Hidden France: Why I Fell in Love with Tranquil and Scenic Auvergne | France Holidays

TIt’s ironic that visiting a 17th century plague church in the midst of a 21st century pandemic wasn’t lost when I put on my mask, sanitized my hands and walked into the cooler of a chapel. It was built in 1628 so that the afflicted could come and pray separately from the inhabitants of the village of Saint-Haon-Le-Châtel, but if it served the same purpose for the villagers suffering from Covid now, it would have been a relief to find it empty.

The same goes for this area of ​​Auvergne: Le Roannais was quiet and free of tourists. And as this summer will be the first outdoor holiday for many after two years of restrictions, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all, especially due to the constant threat of Covid that makes crowds unpalatable.

Auvergne is one of the most densely populated regions in Europe, and Le Roannais is a tapestry of vineyards and villages of gold and green between the cities of Roanne and Vichy. I knew Auvergne was a land of volcanoes, exciting regional parks, and very few people, but after 16 years of writing about France, this piece of gentle rolling countryside and soaring wooded hills in almost central France was a complete revelation.

Having settled in an Airbnb near the town of Renaison – a home that probably belonged to the most welcoming and generous family I’ve ever met in France – we ventured to the local reservoir to see the biggest cause of the fame: the tallest tree in France. “How do they know he is the tallest?” Question the children. “No idea,” we admitted, as we wandered along the sun-kissed path under noble Douglas fir to the famous. ArberryIts height is 66 meters. It was planted as recently as 1892, when the Chartrein Dam was built to create the reservoir. Sure, it wasn’t a 700-year-old, 100-meter California redwood, but getting an average of 27cm per year wasn’t a bad thing; Perhaps it only quietly thrived in this heavenly environment. Crawling across the bank to look at its trunk, we walked to cross the top of the dam while the Martins hovered overhead and the reservoir reflected the surrounding forest like a mirror.

The giant tree may win the record-breaker title, but it’s the region’s medieval villages that won the beauty contest, with their bent-wood frame houses, abundant flowers, and churches featuring the colorful tiled roofs you also see in Burgundy. We caught Le Crozet and Ambierle, as well as Saint-Haon-Le-Châtel, as we wandered the narrow streets, the amber hue of the warm buildings glowing in the late afternoon sun. We popped by the ramparts overlooking the undulating landscape, stretching towards the Burgundy region Morvan National ParkAnd I was puzzled as to why no one came here.

green hills and mountains
Green hills and mountains of Auvergne. Photography: Bobby Bogreen/Almy

Although the beauty of the villages and the landscape was a surprise, I would have imagined that we would eat and drink well. The gastronomic capital of France is leon To the east, the main city of the Loire province, Rouen, is home to the culinary breed Troisgros: the family runs a three-Michelin-starred restaurant and two other casual eateries. They support dozens of local suppliers, including Renaison’s Domaine Sérol vineyard – one of La Côte Roannaise’s many vineyards – which is now run by the eighth generation of the Sérol family. The Jami grapes in the region produce an easy-to-drink wine similar to the wine Beaujolais. We toured the Sérols property, perched high on the hill above the Renaison, then dropped our masks to sip on bright reds and roses before picking up bottles for about 8 euros.

We stocked up on al fresco dinners at Les Halles de Renaison, a small but excellent food market that has everything from an artistic array of fruits and vegetables to succulent meats. to badWe chose them from Mons Cheesemongers, which have a global reputation and their own outlet in London. Our mouths watered in a booth chocolate François Pralos, a local Boulanger Father invented decadence PralineA buttery brioche lavishly garnished with the region’s signature pink sugar praline. Grand Prix winner Per Pralos thought his son would spoil them when he became a chocolatier – but he’s proven wrong. He now has stores all over France and his Barry Invernal With different flavors it is the most delicious dessert I have ever tasted.

The hills overlooking Le Roannais – Les Monts de la Madeleine – were perfect for shedding calories. On the hottest day, we were walking in the shade of the oaks and beech trees in the Gorges du Désert, past a waterfall that normally flowed with water but was just a few drops in the summer heat. We climbed out of the trees on top for great views up to the Alps (on a clear day), and then descended on to the village of Saint-Alban-les-Eaux, famous for its mineral waters. Another day, we ventured further into Livradois-Forez Provincial Park, to walk through purple heather and donkeys in the pastures. Promised viewpoint the black Mountain On the horizon, though lost in the mist, the panorama was still breathtaking.

