Hear about travel to the Auvergne region of France as the Amateur Traveler talks to Allison and Andrew Cornford-Matheson from CheeseWeb.eu as we talk about their visit to this central but overlooked area of France.
Allison says “I think the people who are really going to love Auvergne are people who like to get out into nature. There are large cities like Clermont-Ferrand and Vichy, but we pretty much avoided those in favor of the small villages and nature.” Andrew adds, “there is a real sense of sustainable tourism in the area. It’s very green and it really encourages people to get outside and explore hiking, doing a little bit of boating, etc.” “If you are a walker then this is heaven for you”.
If you don’t picture extinct volcanoes when you picture France then this region will surprise you as many of the peaks have the unmistakable conical shape of old volcanos. Peaks like Puy-de-dome can be traversed by a railroad or hiked by the more adventurous.
As you might suspect with two guests from a site with cheese in the name, Auvergne is known for its cheese and has 6 AOP kinds of cheese (protected designation of origin as Champagne is for sparkling wine) and even a Route des Fromages for visiting various sites associated with cheese making.
Auvergne also has some outstanding historic sites like the Chapel of Saint-Michel d’Aighuilhe and the Fortresse de Polignac (both of which were built on rock outcroppings) or the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame du Puy which is a UNESCO site.
Allison and Andrew stayed in a variety of quirky cabins, farms, and lodges which are eco-friendly as part of a new program through the tourism office.
Pack your hiking shoes, pick up a baguette and some amazing cheese as you head out into the countryside of Auvergne.
Auvergne on Cheeseweb
Aux Jardins des Thévenets
Charroux (Plus Beaux Villages du France)
Auvergne AOP Cheeses
Route des Fromages
Cheese Farm La Grange de la Haute-Vallée
Fortresse de Polignac
Aluna Voyages (Edible Walk)
Auvergne Volcanos Regional Park
Cathédrale de Notre-Dame du Puy (UNESCO)
Chapel of Saint-Michel d’Aighuilhe
Both Kevin and Mark commented on Travel to Utah’s National Parks – Episode 503
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 504. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about volcanoes and cathedrals, castles and cheese as we go to the Auvergne region of France.
Chris: Today’s episode is brought to you by Select Italy. Select Italy designs custom itineraries and books a whole range of products and services, including fascinating tours, romantic weddings or honeymoon trips along with ticketing services for museums and musical events in Italy. Visit selectitaly.com to learn more.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. We’ll hear from our sponsor a little later, but first, let’s talk about Auvergne, France.
I’d like to welcome back to the show Alison and Andrew Cornford-Matheson from cheeseweb.eu. Welcome back to the show.
Andrew: Thanks, Chris.
Alison: Thanks for having us.
Chris: And we’re talking France today. Last time you were on the show, we were talking a region of Italy, the Tyrol region of Italy. But we are talking France, and we are talking cheese, which is good because, last time, we had people on from cheeseweb.eu and we did not talk cheese. Where are we talking about today?
Alison: We are talking about the region of Auvergne, which is pretty much smack out in the middle of France.
Chris: And I swear that region had never been there before. When I looked in the map and saw where we’re talking about, I didn’t understand why I had never heard of it. Although, you did say for history buffs like me, it is the region where Vichy is.
Chris: And I certainly knew about Vichy, France. But we’re talking really just in the middle of the country.
Alison: It really is, and it’s really unpopulated and unknown even to a lot of French people. And those who do know about it think it’s pretty much just populated with cows and not much else.
Andrew: Right, so for France, it would be the flyover state essentially in a miniature sense. But it is. It’s the drive thru. People from Germany heading towards Spain or people from the west coast of France heading towards Italy, they just kind of drive through there and don’t really stop.
Chris: And then you were telling me before we started recording that there’s a little confusion here because this used to be a separate province and now has just merged recently, last year?
Alison: Right, actually, just last month, the beginning of January this year, France merged a bunch of regions together. So they’re kind of using working names right now, which are really just a combination of the two names before. So Auvergne has joined with Rhone Alpes. And right now, the region is just called Auvergne Rhone Alpes.
Chris: Okay. Rhone Alpes is where we would find the city of Lyon, which begs the question of, how do we get to this center of France? What’s the best way to get here?
Alison: If you’re coming in from the states, then you’re probably best to fly via Paris, and you could either fly from Paris on a local flight to…
Alison: Which is the capital, or possibly Lyon as well. It’s not that far away. Or you could take the train from Paris, also would be a nice trip.
Chris: One more time with the name of the capital because, unfortunately, we don’t pronounce it…So it’s Clermont-Ferrand?
Andrew: Correct, yeah.
Chris: Okay. Or if we’re spelling it in English, Clermont-Ferrand.
Alison: You got it.
Chris: Okay, there we go, all right. Excellent, why should someone go to Auvergne?
