A Walkers Paradise
Located some 3.5 hours south of Paris and 3 hours drive from the south coast, the Auvergne region covers an area of 25,015 square miles in the heart of France.
The name derives from the name applied to the region occupied by the ancient Gaulish tribe, the Averni. In fact ‘Vercingatorix’, the leader of the Averni led the Gauls to a great victory over the Romans at ‘Gergovia’ in 52 BC. The ‘Plain de Gergovia’ is located to the south of the Auvergne’s modern capital, Clermont Ferrand and is a popular tourist attraction with a memorial to Vercingatorix, a visitor centre and fine views over the city. Today four departments make up the Auvergne region – the Allier in the north, the Puy de Dome in the centre, the Haute-Loire to the east and the Cantal in the south.
The diversity of the landscape takes in plains, river gorges, crater lakes, plateaux, exceptional flora and fauna and volcanic mountains (now thankfully extinct), and it is this variety which characterises this part of France.
It is no surprise therefore that the Auvergne is one of the great places in Europe for walking. But why just stick to walking? Other activities on offer, in common with most mountainous regions, include ski-ing, cycling (on and off road), orienteering, ballooning, fishing, rock climbing, hang gliding, canoeing, dog sledding – the list is seemingly endless!
The area is home to hundreds of marked paths and trails ranging in difficulty from simple low level walks to more demanding trails for the experienced walker. Many of the walking routes are maintained by volunteer groups who make sure the paths are clear and well signposted.
Many Grand Randonée (GR) routes can be found in the Auvergne. These are long distance paths often arising in other departments of France. One of the most famous and ancient of these is GR65 part of which passes through the Massif Central and onto Le Puy-en-Velay, one of the starting points for one of the four the pilgrim routes leading to the Shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostella in North West Spain. Designated GR routes are waymarked in red and white stripes. Shorter walks are often designated as Petite Randonée (PR). Usually circular they are waymarked with single stripes in either blue, yellow, black or green.
The unique volcanic landscape of the Auvergne is a paradise for hill and mountain walkers. Although not as high as the peaks of the Alps or Pyrenees the Auvergne nevertheless offers some stunning scenery with many unspoilt trails catering for the casual rambler to the more serious hiker.
Many of the best walks are found within the areas two regional nature parks. Created in 1977 the ‘Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans d’Auvergne’ covering over 395,000 ha along a north south axis of about 120km/75miles and it’s smaller neighbour the ‘Parc Naturel Régional des Livradois-Forez’ covering 300,000 ha along the line of the Dore valley – make this the largest environmentally protected area in France.
Many plants, not otherwise common in the rest of Europe, can be found here, supported by the fertile volcanic soils. Spring meadows of ‘narcissi’ and ‘alpine daffodils’ can be seen on many walks. Other common plants include ‘gentians’, ‘sundews’ and ‘Martagon lilies’. The Auvergne has over 4,500 common and rare species of plants and flower including some forty protected plants.
The climate of the Auvergne ranges from hot, dry summers to harsh, cold winters often with snow on the higher plateaus and peaks. Temperatures average 12 degrees Celsius annually. The winter is best avoided as a time for walking, unless you are prepared to don a pair of snow shoes and trek across the snow covered plains. The rest of the year is ideal for hiking, with the spring and autumn perhaps offering the best conditions for the serious enthusiasts. The stunning autumn colours of the deciduous forests reward the visitor at this time of year.
Almost anywhere in the Auvergne is a good place to walk but some of the principal walking centres of the region are Murat, Saint-Flour, Vic-sur-Cere and Thiézac in the Cantal and La Bourboule, le Mont Dore, St. Nectaire and Besse-en-Chandesse in the de Puy de Dome department.
So if you are an enthusiastic walker and want to discover a relatively unspoilt region of France, head for the Auvergne.