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What To See and Do In Central France
The Auvergne and Massif Central
France has been a popular vacation spot since the English Victorians made the South coast the 'go to' destination for the wealthy classes. This was the start of the tourist industry in Nice. This means there are not many places visit today that have not been overrun with tourists.
There is one hidden part of France though that remains sparsely populated and quiet, the Auvergne region in the heart of the country. This has always been a haven for nature lovers and hikers and is the perfect place for those looking to get away from it all.
It is made up of four departments, Puy de Dome, Allier, Haute Loire and Cantal. Three of France's main river's have their headwaters here, the Dordogne, the Allier and the Loire. The mountain ranges are part of France's Massif Central and rise over 7000 feet.
Why Visit The Auvergne Region?
What is unique about the Auvergne is that it almost has that undiscovered quality, the feeling of being in French France, not touristy France, where unless you speak some of the language it is hard to get by.
Being an area filled with ancient volcanoes, no longer active, thank goodness, makes it very unique. In fact there are few places on earth more beautiful and tranquil. The lush greenery and thick forests are abundant, and narrow roads that snake through tiny silent villages, makes you wonder if anyone lives here.
What To Do In The Auvergne
That all changes though if you come across one of the larger towns or cities. Instantly you are thrust into elegance and class reminiscent of Paris.
Clermont Ferrand, a university town, in the heart of the region is one of these. Right in the centre of this city is a huge dark grey, almost black, cathedral. The unusual and striking colour is from the volcanic rock that it is built from, and against the azure blue of the sky, it really stands out. As with any large town in France, there is an array of restaurants and hotels to choose from. Near the cathedral is a quaint little creperie complete with nautical theme, that looks like it has floated straight down from Brittany. Come lunch time in good weather, all the outdoor seating is filled with cigarette toting impeccably dressed men and women, ready to take their daily two hour lunch break, relaxing with friends over a good meal, and glass of wine or three.
What to See In The Auvergne
Once you get out of the city though and into the countryside, the choice of what to do is vast. The region offers skiing in the winter, hiking all year, swimming in rivers and lakes, canoeing and fishing. If you are the outdoors type this is a wonderful place to come.
One of the most picturesque lakes in the area is Lac Pavin. It is completely circular, as it is the site of an extinct volcano. The deep blue of the lake contrasts perfectly with the green forest that surrounds it. A short hike around the lake with a half way stop for a picnic is a perfect way to spend the afternoon. A baguette, some ham, cheese and a tomato picked up from the supermarket at nearby Besse is all you need. Oh, and not forgetting a bottle, no picnic is complete in France without a bottle of wine!
There are plenty of castles and dungeons to visit, as well as some of the best examples of Romanesque churches in Europe.
Ambert a small town in the Puy de Dome, was at one time the center for paper making in France. It now has a museum to commemorate this and a working paper mill that tourists are welcome to visit.
For one of the best views over the region visit Murol and climb to the top of the 12th century Chateau de Murol. The vista from the top is breathtaking and well worth the energy expended on the trek up. One of the best descriptions of the castle is from Guy de Maupassant who wrote in 1885:
"It astonishes the eye more than any other ruin by its simple mass, its majesty, its grave and imposing air of antiquity. It stands there, alone, high as a mountain, a dead queen, but still the queen of the valleys stretched out beneath it. You go up by a slope planted with firs, then you enter a narrow gate, and stop at the foot of the walls, in the first enclosure, in full view of the entire country."
Nearby Lac Chambon is perfect for swimming and picnics or just for a quick cool off after your climb.
There is so much to do in this region, whether it is sightseeing, walking and hiking, fishing, kayaking or just relaxing with a good book. The easiest way to discover the best places around where you are staying is to ask the locals. They are more than happy to help, especially if you are able to say it in French.
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