Alison: I think the people that are really going to love Auvergne are people who like to get out into nature. At least that was really the theme of our trip. There are large cities like Clermont-Ferrand and Vichy, but we pretty much avoided those in favor of the smaller villages and the nature.
Andrew: Yeah, there’s a real sense of eco-sustainable tourism in the area. It’s very green. And it really encourages people to get outside and explore hiking, doing a little bit of boating, etc.
Alison: Yeah, if you’re a walker, this is heaven for you. There’s loads and loads of excellent walking trails. So yeah, really, nature and great food.
Alison: Lots of cheese. We’ll get to the cheese, but cheese is definitely a highlight.
Andrew: I don’t know why we’re not talking about the cheese.
Chris: Excellent. What kind of itinerary would you recommend? What itinerary did you do?
Alison: Well, we drove through the area and, like I said, really hitting kind of the little villages and the nature.
Chris: Starting where?
Alison: We began just outside of Vichy. But if you’re coming from Clermont-Ferrand, it would be really easy to do pretty much the same itinerary that we did. But one of the things that we were focusing on, Auvergne has some really unique places to stay. And the tourist office has actually created this designation called the Nattitude, which is attitude with an N. And the N is for nature. But basically, they’ve kind of hand-picked these different types of places to stay. So we are talking hotels, eco-lodges, bed and breakfast, even campgrounds, but they’re all unique. There’s something a little quirky and offbeat about all of them. They use local products, local ingredients, local building materials. And they are eco-sustainable, and so they sit really well within the nature of Auvergne. And so we stayed at a variety of these different places as we were traveling through. And honestly, any one of the places that we stayed, I would easily stay for a week. They were really interesting.
Andrew: And I think from an itinerary perspective, again, you coming into Vichy or coming in Clermont-Ferrand, starting in the north and heading south then looking back up would make a good itinerary for anyone coming through. As Alison said, we did it like by vehicles. So we were in our motor home.
Chris: Well, then it looks like, we’re in a rural area where a vehicle is probably a pretty good choice.
Andrew: It’s either that or hiking. I was going to say that’s the other option is if you’re really into hiking, then they’ve got a lot of hiking routes through there. The French Riviera are renowned for having well-signposted hiking routes. And even the Compostela route comes through that area, in Puy-en-Velay, which is another town to the south of the region.
Alison: So cycling, motorcycling, they also have a number of routes that are not only for motorcyclists but kind of specially marked out for them as kind of highlight trips. But definitely, you want to get off the highways on to the smaller roads. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that as well.
Chris: Okay. So you started in Vichy, and where was your first stop?
Alison: So our first stop was at a really adorable, what they call in France, chambres d’hotes, so host chambers. But it’s essentially what we would consider a bed and breakfast. And this was a French and South African couple who had restored this old farmhouse and made really quirky but gorgeous accommodations. And so that was our first night and our first introduction. And the nice thing about chambres d’hotes is that often have table d’hote, so the host table. And the hostess, she prepared this amazing meal of all locally sourced ingredients. And you eat with all of the other guests who are staying at the chambre d’hote. So you get to meet this whole variety of different people coming from different places. So there were another French couple there. There were some Germans who were there for hiking and people actually just from Vichy, which is about 20 minutes drive away. So it was really interesting to get their perspective on where we should go and what we should see when we were there.
Andrew: So that’s the best way to really meet a local population and get a real local experience just to do these bed and breakfasts and do these tables d’hotes with the guests.
Chris: So you are not in a little village, but you’re actually out in the country, 20 minutes from Vichy?
Andrew: This place, Jardins des Thevenets, it was in the middle of pretty much nowhere.
Andrew: It was down in a small valley. They had beautiful huge rose bushes. But you know, they weren’t really neighbors, …But, yeah, it was about 20 minutes outside of Vichy, and there’s lots of other small towns nearby.
Andrew: Go ahead.
Alison: Oops, sorry to cut you off there, but the next morning, actually, our hostess had recommended we visit the village of Charroux, C-H-A-R-R-O-U-X.
Chris: And we’re going to put all these in the show notes because there’s no way you can hear the pronunciation and automatically assume the French spelling.
Andrew: Oh, especially when you throw in Xs and Gs with that.
Chris: Exactly, right.
Alison: And Auvergne has its own kind of dialect too, which is a little special. But Charruox is one of the plus beaux villages of France, which I don’t know if you’re familiar with that designation.
Chris: I’m not, no.
Alison: It basically translates to the prettiest villages in France. And this is basically designated by an overseeing body, and you can apply to have your town be considered for this. And there’s a bunch of different criteria that the town has to meet. We visited a number of them in Auvergne, and they definitely are pretty. If nothing else, they’re very, very pretty.
Andrew: And Charroux is a medieval village which is known for various things, one being saffron. There was candle maker.
Alison: There was a mustard factory, an artisanal mustard factory. There was a soap-making workshop, but all but very local sort of one- and two-person businesses.
