Sit­u­ated where the Al­lier and Couze rivers meet the dra­matic vol­canic land­scapes and fer­tile plains for which Au­vergne is well-known, Su­san Woodward finds that the town of Is­soire of­fers the vis­i­tor plenty of rea­sons to stay and ex­plore a while.

France - - Contents -

Ex­plore the streets and sights of this fas­ci­nat­ing river­side Au­vergne town.

Is­soire is of­ten known, par­tic­u­larly lo­cally, as la porte du sud. This lively town 30 min­utes from Cler­mont-fer­rand, near the toll-free A75, is in­deed the gate­way to the south. Ly­ing on the River Couze, near its con­flu­ence with the Al­lier, the ap­proach, by train or road, closely fol­lows deep, rocky river gorges. The land­scape then opens out to the fer­tile plains of Li­magne. The sur­round­ing perched vil­lages on vol­canic plugs have given this re­gion the so­bri­quet ‘Tus­can Au­vergne’.

Is­soire is a town of con­trasts: quaint streets in the old part of town, thriv­ing mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties and in­dus­try on its perime­ter. But it is the old town that I am go­ing to ex­plore…

I park at the SCNF sta­tion and fol­low Av­enue de la Gare to­wards the town cen­tre. The im­pos­ing ex­te­rior of the Abbey-church of Saint-aus­tremoine comes into view. The abbey-church is Is­soire’s star at­trac­tion. It dates from the late 11th and early 12th cen­turies and is one of the most im­por­tant ex­am­ples of Ro­manesque ar­chi­tec­ture, clas­si­fied as a his­toric monument since 1840. The build­ing was de­stroyed by the Huguenots in the wars of re­li­gion but re­stored in the 19th and 20th cen­turies. On en­ter­ing, I am im­me­di­ately stunned by the glo­ri­ous colours of the walls and col­umns, re­painted in the 19th cen­tury in the style of the orig­i­nal de­signs. A rare fea­ture of the abbey-church is the de­pic­tion of the twelve signs of the zo­diac around the chevet as well as a thir­teenth, the orig­i­nal of which can be seen in the nearby Cen­tre d’art Ro­man Ge­orges Duby.

From the abbey I walk down Rue Gam­betta to­wards the crowds on Place de la République. Of course, it’s Satur­day so it’s market day! The market, in fact, takes over many of the small streets of the old town, and the sights and smells of saucisses and Au­vergne cheeses (Can­tal, Saint-nec­taire, Fourme d’am­bert, to name just three) fill the air.

Place de la République is the hub of Is­soire and the site of sev­eral clas­si­fied his­toric mon­u­ments, such as the Mai­son aux Ar­cades, birth­place of Dr Gabriel Roux, (1853-1945) a lead­ing re­searcher in the field of an­tibi­otics. Ad­ja­cent is the colour­ful Hô­tel de Clé­ment, dat­ing from the late 15th cen­tury. On all sides of the square, I marvel at the var­i­ous hues of the build­ings, the roofs of ter­ra­cotta pan­tiles and the nu­mer­ous iron bal­conies adorned with flow­ers. The many cafés fronting the square are busy – shop­ping

is thirsty work!

With trep­i­da­tion I brave the spiral stair­case to the top of the clock­tower, an­other of Is­soire’s un­miss­able mon­u­ments. This one is def­i­nitely not for ver­tigo suf­fer­ers and I steady my­self on the handrail while I take in the views. The rooftops of the old town are spread out be­low me and in the dis­tance lies Puy de Sancy, the site of the Su­per Besse win­ter sports re­sort.

I choose to leave Place de la République by Rue Ber­biziale, strolling past nu­mer­ous ar­ti­san craft and food shops, as well as quaint al­ley­ways in­trigu­ingly named af­ter birds (re­spec­tively Faisin, Paon, Chapon and Coq) then I join the busier thor­ough­fare of Boule­vard Al­bert Buis­son.

The Halle aux Grains is the im­pos­ing build­ing here, dat­ing from 1816. Built in the style of a tem­ple, sym­bol­is­ing the agri­cul­tural pros­per­ity of the re­gion, it is now used for com­mu­nity events. At the end of the Boule­vard, I pass the Pont de Charle­magne across the River Couze, the green open spa­ces of the park on Square René Cassin, then I head re­luc­tantly back to the sta­tion.

Is­soire has re­cently been voted one of the Plus Beaux Dé­tours de France and rightly so. It is wor­thy of much more than a quick re­fu­elling stop on the way to the Mediter­ranean.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: The Pont Charle­magne crosses the River Couze; ter­ra­cotta-tiled roofs stretch to­wards Puy de Sancy in the dis­tance; Au­vergnat spe­cial­i­ties; the in­te­rior of the Abbey-church of Saint-aus­tremoine has been re­stored

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