A Virtual Visit to Cantal

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.

Volcanic origins

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.

Monts du Cantal – Puy Mary (left) and Puy Griou (right)

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

The churches and rooftops of Figeac with the hillside above the Célé beyond

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 Pas de Cère, a natural cleft formed by glaciation

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.  

La Roussière
Village of Pailherols

Thiézac

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.

Thiézac around its church

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.  

L’Elancèze
Jordanne Valley with distant views
Early autumn colours above the Cère Valley
Salers cow in the upper pastures

Murat

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).

Plomb du Cantal, taken on a hazy grey day

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.

Murat

Another day, we can bring the car and walk from Murat, enjoying the lovely hamlets and scenery around the town.

Bredons near Murat

Beautiful communal bread oven in Chastel-sur-Murat, Cantal
Delightful tiny chapel in la Denterie

On the menu

Each served in its own special glass

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.

Musical interlude

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.

Church at Saint-Clément

Have you visited Cantal? Please share your experiences with us. Armchair travel is de rigueur for the moment.

You might also like:

Posts about the Auvergne

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2020. All rights reserved.

21 comments

  1. Thank you for taking me home! Your wonderful pictures and evocative prose are an absolute tonic for me. What a wonderful flurry of comments you have provoked. It’s so lovely to read such memories from so many.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s nice to see that so many others have been there and enjoyed their experiences. Also that they shared them – I have added a few more places to my bucket list now!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for you blog which I have enjoyed for many years. I too feel a strong draw to the Auvergne with its magnificent mountain vistas, and always visit as I drive my family down through France each summer.

    We have stayed in a few different areas. Initially at Vodable, then further north near Saint-Jaques d’Ambur in a lovely family run Auberge – having walked many of the routes in the Puy de Dome area including the stunning Puy de Sancy, most recently we ventured into the Cantal staying at Apchon. Again the walking is fabulous, especially once you get away from the busy Puy Mary – and we have enjoyed a similar walk to yours around Murat taking in the statue above the town and the chapel above le Roche.

    I love the honest hearty cuisine and have recently developed a slight obsession with Salers cheese. This year we are due to be staying near Salers, however I suspect that the current situation will put a hold on those plans for the time being…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting and for your kind words. I try to bring a bit of virtual diversion via the blog.

      We haven’t visited the Puy de Dome area since before we moved here, so we are going back about 25 years. But we, too, enjoyed the walking around there and had a lovely walk up to the Puy de Sancy. The only downside of that was being attacked by biting midges right at the top! Murat also boasts some lovely countryside and walks – and it does sound as if we did a similar walk.

      I love cheese of any kind. My husband is even more of a cheese monster. I particularly like a Cantal vieux. I’m not sure I’ve ever tried the Salers variety. Salers is a place we must get back to. I hope your plans come to fruition eventually.

      Like

  3. Oh, you made my mouth water. Not for the food and drink but for the scenery. We think of Le lioran and puy Mary as in our backyard. We were last at le lioran just after Christmas. We took oursi, his partner and our grandson up there to try and find some snow. There wasn’t much but we found enough to make a shirt luge run (grandson only three) and build a snowman. We had lunch in a cafe there and ate truffade, of course, while our veggie had a cheese filled crepe.
    We had talked of camping at mandailles this summer and walking up puy Mary, we’ve never managed to get to the peak asthe weather always seems to turn the day we decide to do it! We have so many happy memories of the area. Raquette walking and finding the font de la cere and then eating alugot and saucisse in a busy buron filled with skiers. Picnicking on the col (forgotten its name) as you descend from puy Mary towards salers with our eldest son who has often cycled there and back from here (madness). Years ago driving along the same road that I nickname the corniche as it snakes along the ridge and watching a buzzard fly beside us but over the drop. Stopping to buy local cheese from a buron on the side of the road.. as I say, the backyard. We were up at la bourboule last February for our traditional raquette walking around my oh’s birthday, a fifteen year tradition. No snow meant we walked on the green ski de fond pistes. Little did we know it would be the last trip out for a while!
    Thank for alerting me to new villages to explore. Bon courage and stay safe

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’ve seen my reply, but I’m having to do it again, since my replies have disappeared from the public page for some reason!

      My mouth is watering, too, at the idea of going back there! We haven’t been for nearly two years, so I have severe Auvergne withdrawal symptoms. I don’t think we’ll get there this year.

      Thank you for sharing your reminiscences. We have never tried walking the Puy Mary, but we have walked up Elancèze by every conceivable route, except from Mandailles. The Jordanne Valley is so beautiful.

      When my OH lived in Limoges in the 1970s, he and work colleagues used to to to ski at Lioran. I think they had more snow then…I’ve never been there in the winter.

