Things to see and do - Auvergne Rhone Valley
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The region today
The region today
Decision-making in France was once highly centralised, each département headed by a government-appointed prefect, in addition to a locally elected general council (conseil général). But in 1982, the national government decided to decentralise authority by devolving a range of administrative and fiscal powers to local level. Regional councils were elected for the first time in 1986.
Administrative units with a local government consist of 36 779 communes, headed by a municipal council and a mayor, grouped in 96 départements, headed by a conseil général and its president, grouped in 22 regions, headed by a regional council and its president. The centre of administration of a département is called a préfecture (prefecture) or chef-lieu de département, which is usually geographically central to the départment.
The conseil général as an institution was created in 1790 by the French Revolution in each of the newly created departments (they were suppressed from 1942 to 1944). A conseiller général (effectively a local councillor) must be at least 21 years old and either live or pay taxes in locality from which he or she is elected.
The conseil général discusses and passes laws on matters that concern the department; it is administratively responsible for departmental employees and land, manages subsidised housing, public transportation, and school subsidies, and contributes to public facilities. The council meets at least three times a year and elects its president for a term of three years, who presides over its ‘permanent commission’, usually up to 10 other departmental councillors. The conseil général has accrued new powers in the course of the political decentralisation that has occurred in France during the past thirty years.
Different levels of administration have different duties, and shared responsibility is common; for instance, in the field of education, communes run public elementary schools, while départements run public junior high schools and regions run public high schools, but only for the building and upkeep of buildings; curricula and teaching personnel are supplied by the national Ministry of Education.
In the Auvergne, the départements are Allier, Cantal, Haute Loire and Puy-de-Dôme. The population of the Auvergne is a little over 1.3 million; one of the least populated regions in the whole of Europe.
Industry came into being in the 16C with the introduction of silk working around Lyon, paid for by the capital earned from fairs. Later, the coalfields in the area were a major factor leading to the expansion of industry. Once the seams had been worked out, the energy supply was provided by the hydroelectric plants and, since the 1970s and 1980s, by the nuclear power plants along the Rhône Valley. Around Clermont-Ferrand the major industry is tyre making.
After the gradual shut-down of the coal mines in the area around St-Étienne, the metalworking sector began to specialise in the production of steels, rare metals, fissile products for use in the nuclear industry, and smelting, a sector that benefits from the high demand for moulded components (boiler-making, pipes). The region along the Rhône ranks second to the Paris basin in the field of mechanical engineering (machine tools, precision engineering, car manufacture). Electrical and electronic engineering are well represented with companies producing high-voltage equipment, communications equipment and domestic appliances. Until the 19C, tin and copper were the two main materials used in the Auvergne.
After the silk workers’ revolts in 1831 and 1834 in the streets and alleyways of Lyon, the textile industry relocated to villages and manufacturers distributed the jobs (weaving and dyeing) to a rural work force. This was the so-called outworker system which still functions today. The importance of silk has decreased greatly in the face of competition from man-made fibres but the weaving of silky fabrics made of a combination of fibres and threads of all types has remained famous. The new products have remained faithful to the innovation and tasteful designs which won Lyon its reputation for silks.
The production and weaving of man-made textiles is carried out in Valence (nylon and polyester) and Roanne (viscose). The industry has many offshoots like dyeing and dressing, and clothing (ready-to-wear, sportswear, lingerie, hosiery, curtains, net curtains, ribbons, elastic, lace).
A major chemical industry developed in Lyon in order to meet the needs of the textile industry. It was here that one of Europe’s petrochemical centres was established.
In Feyzin, there is a large oil refinery and the Institut Français du Pétrole has set up its largest research centre here. The region currently leads the field in certain areas of the chemical industry, notably fungicides, paint, varnish and, especially, pharmaceuticals.
