- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

Volcanic landscapes, towns from Romans, Middle Ages invite strolling and exploring

CLERMONT-FERRAND, France — rom the top of the Puy-de-Dome, a 5,500-foot extinct volcano in the center of France, several smaller volcanoes circling it resemble bowls of velvety, bright green English pea soup.

In the millenniums since the last eruption of these volcanoes, layers of grass have covered the craters, along with trees and plants in several of them. Most are as smooth as soup bowls.

Writer George Sand described Auvergne as “one of the loveliest spots on earth … a soil cut up with deep ravines, crossed in every way by lofty walls of lava, and furrowed by numerous torrents.” That’s only half the story. Auvergne is also a land of green valleys, gently flowing rivers, nature wild and tame, and remarkable remnants of centuries past.

Eighty volcanoes sleep in the area around Clermont-Ferrand, a city famed for its black cathedral and the Michelin tires manufactured here. There’s no connection between the tires and the cathedral; the spires are black from the volcanic rock used to build them. Many of the houses in the old town are similarly black.

Auvergne and its volcanoes are part of the mountain range called the Massif Central, which runs down the middle of the nation. Auvergne once had its own language, and 50 years ago, “Les Chansons d’Auvergne,” the songs of Auvergne, were popular in the clubs and cabarets of Paris. But times and tastes change, and both the songs and the language are only echoes of times gone by.

What you hear on top of the beautiful Puy-de-Dome is the whistle of the wind. The Romans built a temple to Mercury, the god of the wind, on the mountain, and the ruins survive, although the artifacts found there are on display in the Bargoin Museum of Archaeology in Clermont. You hear the gentle lowing of the snow-white cows, the rustle of forests and the bubble and gurgle of small streams.

You see pastoral, rolling, mountainous landscapes and valleys dotted with lovely stone villages, magnificent 12th-century Romanesque churches, ruins of medieval castles, and elegant manor houses transformed into hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations. What you don’t see are hordes of tourists, for Auvergne remains low-key and relatively undiscovered. Auvergne is a region of France ideal for hiking, walking, strolling or just taking life easy.

CLERMONT-FERRAND

An hour’s flight from Paris, Clermont-Ferrand is the logical starting point for a visit to Auvergne; it dates from Roman times. Nearby is the plateau where the Gauls under Vercingetorix defeated Julius Caesar’s invading army. A grand statue of the young chieftain of the Auverni on horseback graces Clermont-Ferrand’s Place du Jaude.

During the Middle Ages, Clermont and Montferrand were separate cities, divided by economic and political rivalry: The old town of Clermont was controlled by the bishop, and less than a mile away, the town of Montferrand was under the control of the counts of Auvergne. The towns were united administratively during the reign of Louis XIII but did not become one city until the 19th century.

Clermont-Ferrand is not one of the nation’s jewels, but it projects a certain provincial charm: an interesting old city; 50 fountains splashing over lava stone throughout the town, including the ornate 16th-century Fontaine d’Amboise with its arched Gothic buttresses and Italiante decoration; several good museums; the imposing black cathedral with its remnants of medieval frescoes, and the splendid Romanesque basilica of Notre-Dame-du-Port.

In all likelihood, it was from the pulpit of the basilica that Pope Urban II preached the sermon inspiring the First Crusade.

The heritage of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are visible in the timbered houses, courtyards and sculpted decorations on the Renaissance mansions.

Clermont-Ferrand’s stylish shops offer goods as chic as those sold in Paris but less dear. The delicious, slightly tart fruit jellies, dispensed in old-fashioned shops in the heart of the city, are a specialty.

Not far from Clermont-Ferrand lies Vulcania, a volcanic complex opened in 2002. Visitors enter the center down a stone pathway between walls made of large blocks of volcanic stones. At the end of the walk is an artificial cone, about 90 feet high, made of volcanic rock on the outside and covered with materials that reflect natural light on the inside.

Vulcania’s exhibits present information about volcanoes in general, the Puy-de-Dome chain and specific volcanoes around the world such as the Ring of Fire along the Pacific Ocean basin.