Village with vineyards
The village of Amberle is famous for its vineyards on Cote Roanies. Photo: imageBROKER / Alamy

While Le Roannais has been tamed by vineyards and plantations, Livradois-Forez Provincial Park is a completely wilderness viewpoint, with dense pine forests dotted with meadows, swamps, and small hamlets. Its largest city, Thiers, has a population of only 11,000 and its population has halved since the early 1900s, but it is the cutlery capital of France. On the way, I stopped for lunch to eat a delicacy closely related to trade: Arconsat cabbage sausage. in the intimate Auberge de Montoncel, Jean-Louis Garrett – the grand master of the Cabbage Sausage Brotherhood – explained how in the nineteenth century half of the working population of the city sold knives from house to house. One of these street vendors arrived in Greece, took the fancy of local lamb and cabbage sausages and brought back the idea to make his own. In mid-November, the Cabbage Sausage Festival attracts 1,700 people. Jean-Louis serves it with a sauce made from the garden’s signature cheese, Forme de Ambert. It’s rich and crunchy, with a cabbage inside lending it some bite – the perfect sustenance for both cutlery makers and Thiers’ street vendors.

In the early 1900s, there were 18 knife workshops in the Vallée des Rouets, their grinding stones operated by watermills over the Durolle River. To give themselves the best control of the fast-spinning stone wheels, the émouleurs The men who shape the coins coarsely cut into the blades lay on their foreheads in rows. In the winter their dogs would sit on their legs to keep warm. From this position, they can form a one minute blade. Although mechanization led to the end of the technique, Thiers still has a thriving knife trade, as well as a small museum and studios where visitors can watch today’s designers in action.

A man holding a knife with a wooden handle
Knives Nero in Thiers. Photography: Emmanuel Lattis/Almy

The city was teeming with more people than I had seen in a week, wandering around a dozen or so shops in town buying pocket knives, chef knives, hunting knives, razors, and elegant cutlery. After taking a look at the most popular stores, Coutellerie Chambriard, where the fourth generation of the family now advises clients on the knife that best suits their requirements, I wandered the narrow medieval streets under the crisscrossed wooden facades. The end of Main Street looks across the valley towards the Chaîne des Puys, the row of extinct volcanoes for which the Auvergne is famous. Below, the Vallée des Usines was once a thriving center of industry, but now the knife factories are empty and ready for development. The most famous of these, the Creux de l’Enfer (“Hell pit”) has already been turned into a center for contemporary arts.

If knife factories lack charm, you’ve found the opposite in Vichy, an hour away. The city was famous for its mineral springs, and its heyday was during the reign of Napoleon III. Its myriad architectural styles combine to create a work of beauty – from the Art Nouveau facade of the former casino to the unusual dome and tower of an Art Deco church. When I arrived, a few people were sitting in the shade of the ornate covered walkways that run between the spa, opera house, and the former casino. But I can’t help but wonder if his four-year stint as the seat of Marshal Petain’s collaborating government during World War II affected its reputation, even in the non-Covid times. My mentor Alla shakes her head vigorously at her suggestion: “We have 2,000 years of history here. Why four years ruin that?”

Pumping room in Vichy.
Pumping room in Vichy. Photography: Alami

She’s right. Vichy delivers pure delight with every turn: as she leads me to the riverside, through gardens overlooked by elaborate villas and to the spa to test the five mineral springs, I am amazed. Even the sidewalks are inlaid with the city’s signature red, white, and blue mosaic pattern. But the opera house is Peace Day resistance – Gold and ivory decor, splendid ornate ceiling and dome ceiling in the adjoining salon.

With fewer visitors, we enjoyed the peace and hope – in a utterly selfish way – that next time we come to Vichy, and indeed Le Roannais, we might get it all to ourselves again.

Vacation booked by airBillion dollarB. More places to stay and Information about the area can be found at roannais-tourisme.com.The I took the family Eurotunnel and on the way I stayed at Bubble 8 at Epernay, (from €150 nights self cateringAnd sawdays.co.uk), And Les Chambers Dumont near Amiens (from €105 BBAnd sawdays.co.uk).