Andrew: In this ridiculously cute village.
Alison: Yeah, but disgustingly cute.
Andrew: I mean you look at some of these villages, Chris, and you’re like “France, you’re just not trying. Come on. You could be prettier than this.”
Chris: I sensed just a little bit of sarcasm in your voice there.
Alison: A tiny bit of sarcasm, yeah, but, yeah, so really a gorgeous little introduction to the area for sure.
Chris: Let’s take a break here and hear from our sponsor who is Select Italy. Select Italy is the ultimate source for travel to Italy and offers a wide array of superior Italian travel products and services, including customized itineraries, fascinating tours, romantic wedding or honeymoon trips, unique and fun culinary classes, yacht charters, transportation, hotel reservations, villa bookings, tickets for museums and musical events, and more. Anything and everything you need for optimum travel to Italy is possible with Select Italy. Their helpful travel planners in Chicago, New York, and Shanghai are always ready to give the best advice on when and where to visit, while the Florence support staff is there to help should you need anything while you are in Italy. Always eager to introduce their clients to great new destinations, the company has expanded its offerings and travel services to the Balkans with the launch of Select Croatia. Visit selectitaly.com and selectcroatia.com. And thanks to Select Italy for sponsoring Amateur Traveler.
Alison: So from Charroux, we headed towards Manzat. And this is in another department. So France, to be extra-complicated, they have regions, and then within regions, they have departments. And so the highlights of this department is Puy-de-Dome. And I think I would let Andrew talk about that since he loves driving and climbing up things.
Andrew: So the context is P-U-Y, to understand that, puy means essentially it’s an old term for a mountain, almost like a stout, if you will, basically, the top of a mountain that looks like it is a stout. And that comes from the fact that in this region, it’s an old volcanic area. So there’s a whole chain of extinct volcanoes through France, through this part of France called…
Alison: Chaine des Puys.
Andrew: Chaine des Puys, yeah, the chain of puys, the chain of volcanic mountains. And it’s really interesting because all of those mountains really do look like volcanic cones. It just looks like they were dropped there and funnel cones created. And one of the tallest there is called Puy de Dome, which is one of the largest ones that’s there.
Alison: It is the biggest one, I think.
Andrew: And at the top of it, they have built a panoramic. And it used to be that you could drive to the top of this puy, and it was causing so many congestion problems with cyclists going up, buses going up and coming down, and cars going up and coming down. They were getting 50,000 vehicles up there a year. They finally shut that down and put up a train so you could take a train to the top of this mountain. And from the top of this mountain, you have a beautiful panoramic view of the valleys and this chain of volcanoes that are out on plain around you.
Alison: So you see this flat, flat, very agricultural countryside with all of these bumps from the volcanoes. It’s really amazing.
Chris: Yeah, when I looked at the region, it looked like, on Google, I think every third or fourth picture was a picture of an ancient volcano or cinder cone. And some of them were the same one over and over again, but it was definitely one of the things they wanted you to note about the region.
Alison: For sure.
Andrew: And it’s so surprising because you don’t think of…
Chris: No, I don’t think France and volcanic, no.
Andrew: France and volcano doesn’t come together
Andrew: it doesn’t come together. And again, to our point about hiking, if you go at the top of this mountain, you can look down at all of these hiking trails that go between all the different summits. And you can just hike from one or the other. Now, we did the train ride up to the top of this mountain, but you can actually walk to the top. I think they say it’s an hour and a half walk to the top and then a 45-minute walk down, depending on what shape you’re in. I kind of figure, for me, it’s about a two and a half hour walk up. But yeah, it’s a beautiful area. It’s a wonderful experience too. When we were there, there were plenty of paragliders who were jumping off the summit and then paragliding down to the train station and just jumping, gliding down, getting on the train, and coming back up. And they built the train system to do that entirely.
Alison: And the nice thing about going there near the beginning of a trip too is that it’s not just the mountain and the train. They have a big interpretation center, and so there is films about the volcanic activity and how the area was created. And the train itself is actually designed in kind of an eco-sustainable way, just sort of fitting with the whole theme of sustainability in the area.
Andrew: If you’re a train geek, the train regenerates, I think, its 30% of it power. It’s an electric train. So it regenerates 30% of its power coming down the mountain.
Chris: Okay, interesting. By the time we’re in Puy-de-Dome, you’re now in the middle of the region, just to the west of Clermont-Ferrand.
Andrew: Yes, actually, coming from the north, coming down from Vichy area.
Chris: So this whole region is not all that large that it took you that long to drive from one to the other?
Alison: No, everything is relatively close. If you had time constraints and you needed to get from point A to point B quickly, you can. But for us, the whole point of being there was to slow down and really enjoy the little towns and these beautiful drives, scenic drives kind of from point A to point B. So for example, after we left Puy-de-Dome, we did one of the prettiest drives, I think, of our stay there. It’s hard to pick a prettiest, but that was definitely in the top, and it was through an area called Les Gorges de la Sioule.
