Au­vergne

Dis­cover a land shaped by vol­ca­noes, with af­ford­able house prices and a wealth of ac­tiv­i­ties to en­joy for free

Living France - - Contents -

For many, Au­vergne is ei­ther a re­gion they cross when head­ing south, a kind of fron­tier land be­fore reach­ing the sparkling Mediter­ranean coast and its lapis lazuli-coloured sea, or a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion where they run around scal­ing sum­mits, dis­cov­er­ing val­leys and plung­ing into vol­canic lakes while tak­ing in the emer­ald green land­scapes be­fore re­turn­ing home. How­ever, make this the des­ti­na­tion rather than a stop­ping point on the jour­ney, and you’ll find the re­wards are end­less.

This is a land shaped by mil­len­nia-old – and thank­fully dor­mant – vol­ca­noes, where the ‘great out­doors’ finds its true mean­ing in vast open plateaux, tow­er­ing vol­canic sum­mits, mist-shrouded hills and ev­er­green forests. Par­don the overused ex­pres­sion, but Au­vergne re­ally is a hid­den gem, and sadly (or for­tu­nately, de­pend­ing on your point of view), can of­ten be over­looked as a place to set­tle down.

Be­fore it was in­cor­po­rated into the larger Au­vergne-Rhône-Alpes re­gion (be­com­ing the third largest re­gion in France), Au­vergne was ac­tu­ally one of the smallest re­gions in the coun­try, and to­day still re­mains one of the least pop­u­lated ar­eas of France. With so much more space on of­fer, not to men­tion the added ben­e­fits of rivers to swim in, moun­tains to climb and trails to hike on the doorstep, it’s sure to ap­peal to those feel­ing hemmed in by over­crowded towns and cities in the UK, and look­ing for some­where to es­cape from the rat race.

Although Au­vergne of­fers the pos­si­bil­ity to live in ru­ral seclu­sion, the charm­ing vil­lages and small towns that dot the re­gion are by no means iso­lated, with a good trans­port in­fras­truc­ture and ameni­ties also sup­ported by tourism. And then there are the prop­erty prices, which are among the low­est in France. Ac­cord­ing to No­taires de France fig­ures, the four de­part­ments that make up the old Au­vergne re­gion all have av­er­age prices of €150,000 or less.

At €150,000, Puy-de-Dôme, home to the city of Cler­mont-Fer­rand, is the most ex­pen­sive, although this would still be af­ford­able by most peo­ple’s stan­dards. Prices in the other three de­part­ments are even more at­trac­tive – €120,000 in HauteLoire, €95,800 in Al­lier and just €86,500 in Can­tal. Add in the fact that you don’t have to spend money to sim­ply en­joy Au­vergne’s abun­dance of nat­u­ral trea­sures, and it’s a strong con­tender for a more af­ford­able and en­joy­able life in France.

THE GREAT OUT­DOORS

In case this hasn’t been stressed enough, Au­vergne is a beau­ti­fully green re­gion of France. It has two nat­u­ral regional parks: the Parc Na­turel Ré­gional des Vol­cans d’Au­vergne to the east, which in­cor­po­rates the vol­canic Sancy Mas­sif and the Can­tal vol­ca­noes, and the Parc Na­turel Ré­gional du Livradois-Forez to the west, home to vast forests and ski­ing slopes.

There are sev­eral vol­cano ranges in Au­vergne, the more fa­mous of which has to be the Chaîne des Puys, span­ning 30km and boast­ing no fewer than 80 domes and craters, in­clud­ing the Puy de Dôme which looms over Cler­mont-Fer­rand. The Mas­sif du Sancy has more jagged peaks and the Puy de Sancy is the high­est sum­mit in the Mas­sif Cen­tral, at an al­ti­tude of 1,886m. Other ranges in­clude the Monts du Can­tal which has some truly stunning land­scapes, in­clud­ing the Puy Mary – a Grand Site de France – and the Monts du Céza­l­lier.