A volcanic garden, covered with a glass roof, contains exotic plants, fern trees, grasses and other species that flourish in volcanic soil. Exhibits inform about the solar system, Earth in motion and other natural phenomena. In the seismic chamber, visitors can experience a simulated earthquake up to 5.5 magnitude on the Richter scale.

The Lemptegy volcano, which is used commercially for the excavation of volcanic rock, offers visitors a chance to walk into the crater of a volcano. Guided tours point out volcanic chimneys, volcanic bombs and old lava flows.

VICHY

The region’s second city is Vichy, famous for its water and infamous as the capital of occupied France during World War II. Vichy once was the queen of spa resorts and the darling of French society, who traveled from Paris to take the waters from the 260 springs that bubble in and around the town. The golden age of Vichy was the belle epoque, the years preceding World War I.

During France’s colonial era, civil servants and administrators of overseas colonies spent their holidays in Vichy, the French equivalent of Germany’s Baden-Baden. The old casino is now a conference center, but the opera house remains a venue for concerts and operas during the season, May to September. The elegant hotels along the central park have been turned into condominiums.

These hotels were the reason why the wartime government of Henri Philippe Petain chose Vichy as the capital of the unoccupied France. The Hotel du Parc became the central government building, housing the foreign ministry, among others. Hotel Carlton, where the shah of Iran once stayed, housed three ministries for the Petain government.

Of the six deluxe pre-war hotels, only one remains, the Aletti Palace, now a Best Western. The residents are understandably reluctant to talk about the days of World War II, and the monument to the murdered Jews of the town in front of the Hotel du Parc has been desecrated several times.

Bands no longer play beneath the chestnut trees, and Parisians no longer flock down to drink the water and play roulette. Vichy is a faded dowager queen, a quiet backwater highly desirable as a retirement town, thanks to the mild climate, the waters said to be good for the liver, and the antique atmosphere. Remnants of its art-nouveau charm abound, such as the beautiful covered galleries, 2,300 feet in length, brought by the town from Paris, where they had been exhibited on the Champs de Mars.

The residential sections are studded with lovely villas, the center of town is replete with elegant shops, and the art-nouveau remnants of Vichy’s glory days are delightful. The water, used for fitness and cosmetics, still can be imbibed in the public Hall of Springs. Of the six different waters, only the water from the Celestins spring has a pleasant taste. Remnants of the Roman establishment are preserved and visible in a corner of the hall.

Only the entrance hall remains of the ornate thermal baths, decorated with Moorish arches, gold and blue domes and ceramics depicting voluptuous mermaids at play. The arcades house shops.

Then there’s the famous potato soup. Vichyssoise actually has only the faintest connection to the town. In 1917, the Hotel Ritz-Carlton in New York was about to open a roof garden terrace. The chef de cuisine was a Frenchman named Louis Diat, who frequently prepared a potato-and-leek soup from his mother’s recipe. Diat intended to serve the soup at the celebration party.

Whether the staff forgot to warm the soup or whether it was a particularly hot day is lost to history, but in any event, the chef added cream, sprinkled the soup with chopped chives and called it creme vichyssoise glacee (chilled vichyssoise cream) in honor of the town where he was born. The chef and the hotel are long gone, but the soup lives on.

AUVERGNE VILLAGES

Aside from the countryside itself, Auvergne’s great glory is the abundance of exquisite stone villages, such as ancient Herisson (hedgehog), dating from the fifth century. According to local legend, the village acquired its name when the king arrived with his hunting dog in the 12th century. The dog ran after a hedgehog, which pricked it with quills. Said the king, “Here will I build a castle like a hedgehog with a multitude of defensive points.”

The motto of the sandstone fortress was “Qui s’y frotte, s’y pique,” (he who rubs against me will be pricked). Indeed, attacking armies suffered many pricks and never took the castle. It was destroyed on orders of Cardinal Mazarin, who ordered the destruction of all French fortresses under the control of the Bourbon dukes.

The inhabitants of the village used the stones of the castle to build or repair their houses, and erosion further crumbled the castle walls. Romantic ruins remain on the hilltop overlooking the valley and the houses along the river Aumance. Part of the medieval town walls and two fortified portals lead into the heart of the village.

