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The Monts du Cantal

The Monts du Cantal

G. Rouzeau - 2009-12-02

The roads crossing the Monts du Cantal mountains command breathtaking panoramas, boundless scenery and unspoilt nature... you never tire of. 

This trip, mainly in the Monts du Cantal area in France, is approximately 131 miles long. Saint-Flour, near the starting point, is 320 miles from Paris via the A75. Times given are approximate and may vary depending on weather conditions.
Driving these days often involves passing through ugly sprawling towns and their industrial zones. Fortunately, this is not the case in the Cantal region as the majestic Cantal scenery ranks among the most beautiful and best preserved in France. Travelling through Cantal is a pleasure, especially when crossing mountain passes where you shift from a scenery of sharp mountain ridges to rolling valleys. Here, exploring nature is not just a leisure activity but part of the lifestyle. Water, a symbol of tranquility, is present everywhere in the form of snow, lakes, waterfalls and rivers.
For geologists, Cantal is Europe's largest stratovolcano, covering an area of 1,000 sq. miles after centuries of volcanic activity. Worn down by glacial erosion, these mountains, centred around Puy Mary, now form a series of sloping plateaus combined with luscious green valleys, making this remote area a treasure to explore.
From Garabit Viaduct to Col de Curebourse (51 miles)
Coming from Paris by the A75 motorway, pull into the Garabit rest area in Cantal, amongst one of the most beautiful in France, where you'll have a superb view of the imposing Garabit Viaduct traversing the Truyère Gorges, an architectural masterpiece (1882-1884) designed by Gustave Eiffel. Leave the motorway at the next exit and head for the Beau Site hotel-restaurant: enjoy a coq au vin auvergnat in the scenic dining room where you can continue to admire the viaduct as it is gradually lit up as the sun sets.
The next day, head towards Saint-Flour, an ancient town perched high on top of basalt rock (part of the old lava flows). If the weather is good, there may be a bit of traffic but, no worries, the Touareg drives like a luxury sedan and you can easily weave your way through.
Follow the D921 out of town: on your right, catch a glimpse of the large meadows of Planèze where Puy lentils are grown and, beyond that, views of the Cantal mountains. Continue past the turn to Neuvéglise, and take the D48 to the left which leads to the Château d'Alleuze ruins, a romantic spot on a rocky hillock at the bottom of a wooded valley. This impressive site overlooks the lake formed by the Grandval Dam on the Truyère Gorges.
Cross the Truyère River again at Pont de Lanau before pausing to explore the old streets of Chaudes-Aigues, the town with Europe's hottest water source. In the past, the Par source was used to trim the hairs off pigs (parer is the French verb for "to trim") with almost boiling water gushing directly from this fountain. This water source is used for water cures as well as to heat the town inhabitants' houses.
Leave the town by the narrow D11 which winds steeply upwards on the left side of Vallée du Remontalou with its views of Saint-Flour and the Cantal mountain range. You can catch views of Vallée du Lévandes as the road then descends along the edge of the steep slope. After crossing the Lévandes River, the road skirts the stretch of water behind Sarrans Dam, which forms a beautiful lake, much appreciated by fishing enthusiasts.
On the border of the Aveyron region, you will reach the single lane Tréboul suspension bridge, an exceptional engineering structure. Luckily, the wide Touareg just passes through! At the end of the bridge, turn left onto the D65 which leads to Pierrefort, a large market town of basalt stone houses with lauze (roofing stone) roofs where many Auvergnats who have returned from Paris* own a home. Here, you'll find the Joffrois butcher shop which has been in the same family since 1890. These master butchers rear Salers and Aubrac cows, exclusively fed on grass from the high mountain pastures, and they also have their own slaughterhouse. Many Auvergnats based in Paris, like the Taffanel brothers of the famed Parisian brasserie La Rotonde, buy their delicious meat from them.
From Vallée de la Cère to Puy Mary (22 miles)
Follow the D59 along the edge of the steep slope to the village of Thiézac with its preserved large farms with external staircases and wood balconies. The vault frescoes of the chapel Notre-Dame-de-Consolation feature a series of medallions representing the various figures of the Virgin. This village is on the route to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, as is the next village, Saint-Jacques-des-Blats, the starting point for many hikes. Head towards Col du Perthus via the D317, with the round-topped Plomb du Cantal towering behind you. This is a superb road (like so many others in Cantal), connecting Vallée de la Cère to Vallée de laJordanne which looks like an Alpine valley with its rural hamlets clinging to the mountain side. At Mandailles-Saint-Julien, stop for a snack and a coffee at Auberge Au-bout-du-monde, a haven for many exhausted hikers in this valley!