Other industrial activities in the region include tyre making, food processing (dairy products, pork meat products, health foods), shoemaking, cabinetmaking, quarrying (Volvic), and mineral-water bottling (Vichy, Volvic) as well as the production of building materials, glass, wires, cables, leather, paper, jewellery, tobacco and enamelled lava (signposts, viewing tables). Thiers is one of France’s major cutlery-making centres. Traditionally, industry in the Auvergne has centred around specialist crafts, production frequently operating on a cottage-industry scale, such as coppersmithing (Cantal), lacemaking (Velay) and papermaking (Livradois).
Administration offices (local authority and government offices etc) and tourism also play an important part in the local economy; traditional industries (eg cheese-making) no longer do any more than “top it up”.
Harnessing the Rhône
Important works upstream and downstream of Lyon, completed during the second half of the 20C, have offered this highly industrialised region the possibility of tapping the power resources of the mighty Rhône (16 billion kWh are produced yearly). At the same time, a series of canals provide a total of 330km/205mi of navigable waterways between Lyon and the sea.
The Auvergne is first and foremost a rural area, in marked contrast to the Rhône valley, where industry predominates. Life on farms experienced profound change during the 20C: the introduction of motor vehicles, and the destruction of hedgerows which ended the subdivision of properties into small fields. In many places, the traditional landscape of fields and narrow lanes lined with walnut trees has given way to one of wide, open fields. Farmers, who are decreasing in number, have also had to comply with the milk quotas imposed on them by the EU; despite these difficulties, animal breeding and crop farming remain an important part of the economy of the region.
The high plateaux and mountains are popular with cattle breeders and, to a lesser extent, sheep farmers. The pastures on the slopes of the Dômes and Dore mountain ranges provide grazing land for the Salers breed of cattle (of which it is said that its fiery red coat turns pale if it leaves the basalt areas of Cantal), the French black and white Friesian, and the Montbéliarde.
Towards the middle of May the animals leave their byres and, for the five months of summer, live on the mountain pastures which are now fenced so that there is no need for a herdsman to be in attendance. In days gone by, cowherds had a squat, low summer hut called a buron, built to withstand the wind.
The fairs give visitors an opportunity to enjoy the busiest moments of rural life. They are held in most of the centrally situated localities and in other places that lie in the heart of the stock-breeding areas. The largest fairs are held in late summer and in autumn.
Crops – In the Auvergne, wheat, barley and oats have traditionally been grown on the fertile black soil of the Limagnes, and now also sugar beet, tobacco, sunflowers and fodder or maize crops from selected strains of seeds.
At the southern end of the Rhône valley the dampness and cold of maritime or continental climates gives way to the heat and radiant skies of the south of France – almond and olive trees and a few mulberry bushes can be seen in the countryside.
The natural environment here is both crop- and farmer-friendly. The land is fertile and easy to irrigate; the soil is light and siliceous; well-sheltered corries and dales benefit from the spring sunshine.
It was in 1880 that fruit production took over from wine, after the vineyards had been blighted by phylloxera. The long, fruit-producing season, made possible by careful selection of varieties and the differences in exposure or altitude, enable the orchards in the Rhône valley to produce one-third of all French fruit. Every type of fruit can be found here – raspberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants in Isère, sweet chestnuts in Ardèche, cherries, apricots, apples and pears and, in particular, peaches, the fruit that has made the Eyrieux Valley famous.
The vineyards in the Rhône valley, which were already popular in Roman times, underwent massive expansion after the crisis in the silkworm-breeding industry in the mid-19C. Today, the vineyards cover more than 150 000ha/579sq mi, one-third of which produces high-quality wines. The best are the Côtes du Rhône. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, St-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Château-Grillet and Condrieu are wines that age well, and have brought the area its reputation for excellence. With an annual output of 3.5 million hectolitres of appellations contrôlées, the Rhône valley vineyards account for 15% of the total French production of fine wines.
