Autumn in the Auvergne
Autumn is not just a physically beautiful phenomenon in the deep heart of France – although the rich colors of the leaves and tendrils of wood smoke rising from chimneys do give it the quality of a fine Renoir painting. It’s also part of the annual rhythm of life here – work hard all year, leave for vacations in August, then come back charged up and ready to attack again after the rentrée in early September.
That’s reflected in the number of events and programmed activities you’ll find at this time of the year in central France. Here’s a round-up of 6 of the most interesting things to do this fall in the Auvergne region.
1. Take a long cross-country walk.
People in this part of France have perfected the art of the randonnée. It’s essentially a long walk in the country, but people here like to give it a purpose in addition to the obvious benefits of physical fitness – they want to “discover” the region, explore their history, find novel perspectives. You can buy little books with maps at the local libraries, and every weekend you’ll encounter whole families, gaggles of friends, organized walking clubs and the occasional solo hiker along almost every “D” road in the area.
For example, try this cross-country outing that starts in the quarry town of Volvic (also famous for its springs of pure water). The walk is organized around the creations of Thierry Courtadon, an artist who feels profoundly connected to this region. He works in an unusual medium – the black lava rock that dominates the landscape and architecture of the Auvergne.
This fall, he has placed 7 sculptures in 7 of the small communes around Volvic (including Sayat, where we lived the first time we were expats in the Auvergne).
Each is named with a verb inspired by the specific setting in which the work is situated – “Contemplate”,”Gather Together”,”Rise Again”, and so on. Courtadon says “We should expect that one day or another the lava that was lost will suddenly reappear in the light of day, the forces that had become subterranean will break through the wall of the imagination.”
2. See the special expo at the birthplace of Lafayette.
You know already how much I like visiting the Chateau de Chavaniac, family home of the Marquis de Lafayette, one of the most important heroes of the American Revolution. Situated in the southern part of the Auvergne, not far from Le Puy en Velay, the house itself is always worth a look for Americans who happen to be in the area.
You might not know, though, that the site has another particular connection to the United States. Just a few months before the U.S. officially entered the fighting in World War I (in April 1917), a group of Americans calling themselves the “French Heroes Lafayette Memorial Fund” banded together to buy the chateau and to start renovating it in honor of the contribution Lafayette made to American history.
Although the site was re-acquired by local government in 2009, it is marking the centennial of both WW I and the American renaissance of the chateau with a special exhibit. “Chavaniac – we are here!” is an assembly of never-seen documents showing how U.S. soldiers set up the house to harbor war orphans and refugees and how donors to the “French Heroes” foundation went to work to assure the long-term future of this important historic site. You can learn more about Chavanniac here.
3. Go shopping in a historic department store.
The Galeries Lafayette store sits smack in the middle of the great open square of the Place de Jaude in Clermont-Ferrand – and it has been there now for 110 years. It’s kept up with the times, though, and today it’s as sleek and contemporary as the great “mother ship” store on which it is modeled in Paris. It’s big, too – the original building was expanded in 1924, and today it holds five stories of fashion, jewelry, a huge cosmetics and perfume department, and household goods.
The place itself is interesting – Zola called it “a cathedral of modern commerce”, and its ornamental façade is an instantly recognizable icon to Clermontois right at the center of the city.
This year, they are celebrating the 110th anniversary with a special exposition on the third floor of the store. It’s free and open when the store is open (9:30 to 17:30), giving you an overview of how retail selling has evolved in this area over the past century.
4. Go to a harvest fair.
Most towns in the deep heart of France have some kind of annual event to let local producers show off the fruits of their work – but they make room, too, for lots of entertainment and even education. This fall, for example, the one in Montluçon will feature a major exhibit on “The Eternal Russia”, but there will also be sessions devoted to cooking classes, concerts, and an equestrian show.
The fair runs from October 7th through the 15th, and you can learn more about it here. While you’re there, Montluçon is worth a full day visit in itself – from its rich medieval history as an early capitol of the Bourbon dynasty to the wonderful contemporary Museum of Popular Music (“MuPop”), it is for me one of the most interesting places in the northern part of the Auvergne.
5. Run a marathon in one of France’s most spectacular natural settings.
OK, this one is admittedly NOT for me – but if you’re a runner (and I know several of you are!) the Marathon des Puys is coming up on October 22nd. (Please note, though, that you’ll have to register by September 30th – find out how by going here.)
The route is mainly urban, winding through downtown Clermont-Ferrand and looping around the historic town of Montferrand – but the whole city is set against the magnificent backdrop of the Chaine des Puys, the chain of dormant volcanoes that gives this part of France’s Massif Central its distinctive character.
6. Sample exotic wild mushrooms in a remote corner of central France.
La Chaise Dieu is famous for several reasons: although it’s located in one of the least-populated regions of France, it has one of the finest medieval abbeys in the country, and every August it hosts an internationally-acclaimed festival devoted to classical music in this dramatic setting. If you go there on October 26th, though, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a “Grand Annual Mushroom Fair”.
They promise to have a variety of “mushrooms and tripe” (yum!) all morning long, and a giant communal mushroom omelet at 18:00 offered by the local Comité des Fêtes. While you’re there for the afternoon, visit the Abbey of Saint Robert.
Built beginning in 1344 in honor of the saint who founded his order here in 1043, it’s a colossal stone block of a structure, the size of an aircraft hangar, that dominates the horizon for miles around the village. Pope Clement VI, who reigned during the years of the Black Death in the 1300s, is buried here and (as in many French churches, great or small) the building is rich in medieval tapestries and art.
Where are you headed?
What's on your calendar for this fall? Is there a unique autumn festival or activity you recommend for people visiting in France? Please let us know what you like in the comments section below -- and please share this list with others by clicking on your favorite social-media button(s) while you're here!