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 experiment 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.
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).
Either way, it’s worth the trip, 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 you get to the top, you may be surprised by all the activities packed in around the summit. 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.
But, for me, the most interesting sight on top of the Puy de Dôme is the ruin of an ancient temple to Mercury. It goes back to the 1st or 2nd century A.D., likely put there by Arvernii tribesmen after the Roman occupation of the area. Like so many other public buildings, the temple was built from black lava.
It’s a reminder of the perennial back-and-forth between human history and wild natural beauty that makes this part of France so intensely interesting to me. And the volcano itself is a great emblem of the whole region – the postcard image that speaks to everything my family loved about living in the deep heart of France. It’s the first thing to check when you leave the house in the morning – is there snow on the peak? Is the summit wrapped around in clouds?
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 Dôme”. 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? Please tell us about them in the space below!