Andrew: Even we can’t figure out that one
Alison: Yeah. So basically, through a beautiful river gorge.
Andrew: Lots of winding roads and that’s just you see that beautiful gorge spanning out below you. But you also have all these castles along the way that are kind of sitting at the top of these cliffs and looking down over the gorge. So that’s a beautiful drive. And again, to Alison’s point about motorcyclists, this is one of those routes that is really popular for motorcycles.
Chris: And I am going to make you try that again because you talked over each other. So the name of the gorge again is…
Alison: Gorges de la Sioule, S-I-O-U-L-E.
Alison: So we kind of spent some time winding our way through there and just admiring the scenery. And basically, we were heading towards a town called Manzat. And the point of going there was for another of these really interesting Nattitude accommodations. I’m not even really sure what we would call this one, I guess kind of a eco-cabin in the woods.
Andrew: Eco-minimalist cabin in the woods. It was fascinating, but it was perfect.
Alison: So the place is called Le Bois Basalte, which translates to wood and basalt, and this is basically the two elements that are famous in this region of Manzat because there was an old basalt quarry there at one point. And four young architects who are from the region got together and wanted to do a sustainable tourism project and came up with this idea for Bois Basalte. And it’s a series of ecologically sustainable cabins. There is a number of cabins, I think there’s four, that take two people and three that take four people and one for eight people.
Chris: And you say cabins. I’ve been looking at a few pictures here, and it looks to me like we’re talking really more the tiny house movement.
Alison: Definitely, we stayed in one of the ones for two people, and it really got us thinking about the tiny house movement and small spaces. And we actually had very long conversations the evening that we were there about living in a tiny space.
Andrew: We already were living in a tiny space.
Alison: Yeah, we were living in a motor home. It’s kind of the next step.
Andrew: Which, for the North American audience, the motor home that we’re talking about is half the size of an average North American motor home. And so we’re already living in a fairly small box. And then we’re staying overnight in another box that really had us thinking about how we could turn even that into something even more efficient.
Alison: And again, everything is sustainable. So in our little cabin, we had a composting toilet. And we had a cold water sink. But before I completely terrify people into thinking, “Ah, I’m never going there because I need my hot shower.” I need my hot shower in the morning. And so what they did to cut down on waste and cut down on power and water consumption is they built one large shower room units and the beautiful, beautiful showers, big rain showers. But each shower unit goes with each of the cabins. So while you are staying in one cabin, you have your own shower unit, which is just a few steps away.
Andrew: So no communal showers. You have your own. You can walk your stuff in there. It’s all yours for the duration of your stay.
Chris: So they’re all together, but they’re not shared.
Andrew: Yeah, and they’re very high end. You’ve got beautiful bathing facilities. You’ve got this minimalist cabin, eco small space, tiny house, and a fabulous view.
Alison: Yeah, the highlight is just this spectacular view of the Puy mountains in the distance. And really, what I think one of the highlights of the trip for me was sitting on the little porch of this cabin watching the sunset over the Puys. That was just unforgettable.
Chris: Excellent. Where to next?
Alison: So next stop, I think we need to start getting into the cheese.
Andrew: I don’t know, maybe too early for cheese.
Alison: The only thing that we knew about Auvergne and the only reason we had heard the name Auvergne was from a particular type of cheese. And it’s a bleu cheese called Bleu d’Auvergne, bleu from Auvergne. And a French chef friend of ours had introduced us to this bleu cheese years and years ago. We called it our gateway bleu cheese, because like a lot of people, we were, well, iffy about eating moldy cheese. And he really encouraged us to try this cheese. And we both completely fell in love with it. So when I learned about this cheese, that was my association with Auvergne. And so when we planned this trip to Auvergne, I said, okay, when we’re there, we have to get bleu cheese. But what I learned while we were there is there’s actually five different cheeses from the region that have the AOP designation. And so this is an international now designation for protected cultural cheeses.
Chris: So these are, I want to say, artisanal. I don’t know if there is a better term for it than that.
Chris: Done in a traditional fashion.
Alison: They have to be made from specific ingredients in the traditional way, and it’s very controlled where and how they’re produced.
Andrew: And it sort of forms a trademark as well. AOP stands for Appellation d’Origine Protegée. So its name is protected based on its origin. So it’s a traditional method combined with it being in a particular area.
Chris: Right. Well, in the same way in France that champagne is both a methode champenoise as well as done-from-the-region champagne.
Alison: Exactly. So you make champagne in a different region, then you have to call it sparkling wine. It’s the same with these cheeses.
Chris: You’d still say it done in the method of champagne.
Chris: You can’t say it’s champagne, exactly.
Chris: Now, a little challenge for our listeners because I would like the listeners to think about how many different French cheeses they can name, pause here, write that list down. And then I think there are at least one cheese in France per day of the week. Isn’t it something like that? I think there is something like 360 plus different types of cheeses. So it’s not surprising when you say that there are five different ones there. We’re not just talking about one cheese per region by any means.
