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Situated in the heart of France, in the centre of the Massif Central, Auvergne is an area which is generally rugged and rocky in terrain with mountains rising to 7000 feet. The River Allier which runs through it has created the dramatic Allier Gorges. The ‘puy’ of the region, widely found in place names, is the name of the characteristic rounded hilltops made from the hardened magma of ancient volcanoes which have not erupted.

There is little to worry about with regard to volcanic activity as they have been dormant for about 7000 years. However, there is still some activity beneath the surface and at Chaudes Aigues you can experience the hottest natural springs in Europe.

The hilly nature of this area and remoteness of some of the towns and villages can cause some difficulty in getting around, especially in winter when snow is a frequent occurrence. However, for some visitors this slower pace is the very reason why they come here and visitor numbers are steadily rising, even during winter months.

Road links have vastly improved in recent times thanks to the opening of the breath-taking Millau Viaduct and the motorway linking Paris with Spain. There is a fast train service from Clemont-Ferrand to Paris.

In this mountainous part of Auvergne is to be found the impressive Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans d’Auvergne with its strange, unique landscape. Within the Puy de Dome mountain range is the famous theme- park, ‘Vulcania’. Here you can learn about the history of the volcanoes through the use of modern technology. There are ski resorts in Mont-Dore.

The rivers Loire and Alliers both rise in the Massif Central and offer good opportunities for both coarse and fly fishing. The area also appeals to ramblers and naturalists.

An important product of the region is its famous Volvic mineral water from the spa town of the same name and is one of France’s most valuable exports.

Other parts of the region are largely rural in character and are composed of mainly forest and grassland. Agriculture is a major part of the regional economy with cattle-rearing for meat and cheese production being of prime importance. Visitors will be amazed by the sight of the long-horned Salers breed of cattle with its deep red colouring.

Auvergne is also an important industrial centre. The French tyre industry is based around the towns of Montlucon (Dunlop) and Clermont-Ferrand (Michelin) where there is also a museum of the firm’s history. Auvergne is an important area for research establishments including those studying pharmaceuticals, food, chemistry and a host of other sciences and technologies.

As the capital, Clemont-Ferrand is the hub of much that goes on in the region. It is a university with good facilities for shoppers. At the beginning of each year it is the venue for the international Short Film Festival. Springtime brings Europavox – a contemporary music event and in October, Jazz en Tete is held.

One of the region’s most visited towns is le Puy en Velay in Haute Loire. The town marks the start of a famous pilgrims’ route and the old town is worth exploring for its buildings of historic interest. Lace-making is one of the local crafts.

The Cantal department has a number of attractive locations. Aurillac is the area’s busy centre with its riverside position. The largely pedestrianised old town has plenty of shops and cafes in its many squares.

The cathedral town of Saint-Flour has an historic upper town which is the part of most interest to visitors. Here you will find the cathedral itself and other buildings made of the dark volcanic rock. On Saturday mornings a market is held selling fresh fruit and vegetables. You can also try the local Cantal cheeses which are a little like cheddar but with a stronger flavour.

When it comes to local food specialities, Auvergne is one of the most important cheese producers in France. The best known is the strong blue cheese –Bleu d’Auvergne but also popular is the milder blue- Forme d’Ambert. To sample these cheeses and see where they are made you could try following the Route des Fromages AOC d’Auvergne which passes through some spectacular scenery.

In general, the cuisine is quite rustic in character. It is, nevertheless, rich and full of flavour relying heavily on game supplied by the hills and forests and local vegetables. Le Puy lentils are another key ingredient. They are tasty and nutritious and have been cultivated in the region for over two centuries.

You can expect to find dishes such as stews made with various meats and vegetable hot pots. Some auberges are worth trying as they offer local specialities at reasonable prices.

There is some small-scale wine production in Auvergne. The best known label is Saint Pourcain which comes from vineyards in Allier and is available mainly in the form of a light white wine although there is also red and rose. It has recently attained AOC status.

The Auvergne region’s appeal is due to its distinctive character and it been largely untouched by time. It is one of the best places in France to experience the great outdoors.

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