By Renée S. Gordon
A four hour drive from Paris in the heart of France lies the breathtaking region of Auvergne. The area contains the largest group of volcanoes, approximately eighty, in Europe and they are protected in the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne. The volcanoes, formed before the Alps, are approximately 20-million years old and have been dormant, not extinct, for more than 400,000 years. Puy de Sancy, 6,185-ft., is the tallest peak and it can be ascended by cable car from the town of Mont Dore. The 4,900-ft. Mont Mouchet was a haven for the French resistance during WWII and was the scene of repreated German air and land assaults in June of 1944. www.auvergne-tourisme.info
It is a sports and nature wonderland that offers all the usual outdoor activities plus Nordic, cross country and downhill skiing and the very unique hang gliding from a volcano. For lovers of history and culture the area is rife with fine dining establishments, more than 500 Romanesque buildings, vineyards, fortified farmhouses, ten spa towns, ten towns designated as the most beautiful in France and at least 45 chateaus including the residence of the Marquis de Lafayette. A mapped chateau trail is available online. www.route-chateaux-auvergne.org
Historically settlements in the Auvergne were the earliest in the country and date from the Stone Age. The region’s name can be traced to a Celtic group defeated by the Romans known as the Arverni. In the 10th century, a pilgrimmage route to Spain began there and in 1998, the Via Podiensis was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the Routes of Santiago de Compostela. The Bourbons, one of Europe’s most legendary royal houses, began here in the “Bourbonnais” in the 13th century and ruled France until 1830.
Explorations of Auvergne follow the paths of Romans, medieval merchants, Joan d’Arc and Coco Chanel. The vistas are beautiful, in many cases appear to have remained unaltered for hundreds of years and there are surprises in every town. Roads are clearly and cleverly marked with route numbers and pictures of the sites and attractions along the way.
Clermont-Ferrand is a wonderful starting point. The city has an airport with numerous daily flights and car rental services. The capital of Auvergne, dates from the 12th century and it has several exceptional volvic stone buildings that date from the period. The most renowned of these structures, standing in the central highest point in town, is Notre Dame du Port Cathedral. The Gothic cathedral was erected on the site of a 6th-century church in the 12th-century. An interior chapel features La Vierge Noire, a black virgin sculpture of Mary hold ing the Christ child on her lap. Glimpses of ancient frescoes can be seen on the walls.
To truly understand the region’s natural history one must tour Vulcania. Its a totally unique interactive attraction that relates the story of volcanoes and seismic simulators allow visitors to experience an earthquake. www.vulcania.com
Issoire is an important stop on the “Coco Before Chanel” tour. Gabrielle was born, took on the name Coco, and began her career in this area. Because the town is located between two mountain chains it was located on a trading passage. Coco’s father traded in the marketplace here and the family lived here for two years from 1855-57. The two houses they lived in still stand at 8 Rue Perrier and 31 Rue du Moulin Charrier. Her brother Alphonse and her sister Antoinette were born in Issoire.
A city tour of the historic district begins in the tourist office situated within the town’s first castle. The route follows the main boulevard, a street that follows the footprint of the city’s walls. Thee were once three gates but only the remains of one are left and it leads to a bridge Charlemagne once crossed. Most of the buildings are constructed of arkasa stone and stuccoed because the stone is very soft. There are no gardens in town, because farms were located just outside, and homes tended to be long with a shop in front and corkscrew staircases.
The grandest site in Issoire is a Romanesque church on the site of a 6th century abbey. The church is documented as having been there as early as 1139. It is one of five existing Romanesque churches built on the Latin Cross Plan. On the exterior one can clearly see three different types of stone. The most interesting external features are the chapel facades, they are round with the central chapel being square. Around the top of the church are carvings of thirteen zodiac signs. There is no explanation for the 13th.
As you enter the church, prepare to be amazed. The pillars within the church chancel have carved capitals, some of the few remaining examples. The capitals served as Bible lessons for the nonliterate. The most arresting depicts the Last Supper. All of the disciples are turned in the direction of Christ except Judas. The ceiling is covered with gold leaf.
A crypt with relics of saints is below the church and is built on the same plan as the church. Small windows were made to look down into the crypt for those who could not manage to go down into it.
The 15th century chapel adjacent to the church functions as a gift shop. One wall is adorned with a mural of the “Last Judgement.”
Coco’s mother, Jeanne Devolle, was born in the thriving market town of Courpiére. It was here that she met and wed Albert Chanel. The family lived here from 1884-85 and again from 1888-93. Their home was on the corner of Rue Desaix and Rue Charmelat #18. Though her family was extremely poor it is believed that she gained a taste for the finer things on visits to her uncle’s house across the street at #27. Local legend has it that her ghost returns every 3rd Tuesday of the month. No one seemed to know why. She never spoke of her years in Courpiére and returned only once.
The village of Charroux has been designated one of France’s loveliest based on its history, monuments and attractions. The structures in this once fortified city are most representative of the Medieval Era. The circular street plan is a remnant of its past as a free double walled trading crossroads. Only fragments of the wall remain.
The geographical center of the city is the “Cour des Dames,” the Ladies Court. Beneath the court are a series of tunnels townsmen could use to escape in times of trouble.
The Auvergne is comprised of ten relatively large cities and a host of small towns and villages. This is one of the few places on the globe where you can visit cities filled with monuments and great architecture, dine on some of the best cuisine in the world while sipping wine from local vineyards and then retire for the night, not only like royalty, but in rooms in castles they once inhabited.
We have a few more cities to visit. In the meantime, you can begin to plan your trip to the Auvergne. www.franceguide.com
I wish you smooth and fragrant travels!