The di­ver­sity of the area means there is a wealth of out­door ac­tiv­i­ties of­fer­ing ev­ery age group the op­por­tu­nity to en­joy the land­scape, and all year long. Obviously hik­ing is one of the first things to come to mind. Many of the vol­ca­noes are pri­vately owned and it is cus­tom­ary to ask for per­mis­sion to walk up some of them, but the best way to find out where you can hike is to ask the tourist board or look on­line. There are some good hik­ing sug­ges­tions on the au­vergne-tourism.com/ ac­tiv­i­ties web­site.

Other than that, Au­vergne, and par­tic­u­larly the Livradois-Forez park, is ex­cel­lent moun­tain bik­ing coun­try and has trails to suit all lev­els. If you’re look­ing for a real adren­a­line rush, be sure to head to the Prabouré leisure park where you can whizz down the Mas­sif Cen­tral’s high­est

zip line above the Ance val­ley, or en­joy a tree­top ad­ven­ture where you’ll ‘hop’ from tree to tree. There are plenty of ac­tiv­i­ties for those who pre­fer to take things at a gen­tler pace too, from horse rid­ing and fish­ing to ca­noe­ing and golf. The choice is yours, and the huge forests, plateaux and vol­ca­noes could sim­ply be an ex­ten­sion of your own back gar­den.

COM­MU­NITY SPIRIT

Hav­ing moved to Haute-Loire with their two daugh­ters, Daisy and Olive, in 2011, Kathryn and Rob Har­ri­son have built both a happy life and a suc­cess­ful, eco-friendly yurt hol­i­day busi­ness called Au­vergne Na­turelle (yurthol­i­daysfrance.co.uk). One thing Kathryn par­tic­u­larly ap­pre­ci­ates is the fact that Au­vergne still has four de­fined sea­sons, some­thing which the whole fam­ily en­joys. “We es­pe­cially like liv­ing in the moun­tains as it is al­ways a lit­tle bit cooler in the hot sum­mer months,” she says. “We love the fact that we have dis­tinct sea­sons. Au­tumn is beau­ti­ful here too with the trees chang­ing colour, and in win­ter we al­ways have snow with great hills for sledg­ing. It can be cold in win­ter – one year the tem­per­a­ture dropped to -32C°! – but we snug­gle in­side with the log burner on to keep us warm and cosy.”

Thanks to the vol­ca­noes and moun­tains, you can also find some good ski­ing re­sorts in Au­vergne, which re­main much qui­eter than the Alps even in the height of win­ter – and they’re sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper too. The re­sorts are mostly fam­ily-friendly so are per­fect for fam­i­lies in­tro­duc­ing lit­tle ones to the slopes, while Nordic ski­ing is an op­tion for those keen to take on a chal­lenge.

As a re­gion with lower al­ti­tudes than Rhône-Alpes, Au­vergne is a won­der­ful place to raise chil­dren as they can en­joy ev­ery as­pect of the moun­tains with­out the steep slopes and more ex­treme weather. Kathryn and her fam­ily love be­ing out­doors and make the most of it as much as they can. “We have great days out for the kids, hik­ing up vol­ca­noes, ca­noe­ing, pad­dling in the river or just great walk­ing and cy­cling. We also like the fact that Au­vergne is so green.”

In­te­grat­ing into their lo­cal com­mu­nity was easy thanks to the two girls, who at­tend school here and are both flu­ent in French. Rob teaches swim­ming lessons and has even vol­un­teered to be­come a lo­cal pom­pier (fire­man) and will start train­ing in Oc­to­ber. “We have great neigh­bours who all help us out if we need any­thing, and we re­ally feel part of the com­mu­nity,” says Kathryn. “A lady in our vil­lage helps us with our French and we have French lessons with her each week.”

Ex­pats Michael and Sue Longhurst also no­ticed how gen­uine and warm the Au­vergnats, as the in­hab­i­tants of Au­vergne are called, were when they first set up their busi­ness in Al­lier. “When we first moved to France, it came as a sur­prise to us just how many French peo­ple here speak ex­cel­lent English and want to try their hand at im­press­ing you with it,” they say. “We were also pleas­antly sur­prised by how help­ful the of­fi­cials have been. Whether registering a car, sort­ing out tax mat­ters, open­ing a bank ac­count, ap­ply­ing for per­mis­sion to build an ex­ten­sion, or set­ting up a busi­ness, the au­thor­i­ties have been ex­tremely help­ful.”

