The most dramatic and flattering approach to Clermont is from the Aubusson road or along the scenic rail line from Le Mont-Dore, both of which cross the chain of the Monts-Dômes just north of the Puy de Dôme. This way you descend through the leafy western suburbs with marvellous views over the town, dominated by the black towers of the cathedral sitting atop the volcanic stump that forms the hub of the old town.
Clermont's reputation as a ville noire becomes immediately understandable when you enter the appealing medieval quarter, clustered in a characteristic muddle around the cathedral. The colour is due not to industrial pollution but to the black volcanic rock used in the construction of many of its buildings. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame stands at the centre and highest point of the old town; Freda White evocatively described its sombre grey-black-stone lava from the quarries at nearby Volvic as "like the darkest shade of a pigeon's wing". Begun in the mid-thirteenth century, it was not finished until the nineteenth, under the direction of Viollet-le-Duc, who was the architect of the west front and those typically Gothic crocketed spires, whose too methodically cut stonework at close range betrays the work of the machine rather than the mason's hand. The interior is swaddled in gloom, illuminated all the more startlingly by the brilliant colours of the rose windows in the transept and the stained-glass windows in the choir, most dating back to the fourteenth century. Remnants of medieval frescoes survive, too: a particularly beautiful Virgin and Child adorns the right wall of the Chapelle Ste-Madeleine and an animated battle scene between the crusaders and Saracens unfolds on the central wall of the Chapelle St-Georges.
If the day is fine, it's worth climbing the Tour de la Bayette (MonFri 10am5.15pm, Sun 36pm; €1.50) by the north transept door: you look back over the rue des Gras to the Puy de Dôme looming dramatically over the city, white morning mist retreating down its sides like seaweed from a rock.
Northeast of the cathedral, down the elegant old rue du Port, stands Clermont's other great church, the Romanesque Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port a century older than the cathedral and in almost total contrast both in style and substance, built from softer stone in pre-lava-working days and consequently corroding badly from exposure to Clermont's polluted air. For all that, it's a beautiful building in pure Auvergnat Romanesque style, featuring a Madonna and Child over the south door in the strangely stylized local form, both figures stiff and upright, the Child more like a dwarf than an infant. Inside, it exudes the broody mysteriousness so often generated by the Romanesque style. Put a coin in the slot and you can light up the intricately carved ensemble of leaves, knights and biblical figures on the church's pillars and capitals. It was here in all probability that Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade in 1095 to a vast crowd who received his speech with the Occitan cry of Dios lo volt (God wills it) a phrase adopted by the crusaders in justification of all subsequent massacres.
For general animation, shopping, drinking and eating, the streets between the cathedral and place de Jaude are best, with the main morning market taking place in the conspicuously modern place St-Pierre just off rue des Gras. Place de Jaude remains another monument to planners' aberrations in spite of the shops, the cafés well placed to take in the morning sun and an attempt to make it more attractive with trees and a fountain. Smack in the middle of the traffic, a romantic equestrian statue of Vercingétorix lines up with the Puy de Dôme.
Away from these central streets, there are a few concrete sights to tempt the pedestrian. Among these are rue Ballainvilliers, whose eighteenth-century facades recall the sombre elegance of Edinburgh and lead to one of the city's best museums, the Musée Bargoin (TuesSun 10am6pm; €4), with displays of archeological finds from round about. These include lots of fascinating domestic bits: Roman shoes, baskets, bits of dried fruit, glass and pottery, as well as a remarkable burial find from nearby Martres-de-Veyre dating back to the second century AD. Clermont-Ferrand's newest and most impressive musuem, the Musée d'Art Roger-Quillot (TuesSun 10am6pm; €4), is situated on place Louis-Deteix in Monteferrand, some 2.5km northeast of the centre (bus #1, 9 or 16 from Place de Jaude). Housed in a daringly renovated eighteenth-century Ursuline convent, this museum holds a broad collection of over 2000 works of art from the medieval to the contemporary. Notable pieces include a collection of carved capitals and a stunning enamelled reliquary of Thomas Becket.
The city's two other museums are not of great interest. Musée Lecoq, directly behind the Musée Bargoin (MaySept TuesSat noon & 26pm, Sun 26pm; OctApril 10amnoon & 25pm; €4), is devoted mainly to natural history and named after the gentleman who also founded the public garden full of beautiful trees and formal beds just across the street. Musée du Ranquet, to the west of the cathedral at 34 rue des Gras (TuesSun 10am6pm; free), is housed in a noble sixteenth-century house, containing, at its most interesting, a collection of traditional tools and domestic objects and two versions of seventeenth-century philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal's calculating machine.
Montferrand is today little more than a suburb of larger Clermont, standing out on a limb to the north if you journey out for the Roger-Quilliot museum you should take time to stroll around. Built on the bastide plan, its principal streets, rue de la Rodade and rue Jules-Guesde (the latter named after the founder of the French Communist Party, as Montferrand was home to many of the Michelin factory workers), are still lined with the fine town houses of its medieval merchants and magistrates.