it is located in the very heart of the country and is just waiting to be discovered.
Spending time in the province of Auvergne, on a trip to France, will bring you fascinating landscapes, charming villages, hot springs, spa towns, interesting history, and outstanding architecture. It is one of the largest protected natural reserves in Europe, with 109 hot springs, almost a hundred volcanoes, and more than 20,000 kilometres/14500 miles of waterways.
Let’s start with the major urban centres. The capital of the Auvergne is Clermont-Ferrand, a university city which has an exceptional location as it is surrounded by volcanoes. Some of the monuments in the city have been made out of volcanic rocks. Clermont-Ferrand is situated on a hill and protected by ancient walls. The city boasts as many as 50 towers of medieval churches in its skyline. The most important is the magnificent Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral of the Assumption, built in the 13th and 14th centuries entirely from volcanic stone. Towering above the city, it is renowned for its beautiful stained-glass windows.
Another special church to visit on a trip to France is the Gothic 12th-century Notre-Dame-du-Port Basilica. The crypt contains a copy of a Black Virgin figurine that was venerated by pilgrims in the 13th century. In the centre of Clermont-Ferrand is the Place de Jaude, which is a very attractive square full of shops, cafes, restaurants, and an opera house. As for museums and art galleries, the city has its fair share.
You can visit the L’Aventure Michelin where the history of this multi-national company is told in a series of museum displays. The MARQ Museum has a collection of fine art ranging from medieval times to the 20th century, as seen with their paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts.
Le Puy-en-Velay is a town that, as early as the 9th century, was known as a pilgrimage site as it was the starting point of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. It is known as a city of art and history and was a stronghold of the Roman Empire at one time. It is also known for the manufacture of lace. On a trip to France, don’t miss the Notre-Dame-de-l’Annonciation Cathedral, built in the 11th century in a mixture of Romanesque and Moorish styles. Inside are many treasures including a collection of works of art and most importantly, a Black Madonna statue. There are numerous fountains, squares, and old pretty and well-preserved houses which make Le-Puy-en-Velay so attractive to stroll around. Just outside the town is the Polignac Fortress, a stunning sight as it is situated on top of a volcanic hill and provides spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
Vichy was a fashionable spa town in the 19th century where visitors came to take the waters at thermal baths. You can still visit the spas for therapeutic reasons. It is a town full of attractive parks. Walking around the town is a little like taking a journey back in time due to the many different styles of architecture, with Byzantine, Moorish, Venetian, Gothic, and Art Deco influences. There are an opera house and an Art Nouveau monument. Just outside of the town is the Chateau du Chareil-Cintrat, a castle built in the 16th century. Inside, which can be visited, are rooms adorned with murals from the same period depicting mythological and astrological themes.
Riom is a historical town sporting grand boulevards and elegant old mansions. On the main street, the Rue de l’Hotel-de-Ville, is the 16th-century Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) and the Musee Mandet, a museum of fine and decorative arts. Riom also has an excellent museum of folk art and regional culture, the Regional Museum of Auvergne, which focuses on traditional rural life in Auvergne. Just outside Riom is Chatel-Guyon, a Belle-Epoque spa centre offering spa facilities. It is also a town offering cultural events, on a trip to France, including a jazz festival, summer outdoor concerts, and year-round theatre performances.
One more place worth mentioning is Roquefort, a village famous for its cheese. It is located in the Grands Causses Regional Natural Park. There are caves that provide perfect conditions for the ripening of Roquefort cheese, a method used for over a thousand years.
Around 11 villages in Auvergne have been ranked among the “Most Beautiful Villages in France” due to their unique charm and history. To achieve this title, a village must have at least 2 protected sites or monuments. As a once fortified village, Charroux has several. There are timber-framed buildings, the remains of the east and west city gates, and the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Walking along the cobbled streets of the village, it’s easy to imagine medieval Charroux in the past. The little medieval hilltop town of Salers has earned the title of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” for being one of the most beautiful villages in France.
The town of Moulins became the capital of the Bourbonnais Duchy, and the medieval Chateau des Ducs de Bourbon still stands at the centre of town. It houses a museum devoted to the heritage of the Dukes of Bourbon. From the top of the castle, you can take in panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. The fortified medieval village of Saint Saturnin is a delight with its country charm and tranquil environment. The 12th-century Eglise de Saint-Saturnin is considered one of the “major” Romanesque churches of Auvergne. The village also has a 13th-century chateau, where Catherine de Medici once held court.
Moving on to the nature side of things, the Puy de Dome, located just outside of Clermont-Ferrand, is one of the extinct volcanoes which, like the other volcanoes in Auvergne, has been dormant for thousands of years. It reaches a height of 1465 metres/4760 feet. At the summit, reached by a funicular, is the Gallo-Roman Temple of Mercury, discovered in 1873 where you can have a view over the more than 80 peaks and craters which are part of the Chaine des Puys, a 40 kilometre/25 mile long seam of volcanoes.
Another volcanic peak is the Puy de Sancy, which is the highest peak in Auvergne. Trekkers on a trip to France enjoy walking up the winding trails to the summit for the fantastic views from there. You can also take one of the numerous cable cars and ski lifts to the top. The area is a haven for wildlife where mountain goats, buzzards, and vultures can be spotted.
Auvergne is among the best places to visit on a trip to France to enjoy summertime concerts and festivals. Music lovers can choose from many events. There are so many to choose from.
One festival in Auvergne is on the third weekend of September, the Roi de l’Oiseau Renaissance (King of the Bird) Festival in Puy-en-Velay which involves an archery competition, circus performances, and an authentic Renaissance market.