A Tour of the Volcanoes of Auvergne

Did you know that France is a land of volcanoes? Well, more than 1,000 volcanoes, dormant or inactive, can be found within the Auvergne region, an area in which there are probably more cows than humans per m2. We set out to explore this region on our bikes, armed with our cameras, a tent and a knife (a crucial accessory for cutting into Auvergne cheeses).

Our route takes us through places we want to photograph and friends we want to see. Its shape doesn’t resemble much, but it’s 670 km with an elevation gain of 10,440m. We’ll encounter primarily cattle and tractors for seven days straight.

We set off from Brive-La-Gaillarde in Southwest France, and our first stop is Corrèze, a village within the county of Corrèze and through which the Corrèze river flows. We are in the Massif Central, the architecture is austere, the grey stone houses with thick walls are built to withstand the harsh winters. Our friend Justin, cyclist, baker and former Parisian, left the capital to settle here. We discover his new playground, a neat mixture of small traditional villages, waterfalls, forests, the Causse Corrézien, the gorges of Dordogne and narrow, almost deserted roads.

The keynote of our trip could be ‘no man’s land’. We ride for hours without meeting a living soul, the views and wilderness are for us alone. We return to civilisation to find supplies to keep us going, and we stock up before returning to the little roads that snake around these ancient volcanoes (also called puys in the Massif Central).

The forests seem to be enchanted, with their pines, oaks and other winding trees. Journeying from one part to the next is marked by the changing breeds of cow, which graze peacefully on the flat plains. The first breed we meet are Limousine cattle, hazel-coloured. These are replaced by rustic Salers, dark mahogany in colour, in the Mounts of Cantal. Finally, in Cézallier, we find Aubrac cows, the most beautiful of them all, with their big eyes rimmed with black, as if drawn on with khol, highlighting their tawny coats.

It is the beginning of August, but it feels like October – it’s raining, it’s cold, and even the locals find the weather exceptional, in the worst sense of the term. In the small village of Marcenat, you can find the only café for miles around, still decorated as it was in the 1950s. The owner predicts that the temperatures should improve, because there’s going to be to a new moon that night. That never happened.

We’re not unhappy with the autumnal weather though. There’s nothing worse for taking photographs than a big blue sky during the peak of summer. We are spoilt with grey clouds, wet roads and rain jackets flying in the wind, they add an epic touch to each photo.

The climax of our trip is set to be the climb to Puy Mary, one of the highest summits of the Mounts of Cantal, standing at 1,783m. We start it beneath intermittent rain, we climb the col of Serre which leads to Puy. ‘You won’t see anything up there,’ the locals say to us, ‘the summit is hidden in the clouds.’ So long Puy Mary then, we’ll come back another time. We turn off and take a road which slowly descends several dozens of kilometres to the village of Dienne. The panorama is sublime – the green mountains unfold along an invisible line which seems to follow our route.

We arrive at Allanches, the final village for a while and the doorway into Cézallier, a volcanic plateau sitting between the Mounts of Dore and the Mounts of Cantal. It’s certainly one of the best-kept secrets in the cycling world. It’s heaven to ride along – no one around and incredible landscapes consisting mainly of huge meadows with herds of Salers cows which stay for the summer grazing, the wet boggy land, and the moors, filled with heather and gentian. We find ourselves daydreaming of the barren steppes of Mongolia.

The little town of Massiac, which we reach after a long decent from a plateau, marks the end of this solitude. The town signals the start of the agricultural plain of Limagne, which opens out between the Chaîne des Puys to the West and the Mounts of Forez to the East. Goodbye marmots, birds of prey and blueberries! Hello wheat, corn and Côtes d’Auvergne wines.

We climb back up the Chaîne des Puys, looking out at the medieval villages clinging to its sides, and at last, we meet hikers on bikes who travel down the amazing gorges of Monne.

We savour these last climbs and descents, which become more and more subtle and less and less high. We pass walkers with their baskets full of girolle mushrooms, delighted with their outstanding, early harvest. The farmers work tirelessly cutting hay until dusk, taking advantage of the summer weather at long last. The café owner’s prediction about the moon finally comes true.

Further Riding