Hidden France: Why I fell in love with peaceful and picturesque Auvergne | french holidays
Jhe irony of visiting a 17th century plague chapel in the midst of a 21st century pandemic was not lost on me as I put on my mask, sanitized my hands and stepped into the coolness of a small church. It was built in 1628 so that the afflicted could come and pray separately from the villagers of Saint-Haon-Le-Châtel, but while it now served the same purpose for villagers suffering from Covid, it was a relief to find it empty .
The same goes for this region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes: Le Roannais was peaceful and empty of tourists. And, as this summer will be the first holiday abroad for many after two years of limitations, it’s the perfect place to get away from it all, especially the lingering Covid threat that makes crowds unpleasant.
Auvergne is one of the least populated regions in Europe, and Le Roannais is a tapestry of vineyards and golden and green villages between the towns of Roanne and Vichy. I knew Auvergne was a land of volcanoes, spectacular regional parks and very few people, but in 16 years of writing about France, this slice of gentle rolling countryside and high forested hills almost in the center of the France was a complete revelation.
After settling into our Airbnb near the town of Renaison – a home owned by probably the most welcoming and generous family I’ve ever met in France – we ventured into the local reservoir to see its largest fame: the tallest tree in France. “How do they know it’s the biggest?” questioned the children. “No idea”, we admitted, as we strolled along the sunny path under the tall Douglas firs to the famous trees, an imposing 66 meters high. It was planted as recently as 1892, when the Chartrain dam was built to create the reservoir. Sure, it wasn’t a 700-year-old, 100-meter-long California redwood, but growing an average of 10 inches per year wasn’t so bad; perhaps he simply thrived quietly in this heavenly environment. After rolling down the bank to gaze at its trunk, we walked across the top of the dam as swifts swirled above us and the reservoir reflected the surrounding forest like a mirror.
A giant tree may win the record-breaking title, but it’s the region’s medieval villages that have won the beauty contest, with their twisting timber-framed houses, abundant flowers and colorful tile-roofed churches you see also in Burgundy. We fell in love with Le Crozet and Ambierle, as well as Saint-Haon-Le-Châtel, where we strolled through the alleys, the amber hue of the buildings glowing under the late afternoon sun. We stood out by the ramparts looking across the rolling landscape, stretching towards Burgundy Morvan National Parkand I felt puzzled as to why no one comes here.
Although the beauty of the villages and the landscape was a surprise, I had a feeling that we were going to eat and drink well. France’s foodie capital is Lyon to the east, and the Loire department’s main town, Roanne, is home to the Troisgros culinary dynasty: the family runs a three-Michelin-star restaurant and two other casual eateries. They support dozens of local suppliers, including the Domaine Sérol de Renaison vineyard – one of the many vineyards on the Côte Roannaise – now run by the eighth generation of the Sérol family. The region’s Gamay grapes create easy-drinking wines similar to those of Beaujolais. We visited Domaine des Sérols, which sits up the hill above Renaison, then lowered our masks to sip their light reds and rosés before snatching up bottles for around €8 a pop.
We stocked up for alfresco dining at Les Halles de Renaison, a small but excellent food market with everything from a technicolor range of fruit and vegetables to succulent meat. For cheeses, we chose Mons Cheesemongers, which has a worldwide reputation and its own outlets in London. Our mouths are watering in front of the stall of chocolatier François Pralus, a local whose baker father invented the decadent praline, a buttery brioche generously sprinkled with the region’s signature pink sugar-coated pralines. The highly awarded Father Pralus thought his son would ruin them by becoming a chocolatier – but he proved him wrong. He now has shops all over France and his Infernal Bar in various flavors is the most delicious confectionery I have ever tasted.
The hills above Le Roannais – Les Monts de la Madeleine – were perfect for stretching your calories. On the hottest day, we hiked in the shade of oak and beech trees in the Gorges du Désert, following a waterfall that usually gushes with water but was a trickle in the summer heat. We climbed out of the trees at the top for fabulous views all the way to the Alps (on a clear day), then descended into the village of Saint-Alban-les-Eaux, famous for its mineral water. Another day we ventured further into the Livradois-Forez regional park, to walk through the purple heather and the donkeys in the paddocks. The lookout promised a glimpse of Mont Blanc on the horizon, and although it was lost in the mist, the panorama was still stunning.
