Things to see and do - Auvergne Rhone Valley
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The name Auvergne conjures up visions of a superb natural environment of outstanding beauty, a rugged landscape of mountain ranges and volcanoes, and lakes and springs in the heart of France. The area has been less accessible from the rest of France since time immemorial because of a lack of roads or railways. The local people are proud and austere, and agriculture remains a primary industry.
The Rhône Valley, on the other hand, is long and wide. It is an important through route for road and rail, a region of different cultures, and an area at the forefront of industrial progress, destined to play an increasingly important role within Europe in the future. The region is dominated by Lyon, the second largest city in France, with a lively cultural life, museums, a new opera house and a long-standing tradition of good food.
The Rhône Corridor
La Dombes – This is a clay plateau dotted with lakes which ends in the fairly sheer “côtières” of the Saône to the west and the Rhône to the south. In the north, the plateau runs into Bresse.
The waters of the melting glacier in the Rhône valley dug shallow dips into the surface of the land and left moraines, an accumulation of debris swept along by the glacier, on the edge of the dips. It is on these poypes or slight rises that the villages were built. The Dombes is now a charming area of tranquil countryside, with lines of trees, countless birds, and calm lakes reflecting the sky above.
The countryside in Lower Dauphiné is a succession of stony plateaux, plains and hills.
The Île Crémieu is a limestone plateau separated from the Jura to the north by the Rhône and to the west by an unusual cliff. The water that infiltrated the soil created a series of caves, the best-known of which are the Grottes de la Balme.
The Balmes area west of Vienne is partially covered in vineyards. It consists of granite and shale hills separated from Mont Pilat by the Rhône. It extends into the Terres Froides plateau which is slashed into strips by narrow valleys filled with fields of vegetables.
The Bonnevaux and Chambaran plateaux are vast expanses of woodland stretching south from Vienne and almost totally devoid of human habitation.
The wide fertile Bièvre and Valloire plains specialise in cereal crops. They indicate the course once followed by the Isère, but abandoned after the ice receded.
The Isère Valley itself opens out onto the Valence plateau; its well-cultivated terraces covered with walnut groves.
The Valence and Tricastin areas
From Tain to the Donzère gorge, the Rhône Valley widens to the east of the river, forming a patchwork of plains until it reaches the foothills of the Préalpes.
The Valence plain consists of a series of alluvial terraces built in steps. Its irrigated fields and its climate are a foretaste of the south of France and the Mediterranean. It was here that the “Tree of Gold,” the mulberry, was first planted in the 17C and provided the local inhabitants with a reasonable living from the cultivation of silkworms. Nowadays, the many orchards have maintained the old-fashioned appearance of the countryside in which hedgerows abound.
The Montélimar basin, south of the Cruas gorge, is similar to but narrower than the Valence plain; olive trees grow on the south-facing slopes.
The Tricastin area, crossed by the Lauzon and the Lez, is a succession of arid hills covered with vineyards and olive trees. Its old villages perched on defensive sites form remarkable look-out posts.
The edge of the Massif Central
The Massif Central ends to the east in a scarp slope high above the Rhône valley. It is a formidable precipice consisting of a mountain range that was broken down, raised up then overturned by the after-effects of Alpine folding. It has been severely eroded by the rivers, forming narrow gorges.
The Beaujolais region
To the north, the upper Beaujolais is a mountainous zone of mainly granite soil. Tributaries of the Saône run down its steep slopes from west to east. The Lower Beaujolais, to the south, is formed of sedimentary soils. These soil types include a limestone that is almost ochre in colour and has earned the area the nickname ‘Land of Golden Stone’.
Economically, there is a clear demarcation of this region east to west, between the escarpment (La Côte) overlooking the Saône Valley in the east, the wine-producing region, and the hills (La Montagne) or hinterland to the west, in which forests, crop-farming and industry predominate.
