Land of sleeping green giants: Volcanic appeal in The Auvergne

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Auvergne's volcanic heart is now easier to visit thanks to a  new railway to the top of its landmark peak, says Harriet O'Brien.

It was a shock to learn that right in the middle of France there's a chain of volcanoes that might erupt. Volcanologists classify the little peaks of the Chaîne des Puys as dormant, which effectively means that they have been quiet for a quite a time. Yet it also means there's a chance that at some stage they could become active. Probably suddenly and violently.

However, when I paid them a visit, a tremendous sense of tranquillity emanated from these sleeping wonders of the Auvergne. Set in the heart of one of the most picturesque provinces of France, the puys (the word for volcanoes in the dialect of the Auvergne) stretch for more or less 30km in a line north to south. There are about 80 of these hulks and they are, relatively speaking, young: they were created during the last big eruption in the area some 6,700 years ago. There's no denying that they look like volcanoes: classic cone formations with indented tops a bit like upside-down pudding basins. But coated in lush green – like so much of the landscape in verdant Auvergne – they seem benignly beautiful rather than threatening.

I had ample scope to admire them as I hiked up the highest, the Puy de Dôme. Rising 1,465m just west of the regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand, this is a striking landmark – and much more. For the Auvergnats, the Puy de Dôme is the iconic, emotive emblem of their homeland. The well-worn route to the top seemed a de facto pilgrimage trail on the afternoon I was there. I made the 45-minute walk amid happy straggles of singing children, blurs of super-fit couples, slow-and-steady elderly ramblers, and the occasional crazy biker. It seemed a minor miracle that anyone could balance on two thin wheels while proceeding up (or worse, down) at quite such unremittingly steep angles. Yet for walkers the vertiginous nature of the path gives you licence to stop without shame, gazing spellbound over the other green volcanoes, with the panorama becoming ever more staggering as you ascend.

You don't, however, have to pay homage to the Puy de Dôme on foot. A new railway opened earlier this summer, taking passengers on a slow, scenic ride to the top. Back in the early 1900s, a train service chugged ladies and gentlemen up and down the volcano. Gradually superseded by the motor car, it was closed down in the 1920s. Thereafter the winding road to the summit became more clogged with traffic. Now, in a reverse process, rail has replaced road, partly for safety reasons, partly because of environmental concerns. It's a state-of-the-art cog rail, so rather than being pulled up as a funicular, the train has a central pinion wheel that meshes with a toothed rack rail. Cleverly, the braking of descending trains produces 50 per cent of the energy for ascending services operating at the same time.

Meanwhile, the summit has been given a complete makeover. New food facilities now offer rich rewards for reaching the top – whether you walk or cheat and go by the new train. There's a top-notch gourmet restaurant, Le 1911, as well as a brasserie and a café. But you need to keep your eyes on the views: with a TV mast located here and, while I was there, work going on to build an underground station, this is not, frankly, the prettiest of places. I spent a good half-hour determinedly absorbed by the outlook, my interest heightened by the information (in English as well as French) on one of the series of noticeboards here which give chapter and verse about craters, lava flows and volcano shapes.

Such science was presented with rather more razzmatazz the next day when I visited Vulcania, a few kilometres from the foot of the Puy de Dôme. This is a go-get-all volcano theme park that dextrously manages to combine sheer entertainment with a serious role in conveying knowledge about earth sciences to the general public of all ages. The big crowd-pleasers are six shows offering a mix of impressive special effects and 4D films. I sat back to watch Le Réveil des Géants d'Auvergne (the Awakening of the Giants of the Auvergne) and was astounded by the spectacle of volcanic eruptions just outside the building and by the ensuing exodus of snakes that leapt hissing from the screen, along with other creatures. I emerged far more shaken than the cheerfully amused seven-year-olds who had been enjoying the show in the row beside me. Then I calmed down with a session in the interactive Machine Terre exhibition about the solar system, the composition of planets and the ground beneath our feet.

But of course you don't have to visit a theme park to appreciate how volcanoes shape and dramatically affect the wider landscape. I wanted to see some of the geological sights of the region – and was able to do so in style thanks to a neat new outfit. Classic car rental company ClassicArverne was launched earlier this year and offers a small stable of glorious old vehicles to drive for yourself, from an Alfa Spider to a Triumph TR4.

Tootling around the Auvergne in a red open-top 1968 Ford Mustang, I called in at Volvic just outside the eponymous village near Clermont-Ferrand. At the lively visitor centre here you learn that the water the company bottles is so pure because it takes more than three years for the rainfall in the area to permeate the lava-coated valleys around the source. I made a tour of the plant-rich vicinity and then drove on northwards, the red sports car turning heads along the way. Taking minor roads through wonderfully undulating countryside, I made for two near-fantastical water beauty spots: the Gour de Tazenat, a magma-created scar in the land that has become a mesmerisingly lovely lake; and the Méandre de Queuille, a dramatic loop in the River Sioule, caused by the fracturing of rocks from the granite plateau of the area.

My final port of call was the elegant spa town of Vichy, about a 40-minute drive north of the Chaîne des Puys. The haunt of Napoleon III in the latter half of the 19th century and capital of France during German occupation in the Second World War, it offers a great deal to see. There's a glittering, 1865 casino; a large Moorish-styled thermal spa designed in 1903; there are wonderfully opulent fin-de-siècle mansions. Best of all, though, is the Hall des Sources, a glass and wrought-iron pump room which houses outlets of Vichy's five natural springs. There is no entrance fee, but you'll need to spend €40 on a medical consultation on site if you want to drink four of the waters, which are extremely rich in minerals. However, water from Vichy's Célestins spring, elsewhere bottled and then widely exported, is freely available here. It's said to be a good aid for digestion and to have properties that can help to cure migraines. You simply help yourself from a central depot of taps.

The cupful I drank offered more than a hint of sulphur on the palate – a real flavour of the volcanic nature of this extraordinary area.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The closest airport is Clermont-Ferrand, served by Flybe (0871 700 2000; from Southampton (May to October). Or fly to Rodez, on Ryanair (0871 246 000; from Stansted, or Lyon, on British Airways (0844 493 0787; from Heathrow, easyJet (0843 104 5000; from Gatwick, Stansted and Edinburgh, and BMI (0844 8484 888; from Manchester. By train, take Eurostar (08432 186 186; to Paris, then transfer to Clermont-Ferrand.

Where to stay

Des Roses et des Tours, 20 Rue Principale, Saint-Genès-du-Retz (00 33 4 73 63 68 08; has B&B doubles from €85.Château la Canière, Thuret (00 33 4 73 97 98 44; has doubles from €180. La Demeure d'Hortense, 62 Avenue du Président Doumer, Vichy (00 33 4 70 96 73 66; chambre- has B&B doubles from €115.

What to do

Panoramique des Dômes ( Adult return €9.50.

Vulcania (00 33 4 73 19 70;, St-Ours-les-Roches. Admission €21. Volvic Visitor Centre (00 33 4 73 64 51 24; Entry free. ClassicArverne (00 33 4 43 11 40 35;

More information

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn