Auvergne is one of the wildest, emptiest parts of France. The area was once one of the most active volcanic zones in Europe, and evidence of bygone eruptions remains – from the mineral waters bubbling at its spa towns to cathedrals built from lava stone.
Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral in the town of the same name is a striking building
carved out of inky-black lava stone between the 13th and 19th centuries. For
fantastic views, climb to the top of the remaining transept tower – the only
one to survive the French Revolution intact (Place de la Victoire; tower
A 19th-century spa town loved by Napoleon III, Vichy’s heyday may have passed, but
it retains a dignified air with landscaped parks and stately buildings. Les
Célestins offers Vichy mineral water treatments (from £85).
A peak on the northern edge of the Parc des Volcans
d’Auvergne, Puy de Dôme
was formed by a volcanic eruption and has since been used as a Celtic shrine
and a Roman temple. Hikers can take an hour-long climb to the summit.
Château de Tournoël
is a medieval fortress with a history of sieges and bloody feuds. Visitors can
explore the kitchen gardens and a crumbling 14th-century tower (1 Rue Remparts;
Le Puy-en-Velay’s fiery green liqueur, verveine verte, was first concocted in 1859
using 32 different types of plants and herbs. To learn its secrets, guided
distillery tours run in summer, while the Espace Pagès Maison Verveine du Velay
visitor centre offers tastings (29 Place du Breuil; distillery tours £5).
Le 1513 is a crêperie in
Clermont-Ferrand set in the vaulted cellars of a 16th-century mansion. Take
your pick from an exhaustive selection of savoury crêpes, with fillings ranging
from stinky French cheeses to curries (3 Rue Chaussetiers; savoury crêpes from
serves up traditional dishes amid rustic interiors in Le Puy-en-Velay. Start
with raw salmon and lentils accompanied by piping-hot aligot – melted cheese
and mashed potatoes. Round off your meal with a boozy verveine ice cream (8 Ave
Cathédrale; set menus from £14).
Brasserie du Casino in Vichy exudes old-world Gallic
glamour, with portraits of various actors and chanteurs who’ve stopped by
adorning the walls. The menu too is an emphatically Francophone affair,
featuring the likes of foie gras and rabbit leg confit (00 33 4 70 98 23 06; 4
Rue du Casino; dishes from £15).
An easy place to miss, Comme à la Maison in Le Puy-en-Velay
is one of the most inventive places in town. Tuck into fennel and mackerel tart
or foie gras with dried fruit (7 Rue Séguret; set menus £19).
Emmanuel Hodencq in Clermont-Ferrand sees diners hunker down in an elegant
wood-panelled dining room – langoustine and truffles are but some of the stars
of the sumptuous, but still reasonably priced, set menus (6 Place St-Pierre;
set menus from around £30).
Patterned wallpaper, comfortable beds and a rambling chestnut shaded garden are
the hallmarks of Villa St Hubert – a
restored 18th-century mansion in Saint-Nectaire. The tables d’hôte meals are
served in an opulent dining room lit by chandeliers (Saint Nectaire; from £40).
Hotel du Parc in
Le Puy-en-Velay has minimalist rooms filled with retro furniture and with
spacious bathrooms. A generous breakfast buffet includes a delicious lentil
yoghurt devised by chefs at the adjoining restaurant (4 Avenue Clement Charbonnier;
Behind a rather drab façade, Hotel des Puys in Clermont- Ferrand
offers stylish, minimalist rooms, many with balconies overlooking the busy
streets below. The highlight is the panoramic breakfast room, with views over
the rooftops of the city (16 Place Delille; from £95).
Overlooking the Parc des Sources, The Aletti Palace Sleep Hôtel is the
grand dame of Vichy hotels, with a billiards room and a wood-panelled piano
bar. Palatial guest rooms have marble bathrooms and enormous closets (3 Place
Joseph Aletti; from £110).
Montaigu is a fairytale castle perched on a hilltop east of the town of
Saint-Nectaire. Four rooms have been rebuilt from ruins, with bare stone walls,
hanging tapestries and four-poster beds adding to the aura of medieval majesty.
One room has its own private turret terrace, and all command good views across
the valley (Montaigut-le-Blanc; from £115).
Hot summers bring hikers to the Parc des Volcans d’Auvergne. Clermont-Ferrand
hosts its short-film festival in
January, while September sees the town of Le Puy-en-Velay celebrate Le Fête du Roi de l’Oiseau.
Auvergne is best explored via private transport – car hire is available at Clermont-Ferrand
airport (from £75 per day). Trains run between
Clermont-Ferrand and Vichy, as well as Le Puy-en-Velay and Vichy (from £9).
Clermont-Ferrand is the only airport in Auvergne – from May, Flybe operates flights from Southampton (from
France flies via Paris from London airports and Manchester (from £290). Trains run from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand airport
(returns from £32).
The article 'Mini guide to Auvergne, France' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.