Covering nearly 4,000 sq km of the Massif Central in the heart of France, the Auvergne Volcanoes Regional Natural Park is one of the largest ‘parcs’ in the country. A paradise for walkers and hikers – as well as anyone who loves a scenic drive – its unique landscape is shaped by 80 extinct volcanoes, locally referred to as puys.
The oldest puys, known collectively as the Monts du Cantal, are the remnants of the single largest stratovolcano in Europe that began being formed 13 million years ago and grew to 50–70km in diameter. A stratovolcano is conical volcano built up of many layers of hardened lava, pumice, ash and pyroclastic rock. Puy Mary, seen here, was part of this sprawling monster but has weathered over time through erosion and glacial action to form these characteristic ridges now covered in a blanket of green.
The youngest volcanoes of the park are the Monts Dômes which includes the famous Puy de Dôme, nicknamed the Giant of the Dômes. Formed a mere 95,000–7,000 years ago these puys retain their distinctive volcanic profile. This one can be scaled by foot or via a ride on an electric cog train.
From the top a view of the string of smaller volcanoes the Châine des puys look like so many giant mole-hills. On a clear day the vista stretches for miles. The Romans were so impressed that they built a temple to the winged messenger of the gods, Mercury, on the summit, the remains of which can still be seen.
The Lamptégy Volcano is another geological youngster that can be seen for miles as it rises from the plain. It not only still retains the ridges where lava poured down its sides, but it also has the characteristic collapsed dome with a caldera, a bowl-shaped dip. A walk into any of these extinct craters takes you into another world.
Mars perhaps? No, this is the distinctive red soil (and a giant nugget of pumice) that litters the caldera of the Puy de la Vache.
The Auvergne’s complex geological history, from the violent eruptions to glacial erosion, has created a superb variety of natural habitats. Taking paths among the rocks and alpine meadows of the high peaks there’s a chance you might glimpse Chamois, Mouflon, or even the delightful Alpine Marmot. While wheeling overhead Booted, Short-toed and Golden Eagles can be spotted along with Honey and Common Buzzards, Red and Black Kites and Peregrine Falcons.
The lush valleys, like the charmed Chaudefour Valley National Nature Reserve, have little roads which lead to trails where you can roam high and low. Here you can hunt for rare and local plants which, depending on the season, include Spring Gentians, Alpine Pasque Flowers, Wolf’s-bane, Rock Jasmine, and gem-like blue Snowbells. Butterflies are also abundant, with Apollo, Clouded Apollo, Camberwell Beauty and many blues, fritillaries and ringlets
All that lush pasture is put to good use. Over the centuries the Auvergnats have raised a local breed of Salers cattle, famed for the milk from which the region’s delicious Cantal and Salers cheese.
Over the centuries, the wealth of agriculture has created little towns and villages nestled amid the peaks and valleys of the park. Among them is Salers itself with buildings constructed using the local volcanic, grey-black basalt.
While snow brings skiers and boarders to hurtle down its slopes in winter, it is in the green of summer that the sleeping giants of the Auvergne Volcanoes Regional Natural Park are perhaps at their most inviting.