The vineyards stretch for 200km/124mi producing a variety of wines thanks to the types of vines selected: Marsanne and Viognier for the whites, Syrah and Grenache for the reds. The wines also vary depending on the different types of soil on which the vines are planted – the crumbly granite of the gorges, and the sands, pebbles or marl that predominate in alluvial plains. There are climatic differences in the basins and, finally, the terraces that climb the hillsides between this area and the Alps face in different directions.
Further north, the vineyards of the Beaujolais – which are usually grouped with those of neighbouring Burgundy in wine guides – produce wines which go very well indeed with the traditional cuisine of Lyon, where they are to be found in every local brasserie or bouchon. The third Thursday in November is a ‘red letter’ day locally (and further afield, now that the reputation of Beaujolais wines has spread abroad!) as it marks l’arrivée du beaujolais nouveau, or the release for sale to the public of the latest Beaujolais vintage (vin primeur).
The limestone hillsides to each side of the Limagnes used to be covered with vineyards. Nowadays, some of the wines fall within the all-enveloping name Côtes d’Auvergne, among them Châtaugay, Corent, Boudes and St-Pourçain.
Traditions in the Auvergne
Because of the isolated nature of much of the Auvergne countryside, many ancient traditions have survived; today, the inhabitants are doing their utmost to preserve the special character of this region and the cultural heritage.
Fêtes and festivals
Many of the old customs are upheld on the most important occasions. Bonfires are still lit on the mountain tops to celebrate the summer solstice (Feast of St John), and local fêtes have kept up the tradition of the music and songs played to young girls by the young men of the village. There has also been a revival of country festivals to celebrate haymaking, cheesemaking, harvesting, grape harvests, etc.
Today every folk group has its own interpretation of traditional costume. The men wear the biaude, a voluminous dark blue smock over a pair of coarse black trousers, with a brightly coloured scarf, a wide-brimmed, black felt hat and the clogs or hob-nailed boots that are so vital when tapping out the dance rhythm.
The women are dressed in long, waisted, multicoloured dresses with an embroidered apron and a headdress that varies depending on the region.
This dance dates back a long time but it has been synonymous with the Auvergne since the 18C. The bourrée enacts the chasing of a coquettish young girl by an enterprising young man, whom she alternately runs away from and then beckons to.
Processions and pilgrimages
Worship of the Virgin Mary is very important in the Auvergne. Countless churches and chapels have been dedicated to her. Indeed, the statues of the Virgin Mary in the Auvergne are among the oldest in France.
Processions and pilgrimages in honour of the Blessed Virgin remain very much alive and are quite spectacular. The processions to Notre-Dame-du-Port (Clermont-Ferrand) or Orcival, and the pilgrimages to Mauriac and Thiézac in Cantal and to Marsat and Monton in Puy-de-Dôme are the most popular.
Food and drink
The Rhône valley abounds in good food because it is situated at the heart of various regions containing an outstanding wealth of local produce. Bresse is famous for its poultry, the Charolais area produces beef, the Dombes region abounds in game, the lakes of Savoy teem with fish and the Forez and Rhône valleys specialise in fruit.
The Auvergne, a rugged area of countryside, is not the place for complex, sophisticated cuisine; it specialises in family cooking – and plenty of it.
In the 19C silk workers ate, like their employers, in small family-run restaurants; there was no snobbery in Lyon when it came to good food. The dishes served were based on cheap cuts of meat and offal, but the food was plentiful and tasty. Diners could eat sausages, potted pork, black sausage, pigs’ trotters, knuckle of veal and other stewed meats.
The tradition of good food remains unchanged. Today, local specialities include spicy saveloy sausage with truffles and pistachio nuts, pigs’ trotters and tails, cardoons with marrow bone jelly, pork brawn in vinaigrette, and gently stewed tripe. Other dishes include braised, stuffed trout, fish in Burgundy wine, poultry – especially chicken cooked in stock with thin slivers of truffle inserted between the skin and the meat, and chicken in cream.
