This week we made our annual short visit – almost a pilgrimage – to the Cantal Département. It is a spectacularly beautiful, mountainous area in the Auvergne Region, about two hours’ drive from us. It offers excellent walking: the peaks are not too high and there are some good hiking trails. My photos can’t hope to do justice to the beauty of the area, but they provide some idea of how it is.
There are many reasons for going in late September: the weather is almost invariably fine and settled; the turning trees enhance the already superb scenery; you can hear stags roaring – bramer in French – in the beech forests; and the tourists have mostly gone home so you have the place to yourself.
I particularly love the sound of cowbells in the pastures. It’s so evocative and carries for miles. The sound of rutting stags in early autumn is also amazing, like some primeval animal. We have never seen any but they haven’t been far away.
We always stay in the village of Thiézac in the Cère Valley. In fact, we worked out that this was our eighth time there, including twice when we were still living in England. It’s a typical stone-built Auvergne village centred on a stark but appealing church. The village itself is not especially picturesque – although it has some pretty houses – but somehow it has grown on us.
Thiézac is a good centre for walking and several trails start from right in the village. Our favourite goes up to one of the higher peaks of the Monts de Cantal, called l’Elancèze (height 1,570 metres). We nearly always do this walk.
The village itself is at around 800 metres, so it’s quite a climb up to l’Elancèze. But it’s worth it for the fantastic views. From the top you can see a valley on each side – the Cère and the Jordanne valleys – dotted with small villages and speckled with herds of cows.
This is real cow country, the centre of Cantal cheese making. Cantal is a hard cheese not unlike cheddar. Formerly, it was made on the mountainsides, where the cows graze between May and November. The cheese-makers lived on the slopes and kept the cheeses cool in buildings known as burons, stone structures with split stone roofs. Very few burons are now used for cheese-making but since they are so solid many of them still stand. Unfortunately, the one below is surrounded by barbed wire, which somewhat spoils the effect, but it is well maintained.
We did a very long walk on our second day – 20 kilometres. The ascent was about 700 metres, so it was another tough one. It was glorious weather, even a bit hot. Apart from the odd encounter with a herd of curious cows, we met virtually no one. At the end, every step was an act of will and I could barely get out of bed the next morning. It was worth it, though.
If you like that kind of thing, do listen to Songs of the Auvergne. This is a collection of folk songs from the Auvergne arranged for soprano voice and orchestra by Joseph Canteloube in the 1920s. You will probably recognise ‘Bailèro’, which has been used as the sound track for films and advertisements. Anna Moffo’s warm, golden voice in her recording with the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, sets off the songs to perfection.
Every time we leave Thiézac and our Monts de Cantal, it’s with a twinge of regret. But we know they will be there next year.
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Oh, I know “Songs of the Auvergne” quite well. Years before I ever went to France, I once house-sat for two weeks at a very lovely (if fairly isolated) cabin in Vermont. When I got there, I found that the radio was broken (this is in the mid 80’s……so no laptop and youtube) and, for some reason, there was a record player, but only one actual LP record: “Songs of the Auvergne”.
I must have played that record 100 times during my stay. To say I memorized it is an understatement.
Thanks for the evocative posting,
Quail Roost Farm
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I bought my recording of “Songs of the Auvergne” in a record store in the UK while we still lived there, so well over 20 years ago. I wanted the complete version with all the songs, but when I took it to the counter, the person serving advised me to buy instead the selection sung by Anna Moffo. He said if I was disappointed, he would refund my money. I wasn’t.
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It looks lovely! I must rouse myself and the family and have another trip to France – somehow France is so near and yet so far….and there always seems to be so much we haven’t seen in Switzerland!
It’s just the same with us. There are so many things to see in our region but somehow you never do when it’s on the doorstep! I must get to Switzerland sometime – only went once with parents to Zurich when I was very small.
20 km – very respectable! Looks a great area for walking.
Respectable! We were crying for mercy at the end. After a few days we were back to normal, though. There is some great walking there.
We’ve always loved the Auvergne too, and we’re not so far away now. On clear days, you can see the Puy de Dome from certain very high points in Creuse. I based one of my kids’ books, Escape the Volcano, there. Lots of lovely memories of that part of France.
It’s certainly a lovely region of France, although cold in winter, I’m sure. We know the southern part of it – the Monts de Cantal – much better than the north, but we have been to the northern area around La Bourboule, Saint-Nectaire and Besse-en-Chandesse and have walked the Puy de Sancy, which I think is the highest peak in the Massif Central. We keep going back: it’s so beautiful.
This looks truly magical. Thanks to your wonderful posts I’m now creating a list of places to go when I do eventually make it back to SW France. It appears I need so much more time than I originally intended!! A year, perhaps?! All of your posts of extremely interesting and I look forward to them immensely. Thanks a million.
Hello, Kate. Thank you for leaving such a nice comment. It means a lot to me to know that people enjoy reading my posts. There’s certainly a lot to see and do down here but I can recommend a visit to the Auvergne. It has wonderful scenery and some very picturesque towns and villages. It’s a bit off the tourist trail as well, which is always a recommendation for me. I hope you manage to get back here soon.