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France 2009 - Around the Auvergne

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Around the Auvergne

We left Lac Naussac and drove north on minor roads skirting the Montagnes de la Margeride an area of low hills and meadows to Saugues which is dominated by its Tour des Anglais then on to Langeac where there was a pleasant riverside terrace for a useful lunchstop. Continuing north we reached the old town of Lavaudieu, one of the Plus Beaux villages with narrow cobbled streets and an ancient 11th century Benedictine abbey famous for its murals and cloisters but only open for guided visits. From there we drove to the larger and busier town of Brioude where we found the aire in the town centre carpark on the main road and next to a skate park and decided it wouldn't be a good night stop. We turned south through wooded hills to La Chapelle Laurent and a free aire with honesty box by the village hall. More and more families turned up in the early evening so we were surrounded by cars but it was a school concert and were weren't disturbed at all (knowing how late into the evening some of these village events can continue). The colourful bicycle sculpture in the village was to commemorate the Tour de France passing through in 2008.

Lavaudieu abbey
Chapelle Laurent bicycles

After a wet night we continued to large town of St Flour, split in two parts - Basse Ville at the bottom of a cliff and the older Haute Ville high above the plain. After finding a free carpark in the old town which was crowded as it was a Saturday with a large street market, we walked around looking at the usual selection of stalls ranging from beds, mattresses and grandfather clocks to live chickens and lots of expensive fruit and vegetables. We were given a town tour leaflet in English by the tourist office and visited the cathedral which was built from very dark stone with a sombre interior, the highlight being the gilded reliquery of Saint Flour. From there we drove across flat almost fen like countryside despite being at an altitude of 1000 metres to the village of Paulhac, where we found a signposted aire de parking about 1km to the west with views across to the Cantal hills. After lunch we walked back to the sleepy village and came across a neat borne de camping-cars by the mairie, then followed a signposted walk back along narrow lanes and woods to the parking place where we spent a peaceful evening on our own watching red kites (I think) circling above the fields. The next morning was sunny but with a cold north wind as we drove through flower meadows and steep winding and narrow roads through remote villages to the Prat de Bouc, a small ski resort and starting place for hikes to the nearby summit of the Plomb du Cantal (1855m).

Paulhac borne
Paulhac service borne

Paulhac aire
Paulhac aire

At Murat we turned south on the main road to the large ski resort of Le Lioran and over the pass expecting to see good views across the mountains but the road was all in forests so we returned to Murat through the newly opened tunnel and took the road to Dienne and Puy Mary, arriving at the Col de Serre just before the one-way restrictions for motorhomes and buses started at 12:15. Parking at the col for lunch we walked up the hillside which was smothered in wild violas, gentians and masses of other flowers including a few orchids. From there we headed down through the attractive Valle de Cheylade to Apchon with its chateau and Riom ès Montagne which was holding its Fête Patrimoniale, basically a funfair in the streets and a children's fancy dress parade followed by a display by an amazingly versatile marching band with musicians of all ages who performed complex routines before inviting the onlookers to join in for a jive! Although there was an aire listed in Riom we drove across the grassy hills to Allanche, a rather grey town where there was a pleasant free aire by the disused station, the terminus of the velo-rail we had driven beside for many miles. It wasn't yet open for the summer but was expensive at €70 for 4 persons for the full five hour round trip - sounded like hard work to us. The carriages looked heavy and we wondered what you do if you meet one coming the other way between stations?

st Flour
St Flour cathedral

st flour relics
St Flour reliquery
Col de Serre near Puy Mary

orchids     violets

wild flower     gentian
wild flowers at Col de Serre

Riom marching band
Marching band at Riom


The next morning we returned to Murat for diesel then took the main road north-east through the wooded Allagnon river valley with plenty of laybys for lunch stops. A Belgian couple in a car pulled in next to us for lunch at the picnic bench but we didn't see them speak or look at each other at all - we wondered if they were enjoying their holiday as much as we were? After Massiac we turned off to Blesle, another Plus Beau village but quite scruffy in places, where we met a British motorhomer with his French wife who seemed to be long terming and claimed they always stay in village squares. After a short wander around we continued to Lempdes looking for some shops but didn't find any so continued to St-Germain-Lembron and on minor roads through the agricultural landscape to the twin villages of Tourzel-Ronzières where there was an excellent free aire with super views across the countryside towards Issoire. There were signs for height restriction on the road through the village but the barrier had been removed when we were there (June 2009).