The village of 721 inhabitants hosts an annual summer music festival. On its main street is the distillery and shop where the local straight whiskey, “Hedgehog,” is made and sold. Kentucky beware: Monsieur Balthazar makes what tastes mighty like the real thing.

LAVAUDIEU

Designated one of the prettiest villages in France, Lavaudieu is an unspoiled stone village. No shops, no bars, no night life, just a restaurant or two. Twice a week, a small truck brings groceries, meat and bread to the village square.

What makes the village well worth a visit are the exquisite 11th-century Benedictine abbey, the Romanesque church with 14th-century wall paintings, and the only perfectly preserved cloister in the Roman Auvergne area. The refectory is aglow with Byzantine-influenced murals.

Perched high atop a 264-foot volcanic spur in Le Puy-en-Velay sits the 1,000-year-old chapel dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel. The town is one of the starting points for the pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela in northern Spain, the third-most-holy site of Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome.

CASTLES AND MANSIONS

A castle of interest to American visitors is the Chateau Lafayette, birthplace and home of Marquis Gilbert Motier de Lafayette, heir to a noble Auvergnac family name, wealth and prestige.

The marquis greatly admired George Washington and asked him to be the godfather of his son.

Washington agreed on condition that the child be named for him. So Lafayette named his third child George Washington and his fourth child Virginia.

The present 17th-century castle replaced a 14th-century fortified house. Owned by a Franco-American foundation, the castle flies the French and American flags. It can be toured by visitors; the well-kept gardens are open for pleasant strolling.

Several of the region’s castles actually are stately homes or mansions rather than medieval castles, and many have been transformed into hotels or bed-and-breakfast establishments.

A delightful castle-hotel is the 18th-century Chateau d’Ygrande, where owner Pierre-Marie Tissier makes his guests welcome. The small chateau has 16 comfortable rooms, an excellent kitchen and a gorgeous park surrounding the house as well as a stable where Mr. Tissier boards and trains horses, several of which he owns himself. Guests are invited to ride.

A pleasant B&B is the Domaine de Gaudon, a small 19th-century manor house owned by Alain and Monique Bozzo. The Bozzos are enthusiastic hosts and serve a sumptuous breakfast not easily forgotten.

Auvergne is famous for its cheeses — cantal, St. Nectaire, salers and blue cheeses: bleu d’Auvergne and fourme d’Ambert. St. Nectaire, the village where the cheese is made, is known as well for its magnificent Romanesque church.

There is an organized “route du fromage” for those who wish to follow the trail of cheese-making from village to village. Several cheese festivals enliven the region during the summer.

Cheese is an important part of the cuisine of the Auvergne, where peasant food dominates.

A favorite dish is a delicious, albeit far from light combination of ham, cheese and potatoes. Lentils are another local specialty. The local red and white wines, which do not compete with the best of France, are nevertheless very drinkable.

• • •

Air France flies nonstop from Washington to Paris, where there are frequent connections to Clermont-Ferrand.

Chateau d’Ygrande, Le Mont 03160 Ygrande; phone 33 4 70 66 33 11; fax 33 4 70 66 33 63

Domaine de Gaudon, Gaudon, 63520 Ceilloux; 33 4 73 70 76 25; fax 33 4 73 70 74 04

Chateau Lafayette, 43230 Chavaniac-Lafayette; phone 33 4 71 77 50 32; fax. 33 4 71 77 55 44; visit www.chateau-lafayette.com

Vulcania: www.vulcania.com

Auvergne Cheese Route, Association des Fromages d’Auvergne, 52 avenue des Pupilles de la Nation, 15000 Aurillac; 33 4 71 48 66 15

Tourisme de Clermont-Ferrand, 33 4 73 98 65 00; fax. 33 4 73 90 04 11; www.clermont-fd.com

Tourisme de Vichy, 33 4 70 98 71 94; fax 33 4 70 31 06 00; www.vichy-tourisme.com

French Government Tourist Office, 444 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022; 212/745-0967

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