Hunting, shooting, fishing and stock breeding provide the basic ingredients for a delicate, tasty type of cooking. Among the local dishes are crayfish and trout from the River Lignon, or poultry and meat of outstanding quality. Also on offer may be a local form of pork pie, a dish of duck, a delicious local ham, Feurs sausage or, in the autumn, game pâté, sometimes even woodcock.
Food here is rustic; this is the land of chestnuts and wild mushrooms such as St George’s agaric and boletus. Among the filling, tasty specialities are partridge with cabbage, thrush with grapes, chicken cooked in a bladder, chicken with crayfish, goose and turkey with chestnuts, hare with poivrade (a highly seasoned sauce), and pork meat products from Ardèche. During the summer, the cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, plums and apples are among the finest such fruits found anywhere in France.
The Rhône valley area of Lower Dauphiné marks the transition between the Lyonnais area and Provence. This is the land of gratin dauphinois, veal with leeks, pognes (brioches, a sort of sweet bread) in Romans and Valence, cheese from St-Marcellin, Grignan-style braised beef and the inimitable Montélimar nougat.
The food in the Auvergne has traditionally been farm cooking, and as a result it has been accused of lacking any appreciable local specialities; this criticism is, happily, totally unfounded. The people of the Auvergne have taken great national specialities and adapted them to suit local taste so that, in the Auvergne, food is rich and sometimes heavy but it is always extremely good.
Meat and fish
The coq au vin (chicken stew) is delicious, especially when flavoured with a good wine. The tripoux from Aurillac, St-Flour and Chaudes-Aigues are wonderful, too. There is ham from Maurs, local sausages, trout from mountain streams, eels from the Dore, and salmon from the Allier.
The truffade from Aurillac is a smooth blend of fresh Tomme cheese and mashed potatoes; seasoned with garlic in Chaudes-Aigues and Aubrac, it is called aligot. Potato paté, a light pastry browned in the oven with a lot of fresh cream and potatoes, is one of the specialities of the Montluçon and Gannat area. Morel mushrooms are cooked with cream and used to fill omelettes and stuff poultry. Peas from the Planèze and green lentils from Le Puy are well-known to gourmets.
This is one of the region’s main specialities. The round, flat St-Nectaire is a delight when well matured. There is also Fourme d’Ambert and Fourme de Montbrison, a blue cheese with an orange-tinted rind, Bleu d’Auvergne and Cantal. These are the best-known of the local cheeses but there is in addition Murol, a variant of St-Nectaire, or the garlic-flavoured Gaperon, made on the plains and shaped like a rounded cone.
Locally, the cheese usually known as Cantal is called Fourme, named after the wooden mould (or form) used to hold it together. This word gave the French language the word formage (forming) which later became fromage (cheese). It takes the milk of 20 to 30 cows to make a 40kg/88lb Cantal cheese.
The Auvergne still boasts a few wines like the famous St-Pourçain that can be left to age for up to four years, or Côtes d’Auvergne wines (Châteaugay and Corent), known since Roman times. But the best wine-growing areas are to be found in the Rhône valley, where Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône are produced.
Côtes du Rhône
The vineyards on the Côtes du Rhône are thought to be the oldest in France, founded on vine stock introduced by the Greeks several centuries BC. They stretch along both banks of the river like a narrow ribbon, producing wines whose quality and balance are guaranteed by a skilful blend of varieties of grape. The reds should be consumed slightly cool, the whites well chilled. Château-Condrieu and Château-Grillet are among the greatest of all French white wines. If drunk young, they are a marvellous accompaniment to a crayfish gratin. Cornas was much appreciated by Charlemagne. Further south, where the valley enters Provence, the vineyards produce the warm, friendly Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, the sweet, suave and flavoursome Muscat from Beaumes-de-Venise and, on the other bank of the Rhône, the rosés from Tavel and the reds and rosés from Lirac and Chusclan.