Time to think about vacations!
First -- a quick "thanks" to all of you who helped celebrate the first anniversary of the blog last week. (If you missed it, please check out this recap of the best central France from 2016 and 2017.)
This week, we look forward to the summer months ahead -- the months that bring out all the best elements in the deep heart of France. Whether you’re interested in the rich medieval history of the region, a brisk hike through the natural wonders of the Parc des Volcans, or dancing in the streets with your neighbors, there’s plenty to attract you to the country’s center. Here are 8 especially cool things to do in the Auvergne this summer:
(1) Go jump off a volcano
Take a ride to the summit of the Puy-de-Dome on the little electric crémaillère train – then go parasailing off the peak. The volcano itself is a great emblem of the whole region – the postcard image that speaks to everything we loved about living in the deep heart of France. The peak itself stands out dramatically, although it’s surrounded by 80 other dormant volcanoes in the Chaîne des Puys. It’s an unusual shape – topped by a pointy cone rather than the craters that characterize many of its neighbors.
Looking for more great ideas of places to do and things to see in France? I'm an enthusiastic supporter of #AllAboutFrance, curated by Phoebe on her blog at Lou Messego. Please check it out by clicking on the badge below!
In addition to the tourist center and a nice restaurant, there’s a tower bristling with TV antennas, a military telecommunications station, and a meteorology station. On most summer days, you’re likely to see dozens of parasails darting around the peak on swirling currents of warm air – check out this site if you want to try it for yourself! And, for me, the most interesting sight on top of the Puy de Dôme is the ruin of an ancient temple to Mercury, where one day each month this summer there will be a theatrical presentation about the temple’s history and mythology.
(2) Walk cross-country with the sheep
For something that is truly “off the beaten path”: join in a practical tradition that farmers in the Cantal have been doing for centuries and take a hike with 1,000 sheep from the Lot Valley up to the slopes on the sides of the volcanoes of the Cantal.
It’s called transhumance (seasonal migration), and from 25 May to 10 June you and your family can be part of the fun while enjoying a good day’s walk in some of the most spectacular natural scenery to be found anywhere in France. A bus is provided every evening to get you back to where you left your car at the beginning of the day – but be sure to sign up first thing in the morning, and no dogs are allowed!
(3) Soak up the best in classical music
Get tickets for the 51st presentation of the annual classical music festival at La Chaise Dieu. This is one of France’s wildest, least-populated regions. La Chaise Dieu itself is 3,500 feet above sea level, deep in the vast Livradois forest in southwestern France, with only two hotels and a handful of restaurants (including the classic French “bar snacks” and pizza places). For most of the year, only 725 people live in town.
But…the town is synonymous with its great medieval abbey -- the ancient Abbey of Saint Robert, a colossal stone block built beginning in 1344. 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.
You might think it’s a surprising setting for the major international festival of classical music staged here every August for the last fifty years, but it’s one of the best things you can do in the deep heart of France in August. This year (from 18 August to 27 August) you can hear dozens of performances – organ, guitar, vocal recitals, and grand orchestral works – by some of the world’s finest artists.
(4) Explore your inner hurdy-gurdy
For a different kind of musical thrill, take a day trip from Paris to the MuPop (Museum of Popular Music) in Montluçon. This is one of my favorite places that I visited in the last year. The scope of the experience, according to MuPop, includes “traditional, accordion, pop, brass band, electro and rock” – but it covers a lot of subgenres and other music, too (especially jazz, blues, and Afro-pop). Want to hear what a hurdy-gurdy sounded like during the French Revolution, or how a village brass band sounded around 1910? There are recordings for that. Want to trace the evolution of guitar playing from Django Reinhardt to Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix and beyond? There are terrific, rare films to tell the story.
The museum is all about global trends in popular music – but it’s also about how those trends got translated in French culture. You can actually see the straight line from Chuck Berry to Johnny Hallyday, from the development of Afro-Pop in other countries to the 1973 French hit Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango. If you’re travelling with kids – or just a fan of “interactive” exhibits – you’ll find electronic drum kits to play with, samples of accordion bellows to show you how air produces that signature sound, and demos of how stringed instruments work. Check online at http://www.mupop.fr to verify opening times, which change during the year.
(5) Get a chill on summer's hottest day
Wait for the hottest summer day you can imagine, then grab a sweater and chill out in an underground lava quarry in Volvic. It’s called the Grotte de la Pierre de Volvic, and even on the hottest day of the year the temperature inside won’t get above 100 C (500 F).
Have you noticed the somber black color of many of the main public buildings in the Auvergne (like, for example, the famous “black cathedral” in Clermont-Ferrand)? That comes from the fact that most of them are built from blocks of lava found in the Parc des Volcans, and a great many of those blocks were taken from this quarry beginning in the 13th century.
On your guided tour, you’ll see films and artifacts from 700 years of mining – and you’ll enjoy a good hour of the coolest place in the deep heart of France! This is also the source for the world-famous Volvic water, so while you’re in the area, you can take a tour of the factory, too. And be sure to see the nearby ruins of the Chateau at Tournoel; you can still see the original donjon from the 1200s, as well as the later Renaissance parts of the castle. It’s open a few hours each day in July and August – check here for times.
(6) See what life was like in a medieval fortress
Catch one of the spectacular medieval “animations” at the Chateau de Murol. This is one of the most formidable castles in one of the most rugged and remote regions of France. Built in the 12th century to monitor traffic on some of the key crossroads of the area, it was often attacked (but never taken!) during the Hundred Years’ War. From the 14th century on, it went through several different incarnations, moving from the traditional role of “defender of the people” in this corner of the Cantal, to military base, then prison, outlaw hideout, and ultimately rock quarry.
These days, it’s one of the best-managed tourist sites in the Auvergne, offering a variety of programs all summer long, all designed to give you a glimpse into what life was like in a medieval castle. There’s a knights’ school for kids, torch-bearing walking tours at night, demonstrations of how to prepare a medieval banquet, and more. And as a bonus, to get there you have to drive through what (for me) is absolutely the most beautiful corner of France!
(7) Celebrate your independence
His rustic chateau (near Le Puy en Velay in the southern part of the Auvergne) gives a very well-curated overview of Lafayette’s life – a life that led him improbably to a role as a major-general in Washington’s colonial army at the age of 19, then back to France as a participant in the French revolution and co-author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (with a little help from Thomas Jefferson).
(8) Summer's here and the time is right....
Celebrate Bastille Day on the weekend around the 14th of July. You can do it anywhere in the Auvergne, of course, but if you don't have a place in mind, try Brioude. There’s plenty to see here during the day – one of the finest Romanesque churches anywhere in the world, a museum dedicated to the history of salmon fishing, and this summer a fine exposition of watercolor art. Starting on the evening of July 13th, though, the town will give itself over to the kind of celebration you’ll find everywhere in France – a lively ball with dancing in the street followed by a program of fireworks.
Where are YOU going?
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Almost every weekend in the Auvergne there are several farmers’ market, multiple antiques fairs or brocantes, organized hikes and museum expos. And they happen in some of the most picturesque villages and most spectacular natural scenery to be found anywhere in Europe – all here in the deep heart of France!
What are you planning to do this summer? Are there other events or attractions worth seeking out? Please tell us what’s worth doing in the comments section below – and please take a second to share this list with your friends using the button(s) for your preferred social media forum.