We have lost count of the number of visits we have made to the Auvergne, the mountainous region in south-central France. It’s not so spectacular as the Alps or the Pyrénées, but it has a charm and a character all its own. Last week, I recounted the detour we took to visit Marcolès, a delightful town in the southern Cantal, en route to our habitual destination, the village of Thiézac in the Cère Valley.
We both love walking, but we are fair-weather walkers. Consequently, we take off for the Auvergne when we are sure the weather will stay fine. It’s no fun being caught in summer thunder storms up there. September is often the most appealing month: warm and settled without being stifling. The trees are already turning, but the higher rainfall keeps the hillsides relatively green. Even there, however, we were told that they have suffered a drought for a couple of months.
The Cère Valley is an excellent walking base. The surrounding hills are criss-crossed with trails ranging from circular walks to more demanding long-distance hikes.
Day 1: Elancèze
At 1,571 metres, this mountain is not exactly Everest, but it’s challenging enough. We have approached the summit from almost every conceivable angle. This time, we took a new route, via the Col du Pertus, one of the only passes between the Cère and the Jordanne Valleys.
This route isn’t that long, but it’s steep and stony, which makes coming down more difficult than going up. We were rewarded with the familiar view over the two valleys, while swifts and buzzards soared overhead and the jangling of cowbells rose from the pastures.
We were disturbed only by a man who climbed up and then proceeded to talk loudly on his mobile phone. He apologised profusely when he realised we were there. Another man passed by while we consumed our cheese and ham picnic.
“I’ve come up from Mandaille, where I live,” he said. “I walk every day. Yesterday, I did 45 kilometres, but today I’m only going to do 30.”
Day 2: le Puy Griou
The Puy Griou is a bare, conical mountain composed of phonolite volcanic rock, known as “the stone that sings”. The ascent from the skiing complex at Font d’Alagnon is long. And steep. At times, we were almost bent double to avoid falling backwards.
At last, we arrived at a buron, one of the stone buildings tiled with split slates, which are scattered over the hillsides. Formerly, cowherds made cheese here during the summer months. Now, it’s a refuge for walkers on the chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle.
The ridge above is flat with a wonderful view over both valleys. A path winds up to the summit of the Puy Griou. For us, this was a bridge too far. It’s very steep and the slopes are covered with unstable scree. Instead, we took the path around the base through shady beech woods before joining the long, dusty track that leads back to Super Lioran. A beer at a café settled the dust.
Day 3: Murat
This was the only day it rained, but after the previous day, we needed a rest from walking. We decided to do a long-cherished project: take the train along the Cère Valley to Murat.
A single-track railway runs from Aurillac and scales quite a gradient before disappearing into the long tunnel at Lioran. The view is sometimes obscured by cuttings and trees, but you are still treated to the vista of the mountains in places.
Being out of season, not much was open in Murat, but we compensated by strolling around this medieval town built up a hillside.
When the collégiale bell struck noon, we located l’Auberge d’un Instant, a restaurant with good TripAdvisor ratings. It was lucky we turned up early. Only two unreserved tables remained. The atmospheric dining room, with huge beams and an enormous inglenook fireplace is clearly popular with the locals. A good sign.
The SF ordered steak and chips (he always does), while I was determined to sample the local specialities, so I had mountain ham with truffade. The latter is an Auvergne potato dish smothered in Cantal cheese. It’s not unlike our local aligot, except that the potatoes are sliced rather than pureed.
Murat is also famed for its cornets de Murat, ice cream cornets filled with Chantilly cream. They even hold a fête to celebrate this delicacy in mid-September. Neither of us cares for Chantilly, so we opted for an ordinary ice cream instead.
What better way to spend a rainy day?
Day 4: le Pas de Cère
On our last day, we took a circular walk from Thiézac to Vic-sur-Cère and back: about 16 km. Much of the outward leg goes through shady beech woods, under silver-barked trees with outlandish root systems.
Vic-sur-Cère is a former spa town, whose apogee was in the late 19th century. Today, the main road slices through it, which somewhat diminishes its charm. Down by the River Cère, though, the local council has taken great pains to establish riverside paths in a park-like setting.
The return leg passes through le Pas de Cère, a remarkable natural site where the river has carved steep gorges into the rock, continuing the work of glacial erosion more than 20,000 years ago. Since we last did this walk, around 10 years ago, the site has been developed to include wooden steps and walkways, making it more accessible.
Each time we leave this stunning region, I experience a pang of regret. But we always go back. And there’s one more delight I have to tell you about in a future post.
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