The Lyonnais area
Set between the St-Étienne basin and the city of Lyon, the plateau is dotted with high grassy hills, pine forests, beech woods and orchards. The Mont-d’Or is a rugged area (highest peak: Mont Verdun, altitude 625m/2 031ft). The Lyonnais area owes its uniform appearance to the industries that have existed here for centuries. It ends in the Fourvière hill, the superb promontory that stands high above the confluence of the Saône and Rhône and the vast city of Lyon.
Forez and Roannais
In the Forez mountains, fields and meadows cover the slopes up to an altitude of 1 000m/3 250ft. Above them are oases of beech and pine forest, providing raw material for sawmills. In summer, animals are taken up to graze on the scrubby mountain tops (on the land called the Hautes Chaumes) rising to the Pierre-sur-Haute moors. At the foot of the mountains is the water-logged Forez plain crossed by the River Loire. This is dotted with volcanic hillocks where castle and church ruins are found. The Roanne basin is a fertile rural area specialising in animal husbandry and is overlooked, to the west, by the vine-covered slopes of the Madeleine mountain range.
Mont Pilat and the St-Étienne basin
Mont Pilat is a forest-clad pyramid with something of a mountainous air, rising above the surrounding dales. Its peaks are topped with granite boulders known as chirats, which form splendid observation platforms. The St-Étienne basin at the foot of the mountain follows the outline of the coalfield that stretches from the Loire to the Rhône, and contains a string of factories, in stark contrast to the pastures on the slopes of Mont Pilat and the Lyonnais mountain range.
The Vivarais area
This forms the largest part of the eastern edge of the Massif Central. Huge basalt-lava flows running down from the Velay area, shale ridges, and widespread erosion make this a bizarre landscape of strange natural features.
The Upper Vivarais reaches from Mont Pilat and the Velay area to the Rhône valley. People here earn a living from cattle farming and cutting timber in the pine forests. Nearer the banks of the Rhône, there are fruit trees and vineyards. The Vivarais cévenol (lying within the Cévennes range) runs from the Upper Allier valley to the Aubenas basin. To the west, the “uplands” are strongly characterised by volcanoes. They are covered in pine, beech and meadow. From Lablachère and Privas to the Rhône valley, the Lower Vivarais is a limestone area with a succession of basins and plateaux in which scrub, olive trees, almond trees, blackberry bushes and vines provide a foretaste of a more southerly environment.
To the north it is separated from the Upper Vivarais by the Coiron plateau and its black basalt cliffs. The unusual features of the vast plains (planèzes) grazed by flocks of sheep are the dikes and necks (pinnacles), the most famous of which is the one in Rochemaure. The limestone Gras plateau forms a stretch of whitish stone, with swallowholes, deep narrow gullies and rocks shaped like ruined buildings.
Granite and volcanic mountains
In the region to the east, the climate is hard and the landscape rugged. From north to south, the Madeleine mountain range, Forez and Livradois areas consist of valleys, rounded hilltops, forest plateaux and pastures on which flocks of sheep graze. The area is covered with forests that provide timber. Further south, the Velay area is a succession of vast basalt plateaux lying at altitudes of more than 1 000m/3 250ft beneath skies that are a foretaste of the Riviera. Dotted across the countryside are outcrops of rock formed by lava. Crops are generally so rare that the basin around Le Puy, which is irrigated by the Loire, looks almost like an oasis. The mountains in the Devès area form one vast plateau where lava flows are covered with pasture and fields of barley or lentils. Along the watershed between the Loire and Allier basins are deep lakes in volcanic craters. The planèze (sloping plateau) is dotted with cinder cones consisting of black or reddish ash often capped with pine trees. The Margeride plateau is gashed by deep valleys and its climate and vegetation are reminiscent of the Forez mountains.
