Last weekend we hiked the Puy de Dôme, a dormant volcano in the Massif Central. The Auvergne region is nearly synonymous with these volcans, which account for the green lunar landscape of the area.
Lonely Planet chose the Auvergne region as one of the top ten regions of the world to visit in 2016, saying “Auvergne has long been overlooked for being too peaceably rural. But that’s all changing, as French travellers weary of tourist-clogged rivieras seek escape here. The Auvergne has responded by reinventing itself with ambitious art projects and a portfolio of wilderness adventures, without ever losing its small-town charisma.”
I can attest to that. After all, last summer I visited Puy-en-Velay and was so charmed by the views and sloping cobblestone streets, the lack of tourists and the tiny brasseries, that I put the Auvergne on my application as one of my top choices for where to live this year.
Here in Montluçon, in the département of the Allier, the geography is a bit different. Though there are no ancient volcanos rising from the ground, the town has been called the porte d’entrée (entryway) into the Auvergne. Getting from Montluçon to the Massif Central is just a short trip south–or it should be.
Mary and I had planned to take the train to Clermont-Ferrand (the largest city in the region; only a few miles away from the Puy de Dôme), but in a last-minute change of plans, a French friend offered to drive us.
G showed up at our house in attire more suited to a discothèque than a vigorous hike, though this wasn’t the only expectation he challenged.
Men are thought to avoid asking for directions, but the trend must not extend to France as G inquired probably a dozen times about the proper route.
It turns out you cannot simply put the name of a volcano into the GPS. Puy de Dôme was close–we could see its trademark antenna–but couldn’t find a parking lot or the start of the trail.
We listened to French rap and wound through the hills, the language barrier presenting occasional moments of hilarity. After the fifth or sixth u-turn, I got my book out, only looking up twenty minutes later when I heard Mary laughing hysterically from the front seat.
She didn’t have to explain. Just ahead, a line of cars had formed, waiting as a herd of red cows wandered lazily down the road.
A few blasts of of the horn quickly took care of the problem.
The cows were not the last hurdle, but after a few more wrong turns and a brief visit to the wrong puy, we soon arrived. It’s possible to take a tram to the top, but we were craving fresh air and exercise and had gotten lucky with a sixty-five degree day. It took us a leisurely hour to get to the top, level with the paragliders. For 85 euros, we could have joined them, though my stomach dropped at the idea. Maybe next time…It’s funny: though the view from the top is clearly gorgeous, more well-known is the view from Clermont-Ferrand of the Puy de Dôme itself. At the top a sign explained how a famous French author (if only I could remember who) would always gaze at the Puy from afar, but when he saw the view from the top, he was sorely disappointed. He wrote about it in a letter, expressing something like righteous indignation.
While I don’t share the man’s bad attitude, I will admit there’s something impressive about the Puy de Dôme in silhouette, something you miss standing at the top.
Still, the view is breathtaking: almost prehistoric, incongruous with the rest of France.
We hiked down (the word rolled would almost be appropriate with how steep it was) in about half an hour. It was easier on the lungs but worked a whole new set of leg muscles.
Back in Clermont-Ferrand, we made a quick visit to the cathedral before having dinner in a little crêperie. The Notre-Dame de l’Assomption is, I think, my favorite cathedral in France. Unlike Notre-Dame de Paris, it’s not swarming with tourists, and something about it makes me think strongly of fairytales, like it’s not quite real.
Mary and I visited a few weeks ago when we were in Clermont for our TAPIF orientation. When we took the train to return to Montluçon, the sun was setting a brilliant violet and the cathedral stood high and dark above the city, still visible as the train swayed and creaked away from Clermont. I think we all have buildings or sights or works of art that speak to us for inexplicable reasons, and this place does that for me.
On our first visit, an organist played high above as a few quiet visitors wandered the perimeters. The music gave me chills.
Dinner was savory crepes and sweet crepes and wine. We pored over the menu, delirious after not eating all day. I chose something with coquilles de St Jacques, emmental, mushrooms, crême fraiche, and for dessert, a crêpe with chocolate and bananas and peanut butter (something you don’t often see here!). We found that Mary’s accent improves when she impersonates a French man, and the meal ended on an exciting note when the server set both of our crèpes on fire, though only one included alcohol and was supposed to be flambéed.
It was a good weekend in Clermont and I suspect we’ll have many more. It’s just an hour and a ten-dollar train ride away!