Home to 1.3 million Auvergnats who have earned a reputation as hard workers, the region covers 10,155 square miles–a territory slightly smaller than that Maryland and Delaware combined–giving it a population density half that of the French average. Because of its geological make-up, accessibility was once Auvergne’s greatest problem. Today, an improved highway system has solved that difficulty, with highways such as the toll-free A-71, A-72 and A-75 crossing the territory.
Volcanoes dormant for 4,000 years have left Auvergne with crater lakes and rocky dykes. A park dedicated to volcanoes, Vulcania (www.vulcania.tm.fr) opened in 1992: the entrance, through a lava stone building that blends into the landscape, plunges the visitor 115 feet below the surface to experience the mysteries of volcanoes as explained in interactive exhibits, movie theaters and animated models. One volcanic byproduct that has become a "hot" design material is enameled lava stone. Used in the 1900s to make the art-nouveau street signs for the Paris subway stations, it is currently the rage in exterior as well as interior design, with examples to be seen in the Dubaï Airport and in the kitchen of Bill Gates’ new house. Mined near Volvic, the stones are coated with metallic pigments similar to those used for Limoges china.
Volvic is also home to one of Auvergne’s many natural springs (www.auvergne-thermale.com) which have long attracted international visitors and given rise to no less than ten spas with renowned names such as Vichy, La Bourboule, Chatel-Guyon and Le Mont-Dore. The local springs also provide the pristine liquid hat accounts for 40% of mineral water bottled in France: Volvic, Saint-Yorre and Sainte-Margerite among them.
For winter sports enthusiasts, the terrain is ideally suited to cross-country skiing and ample facilities have been developed (18 resorts). There are even three sites that have been classified for downhill skiing. At a time when travelers long for serenity but also seek novelty, Velay (www.othautpaysduvelay.free.fr), Auvergne’s southeastern fringe, provides a perfect venue for a memorable vacation: forested mountains, fish-filled rivers and lakes, as well as a rich architectural heritage. The main city, Le Puy-en-Velay, has restored its 16th- and 17th-century old town. Two volcanic chimneys exposed by erosion dominate the city: the first, Rocher d’Aiguilhe , is crowned by a 10th-century chapel that can only be accessed by stairs carved in the rock. The other, Rocher Corneille, supports a huge statue of the Virgin Mary cast from 217 guns retrieved at the 1855 Battle of Sébastopol during the Crimean War. Visitors who climb to the top of the statue’s interior have a spectacular view of the city and its surrounding mountains.
Auvergne includes four départements:
- Allier (03)
- Cantal (15)
- Haute-Loire (43)
- Puy-de-Dôme (63)
- Clermont-Ferrand. The region’s capital is also home to the Michelin tire company, whose products are manufactured and sold throughout the world.
- Montluçon. Auvergne’s other tire production center.
- Aurillac. The old medieval town has become the Cantal district’s main city.
- Vichy. The waters from the famous hot and cold springs located here have transformed the city into an elegant resort.
- Moulins. Main city in the Bourbonnais plain, whose activities are tied to the area’s agriculture.
- Le Puy-en-Velay. Haute-Loire’s administrative and commercial center is famed for its lace, green lentils and liqueur.
- Thiers. This urban center has been the capital of French cutlery since the 15th century; it overlooks Auvergne’s eastern mountains.
- Brioude. Built on the banks of the Allier River, the city is home to a magnificent Romanesque church and close to the castle where La Fayette was born.
- Saint-Flour. Perched at 3,000 feet in the Cantal highlands, this town has an old district well worth a detour.