Only a couple hours away from Lyon, the Auvergne region is known for its rolling, dormant volcanoes, Gaulois history, and Romanesque architecture.
We slipped in a weekend trip at the end of March 2021 as France was just about to re-enter a period of semi-confinement. It was literally a breath of fresh air, as we escaped life in Lyon for quieter, greener spaces. We were surprised by the diversity of sites we could visit within a two-hour drive, including a ski station, lakes and forests, and beautiful Romanesque churches.
I hope in this article to give some basic background and snippets of what you can see and do in this often-overlooked region.
Clermont-Ferrand: enjoy history, universities and legends
We started out in one of the region’s major cities, Clermont-Ferrand, before venturing further into the Parc régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, which is where we really got to see a variety of sites and landscapes.
Clermont-Ferrand might not be the first city on your list of places to visit in France, but it has some interesting history behind it and has lots of universities and student life. It has two notable churches, its main cathedral made of the region’s black lava rock, and Notre-Dame-du-Port, a Romanesque church.
You can also find in the city center a statue of the Gaul king Vercingetorix, who is a sort of figurehead for the last stand of the Gauls against Roman invasions in France. Vercingetorix fought in La bataille de Gergovie close to Clermont-Ferrand.
This part of France is known and celebrated for its history in relation to the Gauls and legendary heroes like Vercingetorix. Clermont- Ferrand is also famous for the Michelin tire factory, which is still based there today. The historic company site of Cataroux is now an interactive Michelin museum, called l’Aventure Michelin.
Auvergne: Romanesque churches abound
After Clermont-Ferrand our first stop was the little village of Orcival, known for its beautiful 13th century Romanesque church. There’s not much else in this village besides the church, but you can tell it’s a popular tourist site by the little souvenir shops around.
This region has five major Romanesque churches, all within a close driving distance to one another: Notre-Dame-du-Port in Clermont-Ferrand, Orcival, Saint-Nectaire, Saint-Saturnin, and Issoire. We got to comfortably see four of the five, all within a day and a half of driving and visiting.
Appreciating nature: Peaks and valleys
After Orcival and on the way to the Lac de Guéry, we saw some of the beautiful peaks and rolling volcanoes that are at the heart of this region. The entire area is situated in the Parc national régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, the largest national park in France and also one of the oldest. Geologically speaking, the volcano types and profiles change as you move from north to south in the park, with a series of eighty younger volcanoes in the north near Clermont-Ferrand, and larger plateaus in the center and the south.
This region even has a volcano theme park just outside of Clermont-Ferrand. We made a stop in the ski station of Mont-Dore, wherein you can ski down some of the higher volcanoes. Even in spite of the semi-confinement, tourist shops were selling local cheese, sausage, and street food.
Saint-Nectaire: perfect jumping-off point
That night we stayed in the village of Saint-Nectaire at a little chambre d’hôte. Prior to this trip I only knew of Saint-Nectaire for its cheese, but I discovered its beautiful and well-preserved Romanesque cathedral perched at the top of the village. It also has many bike and hiking trails, a thermal spa center, and ancient dolmen and menhir ruins. It’s really a great jumping-off point for many activities in the area.
Village life: Saint-Saturnin
Our last stop before returning to Lyon was the village of Saint-Saturnin, once again to visit its Romanesque cathedral. This cathedral is the most recent of the five in the region and the smallest. It doesn’t take long to walk through the village of Saint-Saturnin, but it’s worth the detour for the church, and to see the beautiful stone buildings.
Escape to Auvergne—a perfect getaway
I was impressed with the balance of culture, history, and beautiful nature in Auvergne. It was a great, quiet destination easily accessible Lyon, and gave us the impression of having seen a totally different region within only a couple of days.
Are you already a fan of Auvergne, or still waiting to discover it? Let us know in the comments.
Image credits: 1. Auvergne itinerary via Google maps 2-5 all copyright @JessicaSarlandie 2. Vercingetorix statue, Clermont-Ferrand 3. Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption Clermont-Ferrand 4. Parc national régional des volcans d’Auvergne 5. Église Notre-Dame de Saint-Saturnin
An American expat living in Lyon, France, I studied and taught French in the US before teaching English at the university here for nine years. I love the richness that being an expat brings to my life. I’m currently studying Art Therapy and also practice foreign languages, art, and writing.
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