The limagnes are low-lying, fertile, sunny plains drained by the Dore and, more particularly, by the Allier and its tributaries. The plains consist almost entirely of arable land. To the east are the “poor Limagnes” or “Varennes,” a hilly area of marshes, woodland, fields of crops and lush pastures where alluvium has been washed down from the crystalline mountains of the Forez area. To the west, the soil in the so-called fertile Limagnes region is dark brown, almost black. It has been enriched by the mixture of decomposed lava and volcanic ash. This is very rich land, producing tobacco, wheat, sugar beet, vegetable and seed crops and fruit.
To the west of the region, the Dômes and Dore mountain ranges and the mountains in the Cézallier and Cantal areas form a striking landscape of extinct volcanoes rising to an altitude of 1 885m/6 126ft at the highest peak, the Puy de Sancy. Around the Puy de Dôme, Puy Mary, Puy de Sancy, La Bourboule and St-Nectaire, forests, woods and pastures alternate with lakes and waterfalls. The Artense, which backs onto the Dore mountain range, is a rocky plateau worn away by glaciers; it now provides grazing land for sheep and cattle. The cultivated areas represent land that has been clawed back from the moors by the few people living there.
The Bourbonnais area – The scenery is like the people who live there – calm and temperate. It marks the northern edge of the Massif Central, and the gently rolling countryside is covered with a patchwork of fields hemmed in by hedges that give the landscape a wooded appearance.
The Besbre, Cher and Aumance valleys are wide and well drained, forming open, fertile areas crossed by major road and rail links. It is here that the main towns are to be found. The St-Pourçain vineyards, the impressive Tronçais Forest, and the conifers on the mountainsides in the Bourbonnais area add a touch of variety to a landscape that is otherwise dominated by grassland.
The volcanoes of the Auvergne
What makes the Auvergne so unusual is the presence of a large number of volcanoes which, although extinct, are a major feature of the landscape. They vary in appearance depending on their formation, type and age.
Inverse composite volcanoes (Stromboli-type)
In the depths of the earth, magma is subjected to enormous pressure and infiltrates through cracks in the Earth’s crust. When the pressure becomes too great, there is an explosion accompanied by a sudden eruption of incandescent matter. A huge column of gas, smoke and vapour rises into the sky, spreading out like a parasol, while the matter in fusion (spindle-shaped volcanic bombs, gas-swollen pozzolana looking like a very lightweight, dark reddish-coloured stone) falls back to earth and accumulates around the mouth of the volcano, gradually building up a cinder cone. At the top is a crater. The most typical of all can be seen on the Puy des Goules and the Pariou.
When the pressure inside the Earth’s crust decreases and the matter thrown up by the eruption is more fluid, lava flows are created, running from the crater or down the mountainsides. Depending on the type of rock, these lava flows (cheires) may cool to form a fairly smooth surface or, alternatively, be rough and full of boulders. When the mass of lava is very thick, it contracts as it cools, breaking into prisms or columns (very much like organ pipes, hence their French name orgues) such as those in Bort-les-Orgues or Murat.
Sometimes a lava flow or an explosion carries away a piece of the volcanic cone, as it did in the Puy de Louchardière or the Puy de la Vache; in this case, the crater is described as breached and is shaped like a half-funnel. In the Pariou and the Puy de Dôme, a new cinder cone was formed inside the crater of an older volcano. This led to the formation of a multiple volcanic complex.
Volcanic domes (Mount Pelée-type composite volcano)
Sometimes, the volcanic eruption throws up a lava paste which solidifies upon contact with the ground. It then forms a dome with steep sides but has no crater at the summit. The Puy de Dôme is a good example of this type of volcano.
Volcanoes with planèzes
When the Cantal volcano was active more than 9 million years ago, it would have been a formidable sight: it had a circumference of 60km/37mi and rose to an altitude of 3 000m/9 750ft. Formed by a succession of layers of lava and ash, it was dissected by erosion which cut its sides into planèzes (sloping plateaux) with a tip pointing towards the centre of the volcano.
