Cantal: Cols, Cascades and Canyons

Cantal is one of France’s best-kept secrets. Even many French people pass it by. But once bitten by the Cantal bug, you are sure to return, as we have done for the past thirty years. We have just come back from nine days in this captivating area. I have written about Cantal several times, but there is always something new to discover. I’ll share some of our discoveries in a couple of posts.  

Volcanic past

Cantal is an administrative département in South-Central France. It’s also an area of outstanding natural beauty, of mountains forged by volcanic activity and valleys gouged out by glaciers.

The area was once one gigantic volcano. In fact, it was the largest stratovolcano in Europe, a conical volcano built up in many layers. Vesuvius, which erupted and destroyed Pompeii in AD 79, is also a stratovolcano. Fortunately, most of the volcanic activity in Cantal took place about 10 million years ago, and the last eruption occurred about 2 million years ago. In our terms, that’s a long time. In geological terms, it’s a flash.    

Le Plomb du Cantal

Around twenty valleys radiate from the central, and highest, point, le Plomb du Cantal (1,855 m, 6,086 ft). Owing to glacial and climatic erosion, the mountains are mostly smooth and rounded and the valleys U-shaped. Fast-flowing streams and brooks rush over pebbled river beds, and waterfalls fling themselves dramatically down sheer rock faces.    

Les Monts du Cantal

In spring, abundant wild flowers carpet the meadows. In early autumn, the thickly forested hillsides turn ochre and gold and echo to the bellowing of competing stags and the jangling of cowbells.  

These natural advantages make Cantal a walker’s paradise. You don’t have to be an advanced hiker to enjoy the landscapes. Plenty of short or circular trails exist that don’t require extreme fitness. A word of warning, though: the weather can change rapidly and drastically in a short time. We have picnicked on a peak in bright sunshine only to be surprised by a thunderstorm with torrential rain a few minutes later. The advice about being properly kitted out, taking plenty of water, etc. is given for a very good reason.   

Elancèze

Elancèze is the rocky bit at the top in the middle.

For us, a trip to Cantal would not be complete without a visit to one of its peaks, Elancèze. At 1,571 m (c. 5,154 ft), it’s not especially high, but it has a view to die for over two valleys: la Cère and la Jordanne. In early June, they are improbable shades of green, and the hillsides are dotted with dark brown Salers cattle that have only recently been put out to pasture after the winter.

Jordanne Valley from Elancèze. Somebody’s walking boots in the bottom left corner as proof.

Several routes take you up to Elancèze, but we chose the shortest, from le Col de Pertus. It may be the shortest, but it’s not the easiest, being steep and stony, with pebbles rolling alarmingly under one’s feet on the way down. However, we had the reward of perfect weather and a fantastic view from the top.

Broom in flower at the Col de Pertus

May is the best time to enjoy the wild flowers. Even so, the hillsides in early June were covered with brilliant patches of broom, and the gentians were coming into flower. The latter are tall plants with yellow flowers. Their extensive roots are one of the main ingredients of Gentiane, a bright yellow apéritif that has been made in the area for centuries. Only one factory now exists in Cantal, in Riom-ès-Montagnes, which makes the Avèze brand. I have tried it, but it’s not a taste I am likely to acquire.

Gentianes coming into flower at the foot of Elancèze.
Gentianes in flower near Saint-Bonnet de Salers
Foxgloves were flowering abundantly

Cascade de Faillitoux

We often stay in the village of Thiézac, which is a good base for exploring the surrounding countryside.

Thiézac from above

Above the village, a waterfall, la cascade de Faillitoux, tumbles down the rock face and makes an easy excursion. We hadn’t visited for some time, and we weren’t disappointed, since it was running fast after the previous night’s thunderstorm. The rock formation resembles organ pipes.

Cascade de Faillitoux
Rock formation near the cascade

Another waterfall worth seeing, la cascade de Sartre, is a few kilometres beyond the village of Cheylade. We made a detour on our way to Riom to take the Gentiane Express. The church in Cheylade has an amazing painted ceiling. More of those in the next post.

Cascade de Sartre

Gorges de la Jordanne

A new experience awaited us in the village of Saint-Cirgues-de-Jordanne, which we had never visited before. Aside from being a pretty little village with an excellent chambre d’hôtes, La Maison Normande, it’s situated beside the only part of the Jordanne River that is at the bottom of deep gorges. The river has carved out gorges of up to 60 m in depth in the volcanic rock, while the glaciers deposited boulders along the river bed. It’s not unlike le pas de Cère in the next valley over, which was formed in the same way.

A nature trail was created along the river in 2006, forming a 4 km return trip along wooden walkways and footbridges. You cross over the river several times, allowing you to see the vertiginous sides of the gorge and appreciate the different species of trees that grow by the riverside and cling onto the cliffs. This is a refuge for otters, among other species.

Footbridge in the distance

Depending on the weather, the trail is open from early June to the end of September. It’s advisable to be well shod as it can be damp and slippery, and you are picking your way over rocks in places.

We were lucky with the weather during our stay. Nightly thunderstorms gave way to blue skies with puffy clouds and reasonable temperatures in the daytime. This was perfect weather for walking. In July and August, it’s too hot, and the sun beats down on the exposed summits. A far cry from the deep snow the area can experience in the winter.

In the next post, I’ll describe some of the places we visited. And more about that chambre d’hôtes. Watch this space.

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6 comments

  1. Wow, this looks just like our sort of place. Reminds me of Wales in some ways. We weren’t too far from there a while back and I definitely want to go back. At least you were there before this expected heatwave hits us.
    MJ

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s wonderful countryside, unspoilt and virtually empty, except for a couple of tourist hotspots. We were certainly lucky that the weather was perfect for walking.

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  2. It sounds wonderful. We have stayed in the Cantal, but further north in a gite in a small hamlet not far from Salers. We did not go as far down as you stay. We did walk up Puy Mary.

    I agree that the Cantal, and in fact a lot of the Auvergne, is a little under the radar of overseas tourists in particular. It is a pity because the scenery is magnificent and there are plenty of appealing villages and small towns to visit. The Auvergne produces some great cheeses. And have you tried pounti ? We first had it in 2016 when we stayed near Salers, and in 2018, on our way through the Cantal to Puy de Dome, we stopped and bought some.

    Your posts always reinforce for me how much you can see in France away from the tourist hot spots.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were also in Salers this time, since we moved around a bit. Salers will feature in the next post. We have never walked up Puy Mary, which is the only part that really attracts the tourists.

      We were trying to work out how many times we had been to Cantal in 30 years. No definitive answer, but it could be as many as 15 times. Some years we have visited twice. It’s less than 2 1/2 hours’ drive from here. There is so much to recommend the area, but it loses out to the better known tourist places.

      I like pounti and have it at least once each time we visit, although I rarely eat it away from Cantal. There’s even a recipe somewhere on the blog!

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