Alison: No, definitely. And these are only the AOP cheeses. There’s probably hundreds of cheeses just in Auvergne, but these are their very special traditional cheeses. So what is really great in Auvergne is they’ve created a route of cheeses of Auvergne.
Chris: Route des Fromages?
Alison: And so it’s signposted…Route des Fromages, yes, very good. So it’s signposted. You’ll see these brown signs with a little symbol of cheese all over the place. And there’s, I think, over 40 stops on the route. So there’s different farms that you can stop at to try cheese. There’s artisanal cheese makers. There’s dairies. Some of the farms even offer you to stay overnight, another bed and breakfast type idea.
Andrew: I had to pull Alison away from staying a night at the farm. I couldn’t deal with that much cheese, really.
Alison: You get those snuggle baby cows.
Chris: Oh yeah.
Alison: It’s amazing. So there’s a website dedicated to this, of course, and you can pick up a map at any of the tourist offices and kind of eat your way through the different cheeses.
Chris: I could sell my wife on that. That’s something that would work. Bread and cheese, we really don’t need anything else.
Alison: Well, one of the great things about Auvergne as well is it’s a good budget spot. We love to eat, and we love to eat in restaurants. But we actually didn’t eat in a lot of restaurants in Auvergne because the picnic opportunities are just too good. And you can walk into pretty much any supermarket and still find very local, very regional artisanal products. The grocery stores there, even in the big chain grocery stores, really blew us away with the selection they had at their cheese counters, their meat counters. And everything was marked that was from Auvergne. And they’re very passionate about their local products and protecting those.
Andrew: Which contrasts to some of the other parts of France where food is still very important. What Alison’s saying is that this was even more pronounced that they had a local meat counter that served just local meats. It wasn’t just they had a small section that said this is our local products. Locals there demand it, “I want my local cheeses. I want my local meats. I don’t want you to bring stuff in from away.” They were phenomenal access to local products there.
Alison: And it’s very affordable. So you can easily walk into a grocery store if you’re doing this kind of as a road trip as we did and pick up your picnic lunch for the day. And then there is just so many amazing pull off spot that you can just pull to the side of the road and have your picnic. And it’s a nice affordable way to eat your way around the region.
Chris: And looking at the map of the region, I would guess that one fourth to one fifth of the region is national parks.
Chris: Yeah, there’s a lot of places where you can picnic here.
Alison: Absolutely. We did stop at a number of cheese farms along the cheese route. My favorite by far was, and here’s another good French one for you, La Grange de la Haute Vallée, so the Farm of the High Valley. They produce four of the five AOP cheeses from the region. And they had the most amazing Bleu d’Auvergne cheese, I think, we’ve ever had. I’m still dreaming about this cheese.
Chris: Now, not all of the five cheeses were a bleu cheese?
Chris: They’re of a different variety or are they all?
Alison: Two of them are bleu.
Alison: One of them, which is quite well known at least in Europe, is called Cantal. And it’s a harder cheese.
Chris: Oh sure.
Alison: There’s another called Salers, S-A-L-E-R-S, so Salers, I guess, if you pronounced it English-wise. And that actually comes from a particular breed of cow that grazes in the mountains. They’re red and very cute. And then the other one that they didn’t have at that farm is…
Alison: Saint-Nectaire, yes. And that’s kind of a creamier, almost more towards a brie or a camembert style cheese.
Chris: Got it, okay. Did you say the name of the farm?
Alison: La Grange de la Haute Vallée.
Chris: Oh yeah, sorry, yes, you did, okay.
Alison: And it’s just outside of the village of Murat. Again, Murat, it’s a nice stopping point. I think you could easily spend a morning there, just wandering around. It’s another very pretty village with nice little shops and…
Andrew: Great views of the valley and the surrounding mountains.
Chris: Okay, and now we are in the southern part of the region.
Alison: So we’re heading south, yeah.
Andrew: So from the cheese route, we got into heading a little bit more, well, if you can get more remote in Auvergne, which I think has a population density of like nine people per square kilometer or less than that.
Chris: Yeah, it was something crazy. In sort of the Paris area, it’s almost a thousand people per square kilometer. And in Auvergne, it’s like five or six.
Andrew: Anyway, we ended up heading to this ecolodge that was really off the beaten path. And we were looking at it, following these roads to try and get to it and wondering, “Had we missed it because we kept driving and driving and driving? And we were never getting there. But finally, we did manage to get there. And it’s a beautiful lodge called the Instants d’Absolu, so absolute instants.
Alison: It’s kind of an incredible moment, I think, if we translate it a little more.
