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