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TRAVEL

Ten reasons to visit France’s Auvergne area

Whether it's French residents looking for a great staycation spot or tourists wanting to go off the beaten track, France's Auvergne region has a lot to recommend it.

Ten reasons to visit France's Auvergne area
Photo: Auvergne-Tourisme.

The Auvergne region of central France was actually voted one of the top must-visit destinations in the world by Lonely Planet magazine back in 2016, but it still remains much less well known than areas like the Côte d’Azur or the Alps.

But for our money it’s a must see. Here’s why:

Volcanoes

Don’t panic – none of Auvergne’s 450 volcanoes have erupted for well over 6,000 years, but they have left their mark all over the region, from the distinctive stone rock of local architecture to Vulcania, an educational volcano theme park located near the Chaîne des Puys mountains.

Visitors can hike, bike or take the train to the top of the tallest peak, the Puy de Dôme (‘puy’ means volcano in the local dialect), and survey the surrounding area. You can also visit Clairvic spring, the source of Volvic mineral water.

READ ALSO Readers recommend: the hidden gems to explore in France this summer

Eco-friendly breaks

In the Auvergne you don’t have to be satisfied with simply admiring the beautiful landscape, but can also help to protect it if you opt to stay in one of Nattitude’s gites, hotels or campsites, or in a CosyCamp site.

Both companies offer alternative accommodation options with a focus on saving energy, using local produce and promoting the fitness and wellbeing of their guests.

Castles

The Auvergne is home to over 500 castles, each one a reminder of a moment in France’s history from the ancient Gauls onwards.

The ruined medieval fortress of Bourbon-L’Archambault is one of the oldest feudal ruins in Europe, while the ivy-covered Château de Sédaiges in Marmanhac is still inhabited by the descendents of the family who built the castle in the 1400s. For true castle enthusiasts, staying overnight is possible in this and several of the region’s other castles, such as the 15th century Château de Riau which has its own moat and dungeon.

City Breaks

Despite the rural landscape and untouched feel to much of the Auvergne, its cities are also worth a visit, and five towns in the Auvergne have been labelled official Villes d’Art et d’Histoire (Towns of Art and History).

In Moulins, the hometown of Gabrielle Chanel, you can visit the Grand Café where she used to sing, and the mountaintop city of Clermont-Ferrand offers visitors views across the Chaîne des Puys mountain range and varied cultural offerings such as its International Short Film Festival.

If you’re visiting during the rugby season, Clermont-Ferrand is home to one of France’s best teams, Clermont Auvergne, which boasts world class players, a good selection of half-time snacks and a particularly good fans’ band.

The food

As you’d expect from the home of the Michelin brothers, Auvergne has a reputation for hearty, delicious cuisine.

The region is responsible for producing a quarter of France’s AOP cheeses; the cows’ mountain flower diet is said to improve their flavour.

Other local specialities include stuffed cabbage, cured meats, and aligot, a local dish made of cheese, mashed potato and garlic, which was traditionally served to pilgrims on their way to Spanish shrines.

READ ALSO The six best French cheese dishes

Spa towns

Vichy is the most famous of the region’s spa towns; it was a favourite of Napoleon III and the water is said to help cure digestive problems and migraines.

But there are plenty of lesser known gems in the Auvergne for those looking for health treatments and relaxation. Why not visit the Roman baths of Néris-les-Bains, or Chaudes-Aigues, which boasts Europe’s hottest springs and a spa centre with waterfalls and a musical bath.

Winter sports

What it lacks in luxury chalets and trendy après-ski spots, the Auvergne makes up for in reasonable costs, minimal queuing and stunning settings for a variety of snow sports.

Try alpine skiing on a volcano, fishing expeditions on a frozen lake, or more niche sports like luge or dog sledding.

Churches

The Auvergne has plenty of medieval ruins and historic buildings in the Romanesque style; five of its Romanesque churches are labelled ‘Major Churches’ due to their architectural style.

But a conceptual art project, Horizons, has added a modern twist to the Auvergne landscape for the past few years. Sculptures and other artistic creations have been put up in the region’s natural spaces, offering surprises for lovers of nature and art.