Andrew: And it’s perched on the edge of this lake that’s…When we were talking to the owners of the eco lodge, basically, the lake had been drying up for years. And when they came in and invested in creating this eco lodge, they partnered with the local council to revitalize the lake and revitalize the nature around the lake. And it’s just a really interesting partnership between private and public interests. So this eco lodge is focused on relaxation, getting away from all the busyness of life in cities, etc. They have a small spa, lots of hiking around there. We did a nice hike the following morning.
Alison: Yeah, beautiful walk.
Andrew: And they’ve got a wonderful restaurant onsite. So you don’t really have to go very far. You get good food there, again, local, hyper-local. They try and get everything within 20 kilometers of the lodge itself. That’s just a beautiful low stone building too, kind of runs right into the landscape.
Alison: Yeah, and you’re right on the edge of the lake, so when you’re in their little spa, sitting in the hot tub, all you see is this lake and kind of the mountains in the background and the sky.
Andrew: When we were there, there was a thunder and lightning storm rolling over our head. So we are actually sitting in a spa and watching the thunderhead rolling over top. So it was kind of neat.
Chris: I’m not sure they recommend that actually.
Alison: Exactly. But again, there, if you want to get in touch with kind of their nature and understand more about the area, just a few minutes away from the eco lodge is a little museum called La Maison de la Pinatelle. And Pinatelle is just the really hyper local region. It’s just a little center that talks about the nature and the landscapes and the environment in this little section of Auvergne.
Chris: Excellent. Any other non-hiking, non-cheese- or food-related activities you took part in that I want to make sure that we cover?
Alison: We definitely recommend a visit to Puy-en-Velay. This is a bigger city. But it’s a really, really unique city. And if you’re into culture and museums and UNESCO sites, then this is the place for you.
Chris: As it happens, I am into all of those things.
Alison: We know that. We saved this one for you.
Chris: Good, thank you.
Andrew: As we mentioned earlier, this is where the Compostela Routes passes through. So there’s a large cathedral here that welcomes the people…I’m sorry, I’m talking about hiking again.
Chris: That’s okay.
Andrew: No, it welcomes pilgrims as part of the start of their…This is one of the cities where you can start from on the Compostela Route. So the cathedral there welcomes pilgrims who are starting out on that route. Plus, it’s got these ridiculous statues on top of these spires of rocks that are in the middle of the city that actually got a chapel on the top. And it’s 268 stairs to get to the top. So it’s not for the faint of heart. But a fabulous view from the top there, but also just being in this chapel at the top of this pillar of stone, it’s just really a very homey feeling being inside there because it is so tight. And they had to build the chapel in such a weird way to make it fit on top of this spire.
Alison: It feels like it’s carved right out of the mountain. And then you step outside and you just have this sweeping view of Puy-en-Velay, and you can see the UNESCO cathedral. You can see all of these other spires jutting up out of the city. It’s really…
Andrew: And on another food-related note…
Chris: That’s okay. I didn’t think I would keep you off food for very long.
Alison: We just changed in a way for like…
Chris: That’s not a problem.
Andrew: What I realize when we visit there, and this was a total realization for me that I’ve never thought of. But apparently, Puy-en-Velay is where Puy lentils come from. So if you’ve ever had those little green lentils that they call Puy lentils, then they come from Puy-en-Velay.
Chris: I am not familiar with these, okay.
Andrew: And so when we get there and I started seeing all these fields of lentils, it’s when one and one added up to two in my brain. I was like “Oh, this is where Puy lentils come from.” So if you like lentils, then is also an interesting place to visit.
Alison: And just outside of Puy-en-Velay is another fortress, and Andrew is very big into crumbly castles and fortress.
Andrew: Yeah, they’ve got the Fortress of Polignac, which at this point is…There’s not a whole lot left to it, but you can still get to the top of it and the battlements are still there. Parts of it are needing a lot of work to restore it. But it’s another one of those that’s sitting on this pillar of rock or this plateau of rock, really, up above a small town, the town of Polignac. But it was built there just to keep an eye on this valley that was going through, like we passed Puy-en-Velay. And it’s tied up to the Knights Templar and into the stories of the French kings, etc. It’s a really fascinating spot to go and visit.
Alison: And one other kind of odd thing that we discovered, or odd for us, is that we had spent some time earlier in the summer up in the Loire Valley area in Northern France. And it never really occurred to us that the Loire is actually is a huge river, and it does dip all the way down into Auvergne. And actually another one of the very beautiful drives in the region is along the Loire River Valley in Auvergne. The last of the kind of super unique places we stayed at was perched right on the Loire River. And this was a camping resort called CosyCamp, but not in the way that we North Americans think of camping resorts. This was really “glamping,” I would say. And we had all different kinds of eco tents, and they had a gypsy caravan that you could rent and camp in. And they had kind of tree house tents for four people. And really, it would be a great place to stay I think with a family or with a group.
Chris: And I don’t want to assume that everybody knows the term “glamping,” but it’s basically glamour and camping combined together, which gives you a picture there. So camping with your Chardonnay glass in your hand.