From Salers to Murat (56 miles)
The descent to Salers is by another superb road, D680, above Vallée de la Maronne. This is an ideal route into this ancient town, situated opposite the Massif du Puy Violent, on a rocky hill where the two rivers, the Aspre and the Maronne, join. If you want to explore the town fully, put yourselves in the hands of the jovial and experienced Philippe Guarrigue, a historian-guide who lives in the oldest house in Salers (Maison de la Ronade). Then place your trust in the culinary skills of the Baillage to get a real taste of deliciously prepared Auvergnat cooking.
Although you may be reluctant in leaving Salers, head out of the town on the D35 for an interesting drive in the charming valleys of the Maronne, Aspre, Bertrande and Doire. Things on the programme to keep an eye out for: trout and crayfish in the fast-flowing rivers, large farms built of basalt rock, herds of Salers cows, wooded little valleys, eroded cirques, a chateau at Tournemire and a Romanesque church at Fontanges...and otherwise, splendid unspoilt scenery.
On the return leg of the trip, stop in Murat: surrounded by three ancient volcanic chimneys, this old market town at an altitude of 3000 ft is worth the detour. Then head back to the A75 on N122 which is often cut out of the rock face and has fine views over Vallée de l'Alagnon.
* Due to rural hardship, a stream of Auvergnats left to seek work in Paris. Considered thrifty and hard workers, many bought small cafes which became the large Paris brasseries.
Practical information
Restaurants and accommodation:

Beau Site (hotel-restaurant)
RN9, 15320 Garabit
Tel.: 04 71 23 41 46

Château de Varillettes (hotel-restaurant)
15100 Saint-Georges
Tel.: 04 71 60 45 05
This small 15th century chateau was the summer residence of the St-Flour bishops.
Grounds and medieval garden.

Julhes - excellent handmade organic tripoux
rue Henri-Rassemusse - ZI de Montplain
15100 St-Flour
Tel.: 04 71 60 11 42
Email.: Julhes@tripoux.com

Maison Joffrois - butcher shop
10 avenue Georges-Pompidou
15230 Pierrefort
Tel.: 04 71 23 31 80.
Family company established over 100 years ago. Specialities include: Aubrac and Salers meat, dried Auvergne beef (similar to Grisons meat) and dried hams and sausages.

L'Hostellerie Saint-Clément (hotel-restaurant)
Col de Curebourse,
15800 St-Clément
Tel.: 04 71 47 51 71
Traditional cooking using fresh produce. Sweeping views of Vallée de la Cère.

Chambres d'hôtes de l'Asphodèle (B&B)
rue de la Martille
15140 Salers
Tel.: 04 71 40 70 82
Rooms in a 16th century house in the centre of Salers. Daniel Gil knows the area inside out and will gladly plan trips for you.

LeBaillage (hotel-restaurant)
rue Notre-Dame
15140 Salers
Tel.: 04 71 40 71 95.
Quality Auvergnat cooking.

Restaurant Le Jarousset
Route nationale 22
15300 Murat
Tel.: 04 71 20 10 69
Jérôme Cazaneuve and his wife cook up traditional dishes using Cantal produce.

Other establishments selected by the MICHELIN® Guide

Philippe Guarrigue, local guide since 1985
Tel.: 04 71 40 76 18

A qualified guide, Serge Cullet is also an ornithologist and has a deep interest in the medicinal use of plants. He offers all types of hikes and activities in Monts du Cantal and Vallée du Lot.
Tel.: 04 71 49 29 76. Email: serge.cullet@freesbee.fr

Cantal by Louis-Jacques Liandier. Éditions De Borée.
An excellent book without tourist clichés, and illustrated with magnificent photos.

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