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Ge­orge East visits the land of vol­ca­noes and Volvic

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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!

The Puy de Dôme over­looks the city of Cler­mont-fer­rand in Au­vergne

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