At the very center of France lies the mountainous region of the Massif Central (central mountain mass). At its core lies Auvergne, an historic region and former province of central France, which today makes up of the departments of Allier (03), Cantal (15), Haute-Loire (43), and Puy-de-Dôme (63). Its name is derived from the Arverni, a Celtic people whose leader VERCINGETORIX defied and was defeated by Julius Caesar. In fact, this region has been settled by humans probably longer than anywhere else in France.
In 1527 the duchy of Auvergne, created in 1360, was united with the French crown. The northern part of the Allier department comprises an area which was once the ancient province of Bourbonnais, perhaps best known for the long-lived dynasty of Bourbon kings named after its castle. Henry IV, the first Bourbon to become king of France (1589), was the son of Antoine de Bourbon, duke of Vendôme and king of Navarre. His direct descendants ruled France (except from 1792 to 1814) until 1830, when Charles X was deposed; the lineage died out in 1883 with Henri, comte de Chambord.
Since the reign of the Bourbons, Auvergnats have not been strangers to positions of power in France: politicians such as Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing, Georges Pompidou, and Jacques Chirac all hail from this region. With a reputation for being tough and thrifty, the Auvergnats -- who like to describe France as "the Auvergne with a bit of land around it" -- have often traveled far in search of work. It is commonplace to find many Auvergnat-run cafés in Paris, for example.
In the northern part of Auvergne one finds the fertile tertiary basin of the Limagne, where dairying and beef cattle diversify the traditional wheat economy. For the most part, however, the region is known for its breathtaking mountain ranges and volcanic peaks, offering views of a lunar landscape pitted with huge craters and outcroppings. The Puy de Dôme (1,463 m/4,800 ft) is the highest of a chain of recent volcanic peaks (the Monts Dôme, which became extinct some 4000 years ago) overlooking Clermont-Ferrand from the west. The Celts considered it a royal mountain, on which they worshiped their god of war.
In the bleak, depopulated southern part of the Auvergne, the volcanic Plomb du Cantal reaches 1,858 m (6,096 ft). The highest point in central France is claimed by the Puy de Sancy in the Monts Dore chain, rising 1,886 m (6,188 ft) and serving as the source of the Dordogne River. Visitors can reach the peak by cable car from the town of Le Mont-Dore, followed by a walk.
The history of the Massif Central, so ancient that it can only be appreciated on a geological timescale, is explained in a number of museums, including a major new museum of vulcanology planned near Clermont-Ferrand.
The average annual temperature is 12 degrees C (53 degrees F), and the region receives 510 to 1,020 mm (20 to 40 in) of rainfall annually.
The region has a strong peasant cuisine, which has spread to the rest of France, often served in the small Paris cafés traditionally run by Auvergnats. The key ingredients are potatoes and cabbage; try potée Auvergnate (pork with stuffed cabbage). The Auvergne is also noted for its salted hams and dried sausages, and Le Puy is famous for its superior green lentils.
Cities and Industry
Bourbon-l'Archambault was a ritzy spa during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Illustrious figures such as Talleyrand, France's powerful foreign minister, took the waters here. Weathered buildings and the ruined 14th-century Château -- once the quarters of noble tourists -- still have an appealing faded glory.
Clermont-Ferrand (1990 pop.: 140,167) on the Allier River is a regional center whose influence extends beyond Auvergne. It is the home of the Michelin rubber company and the center of the French rubber industry.
Moulins, once the capital of the dukes of Bourbon, has a compact medieval center, dominated by the flamboyant Gothic-style Cathédrale Notre-Dame, whose stained-glass windows served as picturebooks for illiterate peasants, enabling them to follow the story of the crusades of Louis IX.
Thiers is a slightly grimy but nevertheless fascinating 18th- and 19th-century town that is famous for its cutlery, producing everything from table knives to daggers and supplying 70% of France's cutting needs. Walkers be forewarned -- Thiers is built on a steep hill and the streets run only up and down!
Vichy is the most elegant city in Auvergne. Its mineral waters attracted the Romans and, later, Paris haute society. The trend was started in the 17th century by nobles such as the Marquise de Sevigné and the Duchess of Angoulême; later, the arrival of rail travel in the early 20th century attracted the middle classes.
During World War II, Vichy served as the base for the puppet government of Pétain, a legacy which left a stain of infamy on the city. Today, Vichy is trying to overcome its past, as well as the perception that it's only a place for retirement, through a series of building and landscaping projects.
Editor: Ian C. Mills © 2000 All Rights Reserved
Sources: Timothy J. Rickard, The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996; The National Geographic Traveler -- France, Rosemary Bailey, 1999, National Geographic Society, printed by R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Willard, Ohio; Fodor's 99 France, Editor: Natasha Lesser, Fodor's Travel Publications, New York; The Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia, Third Edition, copyright Columbia University Press, 1968, Viking Press Inc., New York (out-of-print); A History of Europe, J.M. Roberts, 1998, The Penguin Press, New York.