Alison: Absolutely, there was absolutely no roughing it whatsoever.
Andrew: It’s a tent in name only, really.
Alison: Yeah, yeah, for sure
Andrew: One of the ones we looked at. It was more like a tree house.
Andrew: It was fabulous. It was about 10 meters off the ground, and it was a fabulous spot for a family to stay.
Alison: Yeah, and again, everything is eco-sustainable. And they have a little restaurant there and sources all local products. So again, part of this Nattitude program that just really sums up everything that we like about travel.
Chris: Excellent. What surprised you about the region, about Auvergne?
Alison: Other than the fact that it was there at all.
Chris: Yeah, I swear, it wasn’t there before.
Alison: No, I don’t think it was. I guess just how wild and unspoiled it was, because when we think of France and other places we’ve traveled through in France, it’s very hard to get away from people. And even when you’re in places where there is small villages, you just don’t get that sense of kind of wild nature. And we went hiking in some of these places. We went on an edible food walk that was incredible.
Andrew: Eye opening, eye opening is how much food is at your feet.
Chris: So you went on a walk with a guide who knew which things you could eat?
Chris: Okay, interesting. How did you arrange that?
Alison: This was a gentleman called Christophe Anglade. And he has a website and a company called Aluna Voyages. And he’s sort of a expert hiker, forager, woodsman.
Andrew: If you can envision what a forest ranger historically could have been in terms of…Not even forest ranger, but someone who just lives and breathes living in the woods or living on the…
Alison: It’s like a French bear grilled. He’s that kind of guy who could just conjure fire out of nothing.
Chris: Yeah, pretty much, that’s him.
Alison: So he does hiking and foraging tours all over the world.
Alison: But he lives in Auvergne and does focus a lot of his tours in Auvergne.
Andrew: And when you talk about people who who’ve written a book on certain things…
Alison: He literally has written a book.
Andrew: He literally wrote a book on edible food walks or edible food in the forests of Auvergne. We hooked up with him and he took us on a morning tour, and then we popped back to his house in the woods.
Andrew: And he helped us prepare a meal with the best stuff that we gathered.
Andrew: Yeah, it was a wonderful morning.
Alison: Yeah. So getting back to your question, for me, I think the biggest surprise was really just the unspoiled nature and the wildness of parts of Auvergne.
Andrew: For me, it was discovering that there are volcanoes in France.
Chris: Right, no, that was a surprise to me when I saw the pictures as well, interesting. Now, I’m a little surprised that when you talked about, for instance, the route of cheese, the Route de Fromage that there is that tourism infrastructure because often we’ve seen even in wineries that that’s still coming in France. I’m used to out here that every winery has a tasting room it seems and a visitors center and are ready to receive guests. But it seemed like that was more so there than I’m used to in France.
Alison: Yes, and I think the tourism office there is due kudos for a lot of that, the cheese route and the Nattitude program and those sorts of things. And I think part of it is because the area is so unknown that they really want to make it easy for visitors to come and experience and be part of it. But also, I think that people are very passionate about their region and their local products and are really excited to talk about it and to welcome visitors there and share it with people.
Andrew: Yeah, I think when you look at the U.S. and things like that, there’s a lot of individualism, like individuals come up and say, “I’m going to build a tasting room.” And then because one person has done it, a bunch of other people do it. In France, it’s not like that. They kind of their own independent in a different way of “Well, I’m just going to go and create my cheese, and I’ll sell that. And if I don’t sell it, then I don’t know what I’ll do. But I’m not going to go and create a tasting room for my cheese because that’s just not French.” But it takes somebody outside of that to come in and create these activities. And that’s what Alison is saying about the tourism office. We saw the same thing in South Tyrol. The farmers are unto themselves. They do their own thing, and they do it really, really well. But they’re not self-organizing enough to go and create these sorts of things or to create even the idea that, sure, come and visit. So Southern Italy would be different with their Agriturismo where maybe there’s a little bit more of a individualism that has built up into “I need to create some other business as part of my income to sustain myself.”
Chris: Interesting. And now, the one thing I wonder where it doesn’t get as many tourists, how is it for someone who doesn’t speak French?
Alison: I would say of a lot of the regions we visited, it’s relatively easy. Certainly, if you’re talking to older people who are not involved in the tourism sector at all, you’re probably not going to get much English. But in terms of the infrastructure and like websites and information, it’s pretty much all available in English. All of the bigger attractions will have English. So if you go to Puy de Dome or the museums around Clermont-Ferrand or Vichy, that’s all available in English. It’s only the very, very small local things where it might not be there yet. But I think, again, that the tourism office has put a big push on making it accessible. And English is really becoming the standard traveling language across Europe.
Chris: Sure, right.
Andrew: And even in these small places, they’ll bend over backwards to try and help to communicate.
Alison: Yeah, even if they don’t speak English, they will really try to help you out and understand what you want and get it for you.