Hiking and Biking

The best way to explore the varied terrain of the Auvergne and to take in its magnificent views is on foot. It’s possible to find demanding trails for experienced hikers as well as easy routes – labelled with yellow butterfly markers – suitable for novices, children and even pushchairs.

Water and wine

Thanks to its volcanic roots, the Auvergne is home to more than 100 spring and mineral waters, the most famous being Volvic.

It takes more than three years for the rainfall in the area to permeate the lava-coated valleys around the source, supposedly leading to pure, high quality water.

And for those who prefer something stronger, the wines of Saint-Pourçain and Côtes d’Auvergne have both been awarded AOC status, and were enjoyed by French kings and the popes in Avignon.

The only drawback is that it’s not particularly easy to access. The nearest airport is Lyon but you can also get a direct train from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand, which takes about three and a half hours.

Here’s a map of where the actual Auvergne is:

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TOURISM

What to know when visiting France’s lavender fields this summer

Known affectionately as 'blue gold,' France’s lavender fields are a popular tourist attraction every year. Here is what you need to know about visiting them:

What to know when visiting France's lavender fields this summer

Lavender is the “soul of Provence,” the French region where the fields can be found. Like wine, lavender was brought to France around 2,000 years ago by the Romans. The flower is the emblem of ‘Haute Provence’ regional identity, though the fields stretch from just outside of Nice almost all the way up to Valence, and they are not fully exclusive to France.

Even the washerwomen, those whose job it was to clean clothes and linen, were referred to as les lavandières in France. 

The flowers, which can be found mainly in two species in Provence, have several uses – as oils for cooking and bathing, as a perfume for soaps, and even as an antiseptic for healing wounds and scars.

The lavender essential oil that comes from Provence is even an AOP (L’Appellation d’origine protégée) in France. 

When is the best time to see the fields?

Typically, the lavender flowers from around mid-June to early-to-mid August. However, depending on the weather, especially if there is a drought or hotter temperatures, the lavender might flower sooner than normal, which is likely the case for this year.

This is unfortunately also a side effect of climate change, which might be pushing up the lavender flowering season.

Where should I go?

The Valensole plateau is perhaps the most famous place to go for lavender fields. Speckled with several small Provencal towns, the area is beautiful, with a mountainous backdrop in the distance. If you go here, you might also be able to see the sunflower fields too.

Sault is perhaps a bit less known, partially because due to its altitude, the lavender typically flowers a bit later.

It is still a great place to go see the fields, and every year the town hosts a Lavender Festival in August. Walking (or cycling) between the villages (Aurel, Saint-Trinit and Saint-Christol) is very manageable.

This is not too far from the Sénanque Abbey, a medieval 12th century abbey which is surrounded by lavender fields. You might notice some small stone houses called bories in the fields, which were historically used for field workers.

Luberon Valley is another location that comes highly recommended. In the area, there is a regional national park, home to rosé wines, castles (chateaux) and charming villages, like Gordes, a stunning hilltop village.

Here you can also find the Musée de la Lavande, if you are looking to learn more about harvesting, producing and distilling lavender, its industry, and some interesting regional history.

How to get there?

You can take a TGV train to Aix-en-Provence or Avignon, or rent a car. With a car, you can also enjoy the several scenic routes that allow you to see the fields from the roads.

What else is there to do while in the region?

The area is also known for its rosé wine, so you could take the opportunity to go visit some vineyards or spend some time wine-tasting. 

In the summer months, the south of France can get quite warm. If you are looking to go swimming or enjoy the water, the Gorges du Verdon are not too far away. Though a bit of a tourist hotspot, the canyon is a beautiful and a wonderful place for paddling along in a canoe.

If you’re a fan of hiking, you can always go for a (light) hike along the Ochre Trail near Roussillon. Here, there are two marked paths that will take you through sunset-colored red and yellow cliffs in an old quarry.

Words of Wisdom

Unless you have been given express permission, do not pick the lavender, as this is the farmer’s livelihood. You can always buy a bouquet from nearby souvenir shops for your photo shoots! 

Also, stick to the paths that exist to avoid trampling any crops, and of course do not litter in the fields. 

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