Map of Auvergne
Thus one of George Sand's characters described the Haute-Loire, the central département of the Massif Central, and it's a description that could still be applied to some of the region. Thickly forested and sliced by numerous rivers and lakes, these once volcanic uplands are geologically the oldest part of France and culturally one of the most firmly rooted in the past. Industry and tourism have made few inroads here, and the people remain rural and taciturn, with an enduring sense of regional identity. They also have a largely unfounded reputation for unfriendliness.
The Massif Central takes up a huge portion of the centre of France, but only a handful of towns have gained a foothold in its rugged terrain: Le Puy, spiked with theatrical pinnacles of lava, is the most compelling, with its steep streets and majestic cathedral; the spa town of Vichy has an antiquated elegance and charm; even heavily industrial Clermont-Ferrand, the capital, has a certain cachet in the black volcanic stone of its historic centre and its stunning physical setting beneath the Puy de Dôme, a 1464-metre-high volcanic plug. There is pleasure, too, in the unpretentious provinciality of Aurillac and in the untouched medieval architecture of smaller places like Murat, Besse, Salers, Orcival, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue, La Couvertoirade and in the hugely influential abbey of Conques. But, above all, this is a country where the sights are landscapes rather than towns, churches and museums.
The heart of the region is the Auvergne, a wild and unexpected landscape of extinct volcanoes (puys), stretching from the grassy domes and craters of the Monts-Dômes to the eroded skylines of the Monts-Dore, and deeply ravined Cantal mountains to the rash of darkly wooded pimples surrounding Le Puy. It's one of the poorest regions in France and has long remained outside the main national lines of communication: much of it is above 1000m in height and snowbound in winter. However, the Clermont-Montpellier autoroute is now near completion, providing a convenient means of travel from the capital to the gorges of the Tarn and Ardêche. There's little arable land in the region, just thousands of acres of upland pasture, traditionally grazed by sheep brought up from the southern lowlands for the summer. Nowadays, cows far outnumber the sheep, some raised for beef and some still for the production of Auvergne's four great cheeses. The population has emigrated for generations, especially to Paris, where the café and restaurant trade has long been in the hands of Auvergnats. The same flight of population has affected the equally infertile but beautiful and more Mediterranean southern part of the region: the hills and valleys of the Cévennes, where Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey made one of the more famous literary hikes in 1878.
Many of France's greatest rivers rise in the Massif Central: the Dordogne in the Monts-Dore, the Loire on the slopes of the Gerbier de Jonc in the east, and in the Cévennes the Lot and the Tarn. It is these last two rivers which create the distinctive character of the southern parts of the Massif Central, dividing and defining the special landscapes of the causses, or limestone plateaux, with their stupendous gorges. This is territory, above all, for walkers and lovers of the outdoors, and everywhere you go tourist offices will supply ideas and routes for walks and bike rides.
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