While the Roannais has been tamed by its vineyards and farms, the Livradois-Forez Regional Park is an altogether wilder prospect, its dense pine forests dotted with meadows and moors and small hamlets. Its largest city, Thiers, has just 11,000 inhabitants, halved since the start of the 20th century, but it is the knife-making capital of France. Along the way, I stopped for lunch to taste a delicacy closely linked to the trade: Arconsat cabbage sausage. In the cozy Montoncel Inn, Jean-Louis Garret – Grand Master of the Confrérie de la Saucisse aux Choux – explained how, in the 19th century, half of the city’s working population peddled knives from door to door. One such hawker traveled all the way to Greece, fell in love with the local lamb and cabbage sausage, and brought back the idea of making his own. In mid-November, the cabbage sausage festival attracts no less than 1,700 people. Jean-Louis serves it with a sauce made from the park’s signature cheese, Fourme d’Ambert. It is rich and nutritious, the cabbage inside gives it bite, ideal food for the cutlers as well as for the street vendors of Thiers.
At the start of the 20th century, there were 18 knife workshops in the Vallée des Rouets, their millstones powered by water mills on the Durolle River. To give himself the best control over the fast-spinning stone wheels, the grinders – the men fashioning roughly hewn pieces of metal into blades – lying on their foreheads in rows. In winter, their dogs sat on their paws to keep warm. From this position, they could fashion a blade in a minute. Although mechanization led to the end of this technique, Thiers still has a thriving knife trade, as well as a small museum and workshops where visitors can watch today’s designers at work.
The town was buzzing with more people than I had seen in a week, crowding around the town’s dozen stores and buying pocket knives, chef’s knives, hunting knives, razors and elegant cutlery. After a look in the most famous shop, Chambriard Cutlery, where the fourth generation of the family now advises customers on the exact knife to suit their needs, I wandered the narrow medieval streets beneath the towering, intersecting wooden facades. The end of the main street looks across the valley towards the Chaîne des Puys, the row of extinct volcanoes for which the Auvergne is most famous. Below, the Valley of the Factories was once a thriving industrial hub, but today the knife factories stand empty and ready to expand. The most famous, the Creux de l’Enfer has already been transformed into a center for contemporary art.
If the knife factories lack glamour, I found the opposite in Vichy, an hour away. Famous for its mineral water springs, the town reached its peak during the reign of Napoleon III. Its myriad architectural styles combine to create a work of beauty – from the art nouveau facade of the old casino to the extraordinary dome and tower of the art deco church. When I arrived there were only a few people seated in the shade of the ornate covered walkways that connect the spa, opera house and old casino. But I couldn’t help wondering whether, even apart from the times of Covid, its four-year stint as the seat of Marshal Pétain’s collaborationist government during World War II had done for its reputation. My guide Alla shakes her head vigorously at the suggestion: “We have 2,000 years of history here. Why would four years ruin that?
She’s right. Vichy offers pure delight at every turn: as she led me by the river, through parks dominated by elaborate villas, and into the spa to test the five mineral springs, I was delighted. Even the sidewalks are encrusted with a mosaic pattern of the city’s signature reds, whites, and blues. But opera is the piece of resistance – with its gold and ivory décor, exquisite ornate ceiling and domed roof in the adjoining salon.
With fewer visitors, we savored the peace and hoped – quite selfishly – that the next time we came to Vichy, and indeed Roannais, we could have it all to ourselves again.
The holiday was booked through Airbillionb. More accommodation and information about the region is available at roannais-tourisme.com.the the family took Eurotunnel and on the way stayed at bubble 8 in Epernay, (from €150 per night, sawdays.co.uk), and The Rooms of Aumont near Amiens (from €ten5 Guest rooms, sawdays.co.uk).