The Dore mountain range, which is younger than the Cantal volcano (2–3.5 million years), also consists of successions of layers of lava and ash but the planèzes are less well-developed.
Necks and dikes
Scattered across the Limagne in total disorder are volcanic systems which penetrated, and were consolidated within, a mass of sedimentary rock that has since been worn away.
All that remain are a few spurs of rock called necks or ridges known as dikes, which no longer have their covering of soil. The Puy de Monton near Veyre, and Montrognon near Ceyrat, are typical necks. Montaudoux to the south of Royat is a good example of a dike.
Ancient lava flows originally spread out across the valleys, protecting the underlying soil from the erosion that cleared the area between rivers and caused an inversion relief. These lava flows now jut out above the surrounding countryside, forming tables like the Gergovie and Polignac plateaux.
Lahars and Peperites
Volcanic eruptions are often accompanied by torrential rain and enormous emissions of water vapour. They then cause lahars (an Indonesian word) or flows of mud and boulders that move at astonishing speed, destroying everything in their path.
The Pardines plateau near Issoire owes its existence to this type of phenomenon. South of Clermont-Ferrand, some of the small plateaux and hillocks in the Limagne area consist of rock formations created by underwater volcanic eruptions. Their “peppery” appearance is due to the mixing of lava and sediment from the bed of the lake.
Lakes of volcanic origin
The volcanoes have given the landscape of the Auvergne a very particular relief and magnificent stretches of water that reflect the surrounding countryside. In some places, a lava flow closed off a valley, holding back the waters of a river; examples of this are the Aydat and Guéry lakes (the latter was also formed by the action of glaciers).
In other places, a volcano erupted in the middle of a valley, blocking it with its cone, as was the case in Chambon and Montcineyre. Still elsewhere, subsidence caused by underground volcanic activity was filled with run-off water (Lake Chauvet). Maars are lakes which were formed in craters (Lake Servière).
The volcanoes of the Auvergne at present
The volcanoes are now well preserved depending on their age and the hardness of their rocks. The Dômes mountain range, with its 80 volcanoes that became extinct around 7 000 years ago, has a strikingly fresh-looking relief. The Dore mountain range is older and has a more fragmented appearance. The lava flows on Sancy, Aiguiller and Banne d’Ordanche are heaped up to a height of more than 1 000m/3 280ft but water, snow and glaciers have worn away the sides. With its 60km/37mi circumference and altitude of 3 000m/9 750ft, the Cantal volcano was even more impressive in its day. The landscapes today are only a fraction of the original; it is difficult to imagine the initial size of the range.
Auvergne’s mineral springs
Whether naturally carbonated or still, water is one of the main sources of wealth in the Auvergne and it has been exploited here since antiquity. Puy-de-Dôme and the Vichy basin alone account for a third of French mineral springs.
Ordinary springs are created by water that seeps into permeable land and eventually meets an impermeable layer down which it runs. When the impermeable layer rises to the surface, the water follows suit. Mineral springs are either springs of infiltrated water or springs rising from the depths of the Earth’s crust. In this case, substances or gases that have therapeutic properties are added naturally to the water as it flows underground. The adjective “thermal” is used more accurately to describe springs with water at a temperature of at least 35oC/95oF when it comes out of the ground: Vichy water, for instance has a temperature of 66oC/150oF and the water in Chaudes-Aigues rises to as much as 82oC/179.6oF.
The water in these springs only flows at intervals, for example every eight hours. The column of water rising from the depths of the Earth is subjected, at some point along its course, to a very high increase in temperature. The steam produced at this point acquires sufficient pressure to project the upper part of the column of water above the surface of the ground. The projection is interrupted for as long as it takes to heat a second column, then the whole process begins again. This type of spring can be found in Bellerive, near Vichy.