Andrew: Yet again, one of those places in the world where no one that can’t communicate with you, they’ll go get the teenage and they’ll bring them out.
Chris: Sure, sure. I think that’s a lot of places in the world. Any recommendations on when to go, what time of year or particular festivals or anything like that?
Alison: We were there in late June, and it was lovely. It wasn’t too hot. I would say kind of spring and fall would probably be great. Summer would be lovely too, but I think you just have to take care if you’re doing a lot of hiking and things like that. It is going to get warm in the midday for sure.
Chris: Excellent. Before we get to my last four questions, anything else we should know before we go to Auvergne?
Alison: It really is an undiscovered gem, but caveat, you should go soon. People are starting to find out about it. It was actually on, I think, it was The Lonely Planet places to go list for this year.
Andrew: Regions, it was one of the top regions for 2016.
Alison: Yeah, so it is starting to get a little more known, and I think it’s time to go now and see it while it is unspoiled, while people don’t know as much about it.
Chris: Okay. So we’ll ask everybody who’s listening not to share this episode. Just don’t tell anybody until you get a chance to get there.
Alison: That’s right.
Chris: Just don’t tell anybody. It’s our little secret. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Auvergne.”
Alison: You’re sitting by the side of the road, eating a dish that is comprised entirely of potatoes and cheese, and you have had a dish the night before comprised totally of potatoes and cheese that has a completely different name and uses a different cheese.
Chris: I think you just answered the next question which is, how do you know when you’re in Auvergne? But you’re standing in the prettiest spot that you saw in all Auvergne, where are you standing? And what are you looking at?
Andrew: My vote would be for the top of Puy Mary, which is a another mountain.
Chris: Another volcano.
Andrew: Yeah, another spectacular view down over valleys and one of the best drives of the mountain that you’ll have.
Alison: Not for the faint of heart.
Andrew: Yeah, well, unless you’re the driver, and you like driving on small skinny roads with two-way traffic.
Alison: It’s really hard to find a bad view in Auvergne.
Chris: Alison, did you want to pick a different one? You don’t have to agree with Andrew all the time. It’s okay. We won’t tell him.
Alison: I never do. That is a good one. I would say, for me, one of the most spectacular views was just sitting on the little patio at Bois Basalte’s cabin and watching that sunset over the puys. It was just really breathtaking.
Chris: Excellent. And then I think the question that Alison already answered, finish this thought, you really know you’re in Auvergne when what? Or if you like, you can tell me what makes you laugh at this one. It’s okay. We’d do the answers and mix up the questions later on.
Alison: Other than potatoes and cheese, I would say you’re hiking up a mountain, and you’re in France, and there’s nobody else around.
Chris: Andrew, different answer?
Andrew: No, I’d go with that.
Chris: Okay. And the last question, if you had to summarize Auvergne in three words, what three words would you choose?
Alison: Wild, surprising, and beautiful.
Chris: Oh, I’m terribly disappointed the word cheese didn’t make it in there, coming from you too. Our guests again have been Alison and Andrew Cornford-Matheson. Where can people read more about your travels?
Alison: People can find us at cheeseweb.eu. And if they’re looking specifically for information on Auvergne, just click on France, and you’ll find all the regions. And there’s all kind of articles about our travels through Auvergne there.
Chris: Excellent. Well, thanks so much for coming back on the show and sharing with us not only your love for cheese but your love for Auvergne.
Alison: Thanks for having us.
Andrew: Thanks for having us, Chris.
Chris: We had a couple of comments on last week’s show on Utah, on the parks in Utah. Kevin pointed out that “I was confused.” He said, “I was confused when you kept referring to southeastern Utah. Zion and Bryce are definitely southwest. Capitol Reef and Escalante are central. Arches, Canyon Lands are both southeastern. But really, collectively, they are southern Utah.”
Kevin, you are right, and I should’ve had a map open as I said that.
Mark commented, “What’s in a name? The government gets complicated when deciding names. For example, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is not run by the National Park Service but by the Bureau of Land Management, while Cedar Breaks National Monument is run by the NPS.” And I don’t know why they would be. That’s interesting, Mark, “which brings me to my comment. Cedar Breaks National Monument is another smallish by western standards a park with few visitors and interesting scenery. We spent a week based in Saint George, Utah visiting Zion, Cedar Breaks, and Bryce with a bit of Staircase thrown in. I would agree with your guest that driving Monument Valley is car-friendly. We drove it in a Subaru Forester with no problems.”
Thanks so much, Mark. Thanks so much, Kevin. With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. I was going to tell you that it’s now too late to sign up for the Cambodia trip that we’re doing in April, but someone just signed up last week. So maybe I’m wrong. If you have any questions on Amateur Traveler, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or, better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. The transcript of this and all episodes is sponsored by JayWay Travel, experts in Eastern European travel. You can also follow me on Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram as Chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.