The Puy de Dome - actor on the stage of French history
Napoleon III came to Clermont-Ferrand in 1862, and everyone wanted to make a great impression. Why not take advantage of the great volcanic peaks that rise behind the city’s skyline and produce something spectacular for such a rare and important visitor? A great artificial eruption was organized at the top of the Puy de Dome, with 600 piles of wood and a one-ton mix of resin and oil. But when the great moment arrived...pffft. The “eruption” fizzled. The emperor and his wife were puzzled to see great clouds of black smoke roiling up from the mountain top instead.
It’s not the only time the Puy de Dôme has figured in French history. More notably, it was an important part of Blaise Pascal’s experiments in 1648 to demonstrate the effects of atmospheric pressure; his brother-in-law took measurements at the summit of the volcano and repeated the process in the city 4,800 feet below.
And in 1908 the Michelin brothers (Andre and Edouard) offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first airplane pilot who could fly from Paris and land on the Puy de Dôme. After other attempts fell short, they finally paid it out in 1911 to Eugène Renaux who made the flight in 5 hours 10 minutes – the longest airplane flight up to that time.
A stand-out on the horizon
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 – a pointy cone rather than the craters that characterize many of its neighbors. And there’s still an enormous amount of thermal activity deep beneath these volcanoes, although the Puy itself has been “asleep” now for something like 12,000 years. (A popular conceit for tourist magazines in this region is imagining what it would be like if the Chaîne des Puys came alive again, raining lava and ash down on the terrorized inhabitants of Clermont-Ferrand.)
The first time I went to the top of the Puy, we drove all the way up in our car. Now, though, there are only two ways to get there: a short (1.2 mile) but very sharp climb on foot, or by the little crémaillère train (when the rails aren’t blocked by mud or snow).
Take the train to the top
When we went back a few months ago, we took this train to the volcano's summit. Our first surprise was the size of the station at the bottom of the mountain -- I think it's probably larger, in square meters, than the main train station in downtown Clermont-Ferrand! It's obviously geared for peak tourist traffic, and even on a cold, windy day in September several of the parking areas were full and there was a long queue to get on the train.
What you'll find at the top of the Puy de Dome
No matter whether you go by train or on foot, it’s worth the trip to the top, because on a clear day you can see all the other peaks of the Parc des Volcans, plus the mountains of Mont Dore and the Cantal. (I’ve even heard it said you can see Mont Blanc in the Alps on an exceptionally clear day, but that’s never happened for us!) When the weather is conducive (lots of warm updrafts swirling around) you will certainly see a crowd of enthusiastic parasailers jumping off the side of the peak and drifting gracefully down to the plain below.
There's plenty to see and do at the top. If you're interested in history, you'll want to spend some time on the archeological site of the ancient temple to Mercury. When we first came up here (in the late 1990s), the site was just an nondescript pile of lava stones and off-limits to tourists. Twenty years later, though, it's evolving into a real vision of what it might have been like back in the 2nd century A.D., when Clermont-Ferrand was still the Gallo-Roman city called Augustonemetun and the local Arvernii tribes decided to build a temple in tribute to the Roman god of War.
This temple wasn't rediscovered until a first wave of archeological studies started in the 1870s; the second wave of unearthing its secrets didn't come until the early years of this century. The restoration you see now didn't get started until 2012, but it's expected to be completed later this year if all goes well. In any case, there's a fine small museum in a building next to the ruin that gives a good chronology of the temple and the objects already found during its excavation.
Other things to see
The summit also has a good tourist center -- we were there on a blustery, chill day in early September, so it was nice to wrap our hands around a warming mug of hot chocolate in the little restaurant before waiting in the gift shop for the train to return. And you can walk for hours here on the well-developed system of trails around the summit of the Puy de Dome, surveying the dozens of other peaks in the great national "Parc des Volcans", watching the herds of sheep grazing on the mountain's side, and looking out across the vast open Plain of Limagne stretching to the north and east.
How to Get There / Practical Information
- Several flights daily from Paris (Charles de Gaulle and Orly) to Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne airport; non-stop flights from Amsterdam 4 days/week
- Multiple trains each day from Paris (Gare de Bercy)
- Crémaillère trains depart from the station at the base of the mountain every 40 minutes during the season, and every 20 minutes during July and August. Click here to find more information about opening times and accessibility. (Note: Access to the top of the mountain is often closed due to inclement weather or high winds. Be sure to check before you go!)
- If you decide to hike to the peak: a seasoned hiker can make the trip in 45-60 minutes on the trail called "Chemin des Muletiers".
- You can also take the train to the top, then walk down if you choose.
...and while you're in the area
Clermont-Ferrand has a growing number of good hotels, all within sight of the Puy de Dome. Our favorites are the Mercure Place de Jaude, a new place right in the center of (but several stories above) all the action in the city's center; the Hotel Princess Flore, a 5-star "boutique" hotel in the Belle Epoque village of Royat; or the elegant Art Deco treasure, the Hotel Radio in Chamalières.
If you want to make a long weekend of it, there are plenty of things to do in the area (many of which I've covered on this blog!) Clermont-Ferrand is itself rich in medieval history -- the first Crusade was launched here -- but I also recommend a trip to L'Aventure Michelin, an excellent museum devoted to the long life of the city's most famous corporate citizen, the global Michelin Group. Click here for more ideas on restaurants and things to see and do while you're in the city.
Whether you're here for the day or for a longer period, you will see a side of France that you cannot see anywhere else. And the Puy de Dome is an inescapable part of that vision -- it dominates the skyline in every direction, changing shape and color as you drive around the region. It fills your vision as you explore Clermont-Ferrand or any of the other small towns in the Auvergne. And, as you can see here, it fills your vision when you live in the area -- this is how it looked from the front step of our house on the hillside above Clermont last time we lived there:
When our 8-year-old was with us (during our first expatriation in France), it was always a game on the drive home from our weekend trips to see who could spot the peak first and yell out “Puy de Dome”. And I have to confess -- every time we go back to Clermont-Ferrand, it’s a game my wife and I play still.
Are there places in France that speak to you in this way, that stand out as emblematic of the country for you? What are your favorite sights of France outside Paris. Please tell us about them in the space below! And while you're here, please click one of the social-media buttons below to share this post with someone else who enjoys traveling in France.