Properties of thermal springs
When thermal water rises to the surface, it gives off a very low level of radioactivity which stimulates the human organism. However, the water is very unstable and deteriorates as soon as it comes out of the ground. This is why it is important to take the water where it rises to the surface and why spa towns were built. The composition of water varies depending on the type of rocks through which it passes.
People visit Vichy to treat disorders of the digestive system, Royat for heart and arterial disease, Châtelguyon for intestinal problems, Le Mont-Dore for asthma, La Bourboule for respiratory diseases, St-Nectaire for liver complaints, etc. Spa towns declined in popularity after the Second World War, but are enjoying a revival. The medical aspect of “taking the waters” has been maintained, but people also come to keep fit, enjoy a round of golf, a day at the races, or a night at the opera.
Mineral water, a boom industry
The French drink more mineral water than any other nationality. This is why the Auvergne is so popular – it has everything they could ask for. Bottling has required the development of modern techniques, for water is one of the most difficult commodities to package. It is, though, a source of employment for small towns such as Volvic which has become famous not only in France but far beyond its borders.
Flora and fauna
The Rhône Valley is not only a major road and rail route and intersection of geographical areas, it also combines differing natural environments which have resulted in a variety of flora and fauna. Almost 3 000 species of plant, some 60 wild mammals and more than 200 birds have been observed in the forests, plains and lakes. The Pilat Regional Nature Park alone boasts some 90 species of bird.
In addition to the plants ordinarily found in the centre of France, the area also has mountain plants which have come down from the Alps and the Jura, and Mediterranean plants that have spread from the south. Because of this, it is possible to find, in the mountains in the Forez area for example, gentians, monkshood, or the superb martagon (or Turk’s Cap) lily. This is a very rare plant, a hardy annual growing to a height of 30–80cm/12–30in or even, on occasions, to more than 1.10m/3ft 6in, with clusters of reddish-orange flowers spotted with black growing on a tall stem. Nor is it unusual, on the lower plateaux and hillsides in the Saône and Rhône valleys, to see evergreen oak, Montpellier aphyllantes, lavender, purple orchid or other varieties of orchid growing in the month of April on dry grasslands.
Just like flora, Mediterranean species of fauna are found in the Rhône valley as the northernmost habitats are sited in the Rhône basin. Among them is the Provençal field mouse, a tiny rodent, and the mouse-eared bat. Deer are adaptable creatures and occur throughout the region in forested areas. The Rhône valley is a major point along migratory routes followed by birds between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. The banks of the Saône and Rhône are full of larks, buntings, quail, plovers and curlews. But it is the lakes of the Dombes that boast the largest numbers of birds. Birds from all over the world can be seen at the bird sanctuary in Villars-les-Dombes where toucans and parrots rub shoulders with rare species such as the black-tailed godwit, or the corncrake, an endangered species.
The wels, the largest freshwater fish
Before it was introduced into France in the second half of the 19C by fish farmers, this species of large catfish was found mainly in the waters of the Caspian Sea and the River Danube. Those living in the Rhône and Saône can, in rare cases, grow to a length of 3m/10ft and weigh some 100kg/220lb (14st). It feeds on bream, moorhens, ducks and rats; to kill its prey, it grabs their paws and drags them down to the river-bed until they drown. This little aquatic monster is however short-sighted and dislikes the light, so it waits until nightfall before seeking to catch its food; it is therefore unlikely to be seen, except perhaps on a dinner plate as it is becoming increasingly popular with fishermen.
Beavers of the Île du Beurre
The beaver is a hard-working animal, cutting, felling and nibbling branches of trees in order to build dams and dikes. These days, though, lodges are no longer built because beavers have changed their habits and they now live in burrows dug into the river banks. They are particularly fond of the banks of the Île du Beurre (in old French, beurre meant beaver). This island to the south of Lyon is the last place in France in which beavers live in the wild and, because of this, it has been covered by a preservation order since 1988.
The Auvergne has a diverse landscape, with extensive forest and peat bog, each area with a particular flora and fauna.