      And I remember staying in La Bourboule many years ago, before moving here. Every morning, while we sat in our hotel eating breakfast, we saw people with white towels wrapped around their heads going towards the spa for their cure. A lovely walk up the Puy de Sancy, too.

      Bon courage à vous aussi.

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  4. Your blog is a bright spot in these uncertain times. We stayed in the Cantal in a gite in a small hamlet near Salers in 2016. I was inspired to go back and read the trip report I wrote about our stay. I can still see the view from the top of Puy Mary. Other than passing through Murat on our way, we did not get to any of the lovely spots you mention. However, that reinforces my belief that you can stay anywhere and find plenty to occupy your time, especially if you enjoy quieter pursuits as we do. We had pounti and loved it, so in 2018, as we passed through the Cantal, we stopped and bought some to take with us to our next gite.
    The Auvergne is a beautiful region and we have been lucky enough to stay in all four departments. It seems to be under the radar of a lot of overseas tourists. In fact, we should be in the Allier this week. Instead I am sitting on the back verandah in the sun on a cool autumn day in Australia dreaming of what could have been.
    Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your kind words. I try to bring a little bit of escapism once a week. I would have liked to include photos of Salers, but we haven’t been there for years, in fact before we moved to France, so it must be 25 years or so ago. We liked it there very much, and did some lovely walks in the area. It’s definitely on my list for a return visit.

      I’m very partial to pounti. I have never tried to make it myself, although I included a recipe on the blog a while ago. You don’t find it where we live.

      It’s a pity that, like so many, your travel plans were derailed. Hopefully, your dream can become a reality in the not too distant future.

      Bon courage.

      Like

  5. Vanessa,I too really enjoyed your virtual tour of some beautiful areas,not quite as good as the real thing but definitely brightened my mood and a reminder of better days past and better days ahead,I sincerely hope for everyone.

    It was especially lovely to see La Roussière again,I am very pleased you enjoyed you stay there.I recall the wonderful smell of the log fires from applewood i’m Guessing and the heavy snow in the hills but warm sunshine in the valleys…..must go again soon!

    Talking of which I was all booked to spend a couple of weeks near Najac in June which is looking pretty much a non starter….really hoping we get the chance to meet in the not too distant future.

    Keep well and best wishes
    Stuart

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Stuart. It’s good to hear from you. I do hope you and yours are all staying well.

      I’m pleased you enjoyed the virtual tour. Of course, nothing beats the real thing, but I was able to lose myself in my photos for a while. La Roussière is a magical place. We were there at the end of May one year, thanks to your recommendation. Even at that season, there were thick sheets of snow on some of the hills where we walked.

      What a pity about your Najac holiday, but it does rather look like a non-starter at this point. I have a growing list of deferred pleasures for after all “this”, and have just added meeting you to it, hoping that you can rebook your holiday in the not-too-distant future.

      Take care,
      Vanessa

      Like

      • Vanessa,thank you for your kind reply.The good news is that when this dreadful situation improves,these lovely places will still be there.

        Forgive me if I have mentioned this before,but Murat has some very interesting history to research from WW2.A very public attack on a prominent Gestapo officer in the main square resulted in dire and tragic consequences for many of the innocent local population.

        Events like that hep me put Covid-19 into perspective

        Keep safe and well

        Stuart

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, thank goodness these places will still be there. Thinking about them helps to keep one going.

          I have heard the story about the attack on the Gestapo officer in Murat, and I think about the reprisals each time I go there. People have lived through worse times than the ones we are experiencing.

          Bon courage. Vanessa

          Like

  6. Vanessa,

    I don’t write often enough to tell you how much I enjoy your posts, and how much I appreciate your work in making these places come alive for us. I always love your Cantal visits, a beautiful area I have yet to visit. Thanks so much for your efforts, encountering this travel post was the perfect way to start my day!

    Scott Perrizo
    Boulder, Colorado USA

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s always good to hear from you, Scott, and I hope you and yours are staying well. I also hope you can get to visit Cantal some day. It truly is a wonderful part of France.

      Like

  7. Is the Auvergne typically less tourist-filled or is that just a benefit of this “virtual” visit?

    Be well and best wishes from the US!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting. Yes, it is genuinely less touristy than other parts of France. People tend to bypass it to go down to the Riviera or other more traditional tourist hotspots. We usually visit in late September, or in the spring, when we can walk for hours without seeing a soul. It’s probably a little busier in July and August. And the ski resort at Super-Lioran attracts people for winter sports – but even that is less favoured than the Alps or the Pyrénées, since the area is so much smaller. The benefit of a virtual visit, of course, is that you have the place completely to yourself!

      Take care.

      Like

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