Discover a land shaped by volcanoes, with affordable house prices and a wealth of activities to enjoy for free
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.
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.
Enjoying a spot of lunch – and people watching – at a restaurant in Salers
Place de Jaude in Clermont-Ferrand
Le Puy-en-Velay in Haute-Loire
Clockwise from top left: Viaduc de Garabit; Auvergne has some\ of the lowest property prices in France; mountain biking on Puy Mary