Puy-de-Dôme is located in the Auvergne region of central France, geographically part of the Massif Central. Named after an impressive dormant volcano, the department has a low population density which only adds to the sense of space. Poor, isolated and little-visited in the past, the authorities have made a concerted effort in recent years to put Puy-de-Dôme on the tourist map – with some success. Revenue from tourism is now worth 0.5 billion Euros – a significant economic boost for an area otherwise largely dependent on agriculture. Pastoral farming and cheese-making are key in the region. You may recognise Saint-Nectaire cheese and Volvic mineral water, which both hail from Puy-de-Dôme. Though attractions are low-key, there are certainly reasons to visit this area at the heart of La Belle France.
Created during the French Revolution in 1790, Puy-de-Dôme has a rich archaeological and historical record which provides evidence of human occupation since the Stone Age. Numerous castles, fortresses and religious edifices survive from Roman, medieval and more recent times. In 52BC at Gergovia near modern-day Clermont-Ferrand, the Gauls under the leadership of Vercingetorix made history by defeating Caesar's invading force. The Auvergne was at that time an important trading region, and Gergovia was the chief town of the Arverni, a powerful Gallic tribe. The Romans later conquered the region, and surviving structures include the ruins of a temple on the summit of the Puy-de-Dôme itself.
Though the historical record is patchy for Puy-de-Dôme as a whole, more is known about the Roman city of Augustonemetum which became Clermont-Ferrand. By the second century AD, this was the largest town in Gaul, with a population of up to 30,000. In the 9th century the city was renamed Clairmont, a version of Clarus Mons, a castle sited here. Clairmont became a religious stronghold, a seat of bishops and, in 1095, the launchpad for the First Crusade. In 1120, the counts of Auvergne founded Montferrand fearing that Clairmont was becoming too powerful. The two cities were forcibly joined in 1630, though claims for independence continued until as late as 1863.
Puy-de-Dôme has one of the most varied climates of any French department, partly due to its situation on the boundary of the continental and Atlantic zones, but also as a result of the topography. Take a look at the statistics for weather at the meteorological station atop the Puy-de-Dôme, and you'll see that mountain temperatures are much lower than in Clermond-Ferrand.
Average maximum temperature in Clermont-Ferrand
The obvious attraction is the Puy-de-Dôme itself, 1464m high, and accessible by car or on foot. Twice a week the road is reserved for cyclists – quite a punishing climb, but worth it for the descent! At the summit, there are fabulous views (sometimes Mont Blanc is even visible) of the other extinct volcanoes, or puys. Early morning or late evening are the best times to visit, when you'll have the remains of the Roman Temple and the views to yourself.
Clermont-Ferrand appears disappointingly humdrum and industrial when you consider its long history, but there are several treasures worth seeking out. The first is a building whose construction spans some six centuries - the cathedral Notre-Dame de l'Assomption. Largely Gothic in style, the church is built from charcoal-grey lava hewn from local quarries. Inside, some lovely stained glass windows and a series of medieval frescoes await the visitor.
The 12th century Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port is Clermont-Ferrand's second important religious building, and stands in striking contrast to the cathedral, being built of non-volcanic stone and in the Romanesque style. The soaring columns and peeling plasterwork sadly impart an air of decrepitude, but the intricate carvings on the pillars and capitals are beautiful, and reason enough to visit. If you are a fan of Romanesque architecture, don't miss the Abbey Church at Mozac, a few miles from the town of Riom. Dating to the 12th century, though the abbey itself was founded at least 400 years previously, the church has five chapels and some beautiful sculptures.
Also in the provincial capital, is the Tour de la Bayette, one of two towers built around 1325 – the other has not survived. There are excellent views from the top, especially in the early morning when mist shrouds the Puy-de-Dôme, visible some 14km to the West.