Vegetation at different altitudes
Forests in the Auvergne grow in specific tiers. The hillsides are covered with pedunculate oak on clay soil and sessile oak on better-drained ground. On the mountains there are beech and pine although conifer predominates in cold, damp areas. The beech is the most common tree in the Auvergne and grows to a height of 30–40m/97–130ft after 150 to 300 years. It is easily recognisable for its smooth, grey bark and leaf colouring – red in winter and soft green in spring. Natural pine groves cover the driest hillsides like those in Upper Loire.
The moors of the Margeride area often mark the abandonment of pastures or farmland. In fact, moorland precedes the stage at which land is overrun by forest. Ferns, calluna, gorse, myrtle and redcurrants grow here. Gradually, however, the forest takes over, with birch, hazelnut and pine being the first trees to appear.
The mountain pastures higher than 1 000m/3 280ft provide a natural environment for species that have been observed here for centuries, such as the three-coloured violet, the scented wild pansy, the red-purple saw-wort (used to produce a yellow dye), and globe flower. The gentian, a delightful yellow flower, is used to make the liqueur that bears its name; other species of gentian produce blue flowers.
The subalpine stage of vegetation begins at altitudes greater than 1 400–1 500m/4 600–5 000ft; plant life varies depending on the exposure of the slopes. Calluna and myrtle grow on moorland, and ground-cover plants on grassland, rocks and scree. It is here, from May to July, that the spring anemone blooms, a rare plant with delicately indented leaves and flowers with huge white petals tinged with purple. Mountain arnica, a downy plant with yellow flowers, is used to make creams that prevent bruising. The blue carnation, which is actually a very unusual bluish green in colour, can be seen in tufts only a few inches high on the peaks in the Dore and Cantal mountain ranges.
Peat bogs are natural environments created by an accumulation of organic matter in damp areas. There are a number of features which lead to the formation of peat bogs, such as a break in a slope along the course of streams, or cold springs as in the mountains of Cantal. They also tend to form on valley floors, along meanders and streams like those in the Upper Forez area, in the bases of volcanic craters, or over-deepening caused by glacial erosion as in the Margeride, Forez and Artense regions. Maars (lakes in the bottom of craters) can also be overrun by vegetation, as can be seen in the Devès range and the Velay.
Peat is formed from a range of spongy mosses, which ensure photosynthesis and store water. These mosses retain up to 30 times their dry weight of water. The bogs are exceptional because some have survived for more than 5 000 years and have developed a unique form of plant and animal life.
Carnivorous plants like the sundew and drosera, which suffer from nitrogen deficiency, have adapted to this environment. They capture small insects by secreting a sticky substance.
The animals are also extraordinary.
There are flies and mosquitoes which, because they have had to adapt to cold environments in which they cannot fly, have no wings. Common frogs live on land and only enter the water to spawn.
The odyssey of the salmon
Born in a river, the salmon stays in the area where it was born for two years before letting the river carry it down to the sea tail-first, during the period known as downstream migration. At this stage its scales turn white.
Certain salmon travel as far as Greenland. Here, they grow and acquire their more familiar appearance – it is the shrimps on which they feed that give them their “salmon pink” colouring.
Two years later the salmon swims up the Loire to return to its spawning grounds in Allier or Upper Loire, in particular around Brioude which is famous as the “salmon’s paradise”, a trip that can take several months. When the fish arrives, it is exhausted and very thin, because it has had to overcome a number of obstacles, quite apart from the fact that it does not feed in rivers.
The female burrows into the gravel on the river bed with her tail and lays the eggs that the male covers with his milt. The salmon then usually die, although sometimes a salmon survives to make the journey twice.
In the Auvergne, the salmon is the subject of many anecdotal tales. One recounts how, at the turn of the 19C when the railway line was being built through the Allier gorge, the workmen went on strike because they had nothing to eat – nothing, that is, but salmon!