George East visits the land of volcanoes and Volvic
George’s caravan stops in Auvergne
Wow. This really is the great outdoors.
I often point out the fact that my favourite foreign country is a very diverse land. This truism applies to culture as well as topography, and to weather as well as history. That’s not to say that Britain lacks this quality; it’s just that there is so much more of France to be so diverse.
This month, we have not moved far in our mission to explore and mull over the appeal of the various and varying regions from the perspective of a Briton searching for a home in France.
A couple of weeks ago, we hitched up The Tardis (our collapsible caravan, which lives up to its name but is now on the point of the wrong sort of collapse) and moved eastwards from Limousin.
Depending on your viewpoint, the Auvergne region is another victim or beneficiary of the regional reshuffling which took place at the beginning of last year. Nowadays, it is to be known as Auvergne-rhône-alpes and is the third largest region in the country. For our purposes, I am going to turn the clock back to when Auvergne was just Auvergne, and contained the departments of Allier, Puy-de-dôme, Cantal and Haute-loire. To try and encompass all the new region’s delights would be like trying to lump England and Wales together as a single cultural and historical entity.
Great outdoors About as profound as France profonde gets, the Auvergne region is a place of mile-high mountains and wooded valleys, with picture-postcard villages and lakes dotted around high and low. If you love dramatic landscapes and nature writ large, you will love Auvergne. Any place with 2,500 different types of plants and a hard cheese which matches cheddar cannot be bad.
The Auvergne bit of the new region was one of the smallest of France, and is one of the least populated in all Europe. Though small in size, Auvergne is big in scope and scale as evidenced by its ranges of long-dead volcanoes. ‘Puy’ is an old French word for a volcanic hill, and the Chaîne des Puys stretches for around 30km in the midst of the great Massif Central. They might not do much in an active way nowadays, but they are certainly impressive to look at and great fun to climb up.
I first experienced a feeling of shock and awe at this dramatic place when I and a friend set off from gently undulating Hampshire to hitchhike to the south of France many years ago. Instead of following the advice of a bemused gendarme, we chose to leave the major routes south at Rouen and make our way through the much more interesting and unoccupied heartland. As any dedicated hiker will tell you, you certainly see and learn more about a country on foot than from a vehicle speeding down a motorway.
I could write a book about our adventures en route (in fact I have) and we finally arrived in Auvergne pursued by a cataclysmic thunderstorm which literally washed our tent away. But the loss was worth it to stand half way up a puy and see such an example of nature in the raw. Rural retreat This time we arrived to a much warmer welcome from the weather gods, and it was a delight to see how little things had changed in all those years. Britain seems to be sinking under the weight of its ever-expanding population, but not Auvergne.
The population density here is still a little over 50 people/km2, which is about half the national average. In England, the figure is around 420, making Auvergne’s low density a major attraction to us Brits who like to have a bit of space around them.
The prevailing weather situation is what those in the know call a mild continental climate. Unsurprisingly, the weather tends to be wetter and colder in the mountains when compared to valleys and plains. Overall, the region enjoys a pleasant climate, and Clermont-ferrand, the old regional ‘capital’, is one of the sunniest cities in France.
As for food and drink, Auvergne is a place of rich and hearty fare. It has no fewer than five AOP cheeses: St-nectaire, Bleu d’auvergne, Fourme d’ambert, Salers and Cantal. Incidentally, Salers is also the name of a breed of cattle, which provide heavenly steaks, and of a pick-me-up drink – Gentiane de Salers – made from one of Auvergne’s 2,500 plants and flowers. Although I love the cheese of that name, I have to say the brew is the foulest nostrum I have ever tasted, and I would prefer to keep the heaviest of hangovers rather than try it again.
The wines of the region are well thought of, but this is the home, or rather the source of some of the most revered (and expensive) water in the world.
No mention of Auvergne and its products could be made without a credit to the legendary lentille verte du Puy. Wondrous things can be done with them – just try a typical roadside truckstop and you will see.
Unsung heaven Regarding the cost of a home here, property prices have been on the move in recent years. The current rate is around €1,500-€2,000/m2.
Once upon a time, the attractions of this region were not generally recognised, but not so nowadays. The list of honours grow, and last year, Auvergne was nominated by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 regions in the world to visit. As the planet’s largest travel guide book publisher said: ‘The Auvergne has been overlooked for being too peaceably rural but that’s all changing.”
In an increasingly hectic and crowded world, it seems more and more people value the sort of surroundings and space this lovely little region offers.
Now we are off, albeit reluctantly, on our continuing voyage of discovery and nostalgia, and, fate and our collapsible caravan willing, you will find us in another part of this great country.
See you next time!