TAKE A STROLL ISSOIRE
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.
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