Auvergne & the Alps

Mountains dominate this part of France, but that doesn't mean that there is nothing but snow and skiing. Important though a winter skiing holiday is for many people, there is so much more to do as well, at all times of the year.

The mountainous region that is Auvergne is divided into the following departments: Allier, Cantal, Haute Loire and Puys de Dome. Working our way south, Allier has a town called Moulins, in which the cathedral has some delightful stained glass windows and some notable bell towers. The Duke of Montmorency’s mausoleum is in Moulins, and this is one of those places classified as a ‘town of art and history’.

The regional capital Clermont-Ferrand is in Puys-de-Dome, amidst the imposing setting of dormant volcanoes. Many of the buildings are made from lava rock, amongst these the gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption. The city hosts the annual Festival International du Court-Métrage, which is a short-film festival, held at the end of January. Visitors to Volvic can explore not only the source for the famous water and get a tour, but stand on one of the best vantage points of the extinct volcanoes of the Chaine-des-Puys. One of the six ‘Grand Sites of France’, and the origins of the departmental title, Puys-de-Dome is an enormous volcano on which there are the remains of a Roman temple known as the ‘Temple of Mercury’. The nearby Vulcania theme park has the somewhat unusual distinction of volcano-themed attractions: it is both an educational and a fun day out. The largely 19th century ski resort towns of Mont-Dore and La Bourbule are also in this department. The cheese-producing town Ambert has a museum dedicated to its celebrated cheese.

In Cantal, probably the most appealing locality to go to is the village of Salers in the Massif Central. It has some wonderful 16th century houses, and is as though a relic from a time gone by, preserved in its glory. This 1000 year-old village is surrounded by its 15th century ramparts.

Haute-Loire is in south-eastern Auvergne. The Benedictine abbey in Chaise-Dieu has a 26 metre-long fresco - the ‘Danse Macabre’. The Polignac Château stands atop a high rock. Here the plateau reaches an altitude of 1350 metres near to Le Puy en Velay, positioned between the River Loire and the Allier mountain stream. The Gorges du Haut Allier have some fine wooded views, of conifers and deciduous trees. A railway line still runs through the gorges; a line that goes from Clermont-Ferrand to Nîmes passing through no less than 100 tunnels on the way.

Rhône-Alpes is the region that covers a large part of the French Alps, and has numerous departments: Ain, Ardeche, Drome, Isère, Loire, Rhône, Savoie and Haute-Savoie.

The regional capital and France’s third-largest city, Lyon is an important cultural centre, near to both the Rhône and Saône rivers, and sitting between and on two hills, Fourvière and Croix-Rousse. Both the 15th century cathedral and entire Croix-Rousse district are UNESCO World Heritage sites. On Fourvière’s hill, the Romanesque-Byzantine Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière is a spectacular structure that can be seen from a great distance. The walk up the hill and into Fourvière itself is a pleasure. There are little ‘bouchons’ (a kind of restaurant) around here where Lyon’s much-feted gastronomy comes to the fore. Showing that the French actually are open to other nation's cuisine, Mark claims he ate the best pasta dish hehas ever tasted in one of these. There is also an array of little shops selling traditional products. A puppet museum can be found here, with a range of marionettes, hand and stick puppets to be viewed, including an old Punch and Judy. The ‘Musée Lumière’ is a great cinematic resource, as this covers information on the invention of cinema, as it stemmed from Lyon’s own Lumière Brothers. The fine arts museum ‘Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon’ has works from the likes of Picasso and Rembrandt as well as ancient Egyptian artefacts. This museum is one of the largest collections of art in the country outside the Louvre. The African Museum of Lyon is another good one, devoted to West African culture. The Fête des Lumières held on 8th December each year is a very special light display. The northern part of Rhône-Alpes is also home to the famed Beaujolais wine region. The Dombes plateau has over 1000 man-made lakes, and this is now a popular area for bird-watching and fishing. Bourg-en-Bresse in Ain has some striking marble effigies in the mausoleums of the Brou Church.

Elsewhere, Annecy is a pretty town with woods, mountains and lakes all around. Lake Annecy is a breathtaking location, and is popular for all kinds of water-based activities. Val d’Isère in Savoie is part of the Espace Killy ski-ing resorts. Developed in the 1930s, it has been one of France’s most popular ever since. Neighbouring Tignes also has popular ski slopes, and although there are many contemporary resort developments around that are lacking in style, more recently restrictions have been placed on these kind of developments, bestowing upon the area a return to its more traditional Alpine style. Some of the other main mountain resorts are found in Les Trois Vallées, Portes du Soleil, Chamonix Mont-Blanc, Deux-Alpes, La Clusaz and L’Alpe d’Huez.

In Isère, Grenoble has good transport links to many of the mountain resorts. Two high points of Grenoble itself are the jazz festival held for two weeks in various bars and other venues in March, and the Musée de la Résistance which provides World War II Resistance exhibits.

Drome is where one finds the ‘Palais Idéal’- a tremendously intricate structure, of which Picasso was a fan. In addition, there is a crocodile farm at Pierrelatte. Mirmande is an attractive mediaeval village, notable for the quality and attention lavished on its gardens, as well as how it has received awards for and membership of ‘most beautiful roofs in France’ and ‘Botanic Villages of the Drome’ respectively.

Ardeche has some superb gorges, and this sort of spectacular scenery is evident all over the south-east quarter of France.