I had a list of places in SW France lined up to visit and write about this year, but they have to wait for better times. Meanwhile, I invite you to accompany me on a series of virtual voyages around the places I know and love. Most are in our own département, Tarn-et-Garonne, or those that border it. But this week I’ll start with one a little further away. We return there as often as we can.
Around two hours’ drive from us is one of the most beautiful regions of France, the Auvergne. This mountainous area is named after the Arverni, a Celtic tribe that once populated the region and was a thorn in Julius Caesar’s side.
Long before that, the Auvergne was a volcanic area, and the domes and craters of extinct volcanos dominate the landscape. This is a fabulous region for walkers: blessed with wonderful scenery, virtually empty of tourists and offering rib-sticking cuisine for the après-promenade.
The closest part of the Auvergne to us is the Cantal Département, which for me is the nearest to Heaven on Earth you can get.
A meandering journey
We’ll set off from here, past Villefranche-de-Rouergue, through Figeac, and along the Célé Valley to Maurs. Here, we’re going to take a detour to visit a town that I know is dear to the heart of one reader: Marcolès. Surrounded by rolling green countryside, this plus beau village was once on an important trading route in the Middle Ages but lost out later when the main road and the railway passed it by.
Back on track, we bypass Aurillac, the main town of Cantal. We drive north-eastwards along the Cère Valley, through Vic-sur-Cère, once a spa town during the Belle Epoque.
The landscape becomes more rugged. The hills are clothed with beech and sweet chestnut trees, turning fiery red and russet. I’ve decided that we are in early autumn, one of the best times to visit, provided the weather is good. The other time is in spring, when the wild flowers run riot.
We could turn off in Vic and drive up and up to La Roussière, a delightful former farmhouse restored by the present owners, and now a chambres d’hôtes. This was recommended to us by another reader. For nights when dinner is not served there, l’Auberge des Montagnes in the nearby village of Pailherols is a good bet.
Instead, we’ll continue along the valley and turn off the main road to Thiézac, a tranquil village built of the local volcanic stone that sits at the foot of Elancèze (1,571 m), one of the Monts du Cantal. We have stayed here for years, since before the bypass was built. Lorries thundered through, and you took your life in your hands crossing the road. We’ll stay in the Hôtel Elancèze, a simple but welcoming hotel with views down the valley.
If you’re feeling energetic, we’ll hike up to Elancèze. It’s a stiff climb but well worth it. The Monts du Cantal are spread out before us, and we can see the Jordanne and Cère Valleys from the summit. We hear stags bellowing in the forest, as it’s the rutting season. Shaggy-coated cows roam freely in the pastures. It won’t be long before they are taken down to spend the winter in their byres. Summer is short here.
If the weather isn’t appealing, we’ll go to Murat instead, further up the valley. Either we can drive and, if you really want to, stop off at the ski resort of Super-Lioran and take the cable car up to the Plomb du Cantal, the département’s highest mountain (1,855 m).
It’s not the prettiest peak, and the surroundings have been spoilt by tourism, so my preferred option is to take the chugging train on the single-track railway from Vic-sur-Cère. We have to time our visit carefully, since the trains are infrequent, but this gives us the chance to look around Murat and have lunch.
Another day, we can bring the car and walk from Murat, enjoying the lovely hamlets and scenery around the town.
On the menu
Back in Thiézac, having worked up an appetite, we’ll take an apéritif before dinner. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try the locally produced Gentiane, made from the roots of gentian plants. The owner of the local café (now sadly closed) once treated us to a tutorial on the production of this drink. It’s not my tasse de thé, so I’m going to have a kir à la châtaigne (white wine with chestnut liqueur).
For dinner, we’ll start with pounti, a regional delicacy. This is a sort of firm pâté made with pork, prunes and Swiss chard. The main course is truffade, an unctuous and thoroughly addictive dish of sliced potatoes, garlic and tomme de Cantal cheese. Mountain ham and salad go with it. Dessert is a tarte aux myrtilles (bilberries). Or you could try a cornet de Murat, like an ice-cream cone but crunchier and more biscuity in texture, filled with crème Chantilly.
To drink? A bottle of Saint-Pourçain, a light red produced further north in the Auvergne. It’s too high for vines in Cantal.
Finally, for music lovers, a YouTube clip of Anna Moffo singing “Baïlèro” from Songs of the Auvergne, collected and orchestrated by Joseph Canteloube. Stokowski’s conducting is a bit florid for my taste, but Anna Moffo’s warm, rich voice is sublime.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual visit. I could have written a whole lot more, and I have countless photos of this lovely region, but I’d better stop here.
Have you visited Cantal? Please share your experiences with us. Armchair travel is de rigueur for the moment.
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