Now aged 62, Michael and Sue came to Al­lier in 2005, af­ter care­fully con­sid­er­ing where they wanted to move to. “We even­tu­ally set­tled in Al­lier be­cause it is very much like Wales, where we had a farm be­fore, with rolling green hills and lots of vil­lages com­prised of mainly farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties,” they ex­plain. “We did a lot of driv­ing around be­fore buying here be­cause we wanted to en­sure that the area could pro­vide the fa­cil­i­ties and in­fras­truc­ture nec­es­sary for both the busi­ness and our own lives.”

The cou­ple set up a thriv­ing llama breed­ing and trekking busi­ness, selling trekking lla­mas all over Europe. Un­for­tu­nately, health is­sues mean that Michael and Sue now have to stop work­ing the land and are look­ing to sell their lla­mas, and even their prop­erty. How­ever, the cou­ple want noth­ing more than to stay in Au­vergne. “We have al­ready made the de­ci­sion that we will search for a new home but with­out land and in the area we cur­rently live, be­cause it has ev­ery­thing we could pos­si­bly wish for,” they say.

THE GOOD LIFE

For Michael and Sue, their lo­cal area in Au­vergne re­ally does have it all. Their cur­rent lo­ca­tion of­fers ac­cess to towns such as Moulins, Vichy, Montluçon and even Cler­mont-Fer­rand, which are all be­tween 30 and 50 min­utes away by car. “Our near­est towns of Moulins and Montluçon have their re­spec­tive old quar­ters where you walk through nar­row cob­bled streets lined by an­cient oak­framed houses,” they say. “There are also a plethora of cafés and res­tau­rants where you can while away the time sit­ting out­side and watch­ing the world go by. Af­ter all these years we never tire of the his­tory of this area, which can be seen ev­ery­where you look.”

Aside from breath­tak­ing nat­u­ral trea­sures, Au­vergne is, much like its neigh­bour­ing Bur­gundy, a re­gion where life and its pro­duce are en­joyed with­out mod­er­a­tion. The French would say “il fait bon vivre”, an old ex­pres­sion which trans­lates as ‘life is good’.

The vast ex­panses of pas­ture are home to herds of cat­tle graz­ing peace­fully in the fields. Salers cows are the lo­cal breed and pro­duce a de­li­cious cheese of the same name, one of five AOP cheeses in Au­vergne which also in­clude Bleu d’Au­vergne, Fourme d’Am­bert, Can­tal and St-Nec­taire. Un­sur­pris­ingly, lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties of­ten in­clude a form of melted cheese, such as truf­fade, a hearty potato dish made with Can­tal cheese.

Other spe­cial­i­ties in­clude pounti, a ter­rine of pork and prunes, Puy lentils of course, and sweet ap­ple tarts. Be­cause of the moun­tain­ous land­scape, Au­vergne also counts thou­sands of dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of plants, herbs and flow­ers which are of­ten in­cor­po­rated into tra­di­tional liqueurs, such as gen­tiane.

For those look­ing for a sim­pler life away from the crowds but with­out com­pro­mis­ing on ac­tiv­i­ties, ameni­ties and ac­ces­si­bil­ity, Au­vergne is a trea­sure trove just wait­ing to be ex­plored. And with homes at such af­ford­able prices and so much on the doorstep to en­joy for free, the good life re­ally is within easy reach. In fact, I might have to think about liv­ing here my­self.

Le Puy-en-Ve­lay in Haute-Loire

En­joy­ing a spot of lunch – and peo­ple watch­ing – at a restau­rant in Salers

Place de Jaude in Cler­mont-Fer­rand

Clock­wise from top left: Via­duc de Gara­bit; Au­vergne has some\ of the low­est prop­erty prices in France; moun­tain bik­ing on Puy Mary

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