The village had many restored old houses and a solid looking church and we could see the dome of the old church in Ronzières about a mile away through the trees so we walked there through the woods the next morning. This is an ancient twelfth century pilgrimage church with a simple white interior. Returning to the aire we decided to drive to St Nectaire and Murol on narrow back roads to Sapchat where there is a clogmakers factory open to visitors, and parked in St Nectaire near the old spa. There are petrifying fountains here and a large Romanesque church on a high cliff which is worth visiting to see the decorated columns. Returning via a park with a dolmen we drove through Murol to Lac Chambon which is touristy and not camping-car friendly for parking but has two private aires next to the campsites at either end of the lake. We called in at the aire at Champeix but it was down a remote track in woods outside the town with the borne fenced in - some places just don't look inviting, so we decided to return to Tourzel for another quiet night with a couple of Dutch and French motorhomes.

Ronzieres church
church at Ronzieres

Tourzel old house and 2CV

tourzel church
Tourzel church

st nectaire church
St Nectaire church
st nectaire columns
decorated columns
st nectaire dolmen
St Nectaire dolmen
We set off early the next morning and decided to head east to Vichy as we had visited the Puy de Dome volcanoes region a couple of years ago, so after a circuitous route trying to avoid the centre of the large town of Issoire, we headed on minor roads through small villages some with castles and very old abbeys to Thiers, the cutlery capital of France. We remembered it as a bustling place with lots of shops with knives on display in the main shopping area but it seemed past its best this year like so many former industrial towns with only a couple of knives shops and many run down buildings. There was a new town square with a modern animated clock which we managed as usual to see in action at midday. After lunch we drove on an empty main road to the spa town of Vichy which was suddenly overrun with traffic. We eventually found a parking place on the road beside the pleasant riverside gardens and walked back to the central park with its ornate colonnades and spa centre which was deserted in the early afternoon (the various treatments ranged from €18 to €85 a session! and samples of the waters weren't available.) After walking back through the arboretum in the riverside park we decided to continue north taking the main road and were concerned to see 2.5 metre low bridge signs with no alternative route indicated. However when we eventually reached the arched railway bridge there was plenty of clearance in the middle so it would only be a problem for very wide vehicles. We turned off the main road at Billy and cut across country to Saint Pourçain-sur-Sioule where there was an excellent and popular free aire by the river where we chatted to a few British motorhomers. As it was now very warm we lazed around and the next morning walked around the town with a pair of ornate towers, and an interesting church with some stained glass windows, then called in to the helpful tourist office where we picked up some walks leaflets and followed a route across the river to the nearby villages and back. In the evening we watched various birds by the river including a heron and a golden oriel, and the enterprising tourist office staff turned up at the aire for a local wine and produce tasting session.

st Pourcain aire
Saint Pourçain aire
THiers animated clock
Thiers animated clock

Vichy arcade
Vichy colonnade

Vichy spa
Vichy spa

Saint Pourcain
Saint Pourçain town square

The next morning we drove a short distance to the small preserved village of Verneuil en Bourbonnais where they were holding a festival of "epouventails" (scarecrows). There were at least twenty dotted around the village streets depicting various amusing characters. Also in the village is a museum of Washing and Ironing but it was closed and shortly to move to a renovated barn, We also discovered a giant reclining wooden statue, a Romanesque church which was being used as a barn until recently, and a large round pigeonnier - typical of the delightful sights we so often come across in rural France.

Verneuil giant statue
Verneuil - giant wooden statue
Verneuil pigeoneer
Verneuil  - pigeonnier

scarecrow     scarecrow
Verneuil en Bourbonnais -
scarecrow     scarecrow
scarecrow festival