Families should head for the Vulcania theme park. This attraction is dedicated to all things volcanic, with geysers, fumeroles and mud pots in a reconstructed post-volcanic landscape and a "rumbling chamber" to explain volcanic activity. Two cinemas, discovery trails and a volcanic garden complete the picture. Entry costs around 60 Euros for a family of four, and the park lies 15km from Clermont-Ferrand.
Museums, galleries and culture
There are two worthwhile museums in Clermont-Ferrand, the Musée Bargoin and the Musée d'Art Roger-Quillot. The former has a wonderful archaeological collection, mostly Roman, built up over the course of 100 years. The art museum, on the other hand, is a very recent creation, housing a huge collection of artworks, dating from medieval to modern times and including a reliquary of Thomas-à-Becket, 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury.
Clermont-Ferrand is by far the best place for high street shopping, especially the area between the cathedral and the Place de Jaude. Elsewhere in Puy-de-Dôme, shopping is limited, although look out for locally produced lace and crafts. Markets are held throughout the department.
The Massif du Sancy, in the south-west of Puy-de-Dôme, provides some excellent skiing. There are a number of resorts, of which Super Besse at an altitude of 1350m to 1850m is probably the best. Situated 50km south of Clermont-Ferrand, this modern resort is easily accessible and has 43km of pistes - with 5 green, 9 blue, 9 red and 4 black runs. Weather permitting, a further 42km of piste is available thanks to a link with neighbouring Mont Dore. There is plenty to do besides skiing, including kite-skiing, luge and quad-biking. There are facilities for children, with ski-schools and a snow garden for toddlers. Check out the Massif Du Sancy website for full details and prices.
Walking is one of the best ways to see Puy-de-Dôme. Four GR (Grand Randonee) footpaths cross the Parc des Volcans d'Auvergne, taking in both the high mountain and plateaux environments. There are plenty of shorter and less committing routes if you don't fancy a full-on hike, and local tourist offices can inform you further. Another option is to make use of the excellent local trains – just hop on if you get tired. Alternatively, consider a guided tour with a specialist operator like Walk Auvergne.
Join the airborne adrenalin junkies, and try paragliding or hang gliding in the mountains. Cycling is very popular here, both road racing and mountain biking, known as 'VTT'. Canoeing is popular on the Allier River, and white-water rafting and canyoning are growing in popularity. There are numerous lakes in the park, whose still, clear water is ideal for newcomers to kayaking and younger children.
Food and drink
Puy-de-Dôme's cuisine is similar to that of Auvergne as a whole – earthy, tasty and based on the regional staples of potatoes, beef and cheese. Soupe de Noël is a regional speciality, made with stale bread, cheese and crême fraiche. It may not sound appetising, but is delicious. Truffade is another dish to try – sliced potato cooked in duck fat and smothered with St Nectaire cheese. St Nectaire, in fact, features in a number of dishes, and is made from the milk of Salers cows. The wild-flower meadows and herbs that they feed on are said to impart a rich and perfumed taste to what Louis XIV called "the best of cheeses".
Ease of access
You can fly with Air France via Paris to Clermont-Ferrand. Alternatively, fly to Lyon from Heathrow, Birmingham or Manchester with BA or from Stansted with EasyJet. It's then a two hour drive from Lyon to Clermont-Ferrand.
To reach Puy-de-Dôme by train, take the Eurostar to Paris and then the TGV to Clermont- Ferrand. The region has an excellent rail network, and roads are good.
Value for money
Puy-de-Dôme is not an expensive destination. Aside from the Vulcania theme park, you'll hardly have to pay any entry fees and most attractions are free to enjoy. Accommodation and eating out are reasonably priced, even in the city centre of Clermont-Ferrand you won't pay much more than 60 Euros for a double room, and 20 Euros for a meal with a demi-litre of red wine.
Vulcanologists will probably want to honeymoon in Puy-de-Dôme, but even for the rest of us the rugged landscape holds a great deal of appeal. Ideal for active, outdoorsy types, the department also harbours a number of architectural and historic sites of some importance. Add in the skiing, and the gastronomic offerings, and this part of France may just be ideal for your next holiday.