Cantal: Chemins de Fer, Cheese and Chambres d’Hôtes

“Do you have to pay to park there?” I asked, pointing to our car parked in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Riom-ès-Montagnes.

La patronne of the bistro shrugged. “Everywhere is free to park in Riom. Pas de souci.

We are unfamiliar with this relaxed attitude to urban parking but gratefully accepted it.

Despite having only around 2,500 inhabitants, Riom is the 6th largest town in Cantal. It sits in the heart of the Cézallier, a high plateau between the mountains of the Chaîne des Puys and les Monts du Cantal. We drove there across rolling moorland with a view of the mountains on both sides.

Church in Riom with evidence of lack of pressure on parking spaces. I have no idea what the object to the right of the car is.

Le Gentiane Express

From 1908, a railway line served Riom until its closure in 1991. An association took it over a few years later to run a tourist train from Riom to Lugarde, le Gentiane Express; so called because of the prevalence of the yellow gentian on the plateau, which will grow only above 750 m. The Avèze factory, which makes Gentiane liqueur from the plant’s roots, is just over the hedge from la gare de Riom.

Avèze factory
La gare de Riom

SNCF lends old rolling stock to the association, but it’s up to the members to keep the 16 km of line in good order. This is a monumental job, subject to regular health and safety inspections by the Préfecture and SNCF.      

Le Gentiane Express, composed of old rolling stock

We reserved the train ride online. Just as well, since two groups of aînés (seniors’ social club) had also booked, and it was packed out. They chattered and bantered like an excited school outing.

The line to Lugarde runs through the green Cézallier countryside, past former stations and railway buildings. Tantalising glimpses of the mountains appear through the foliage from time to time, while the guide/guard keeps up an informative spiel about the line and the area and its history.

The destination – Lugarde

The train stops at Lugarde for 45 minutes, just time to grab a drink at one of the bars, before heading back the way it came. While it’s a pleasant village, there isn’t a huge amount in Lugarde to detain you.

Attractive house in Lugarde

The main interest for us was in seeing le viaduc de Barajol, also known as le viaduc de Lune Sèche. On the return journey, you can alight and walk along it.

This elegant curved viaduct spans the valley of la Petite Rhue and opened to traffic in 1908. It is 137 m long and 67 m high, built in the volcanic stone of the region. It’s one of five constructed along the original stretch of line. This photogenic historic monument often appears in films or documentaries.   

Salers: cattle and cheese

During this trip, we renewed our acquaintance with the town of Salers, which we last visited before we moved here.

La place Tyssandier-d’Escous
Rooftops of Salers

We made the mistake of arriving on the Sunday of Pentecôte (Whitsun), when a lot of people decided to visit. To get to our hotel, which is within the ramparts, we had to drive up a narrow street and then through an even narrower archway, keeping fingers crossed that nothing was coming the other way. And, of course, it was my turn to drive.

Archway through which I had to manoeuvre our car

Salers is on the edge of the volcanic area at an altitude of nearly 1,000 m. Although it’s even smaller than Riom, with c. 325 inhabitants, Salers is a Plus beau village that attracts tourists from far and wide. Out of season we had the place almost to ourselves once the Pentecôte day trippers had left.

Salers’ apogee was in the 16th century, when Henri II made the town a bailiwick with administrative and judicial authority. The opulent residences of rich bourgeois families and magistrates, adorned with coats of arms and pepper pot towers, surround the central square. The buildings are constructed of the local volcanic rock and are particularly well preserved. Parts of some buildings date back as far as the 14th and 15th centuries.

Salers is a small place, and you can see most of its sights in an afternoon, but it’s a good base for walking and visiting les Monts du Cantal.     

Porte du Beffroi, topped by a bell tower constructed in 1509

Today, Salers is known chiefly for two things: cattle and cheese. Cows of the Salers race sport shaggy red-brown coats and lyre-shaped horns. A 19th-century agronomist, Ernest Tyssandier d’Escous, renewed the race through selective breeding. A statue in his honour stands in the main square.

Salers cow in the upper pastures

As well as being appealing to look at, Salers cows produce rich milk that is ‘fromageable’, i.e. makes good cheese, the town’s other claim to fame. Salers is a hard cheese with a rind, which is made only on farms from unpasteurised milk between April and November. Cantal, a similar cheese, can be made at any time of year with pasteurised or unpasteurised milk.

When we first visited more than 25 years ago, we asked the lady in the tourist office what people did in Salers during the snow-bound winter months, when the wind whips around the turrets and through the narrow streets.

“Oh, on se repose, on tricote…” (we relax, we knit).    

La Maison Normande

One of the (many) highlights of our holiday was a two-night stay at La Maison Normande in Saint-Cirgues-de-Jordanne. The architecture of this distinctive house is quite unlike the local style. The original owners, although from Cantal, had lived in Normandy for many years. When they returned to Cantal in 1910, they had the house built to resemble a Norman villa, although it is built from the local volcanic stone.

La Maison Normande

More typical Cantal house in the same village

The present owners, a British couple, have done up the place beautifully, creating a very comfortable chambre d’hôtes. I highly recommend this as a place to stay if you plan to explore the area. They serve delicious food, including fantastic breakfasts, after which you won’t need to eat again until dinner. They also supply plenty of advice about local walks and things to see.

If you are afraid that you will only find other Anglophones there, fear not. La Maison Normande is popular with French people and recently featured in Le Figaro Magazine’s roundup of best chambres d’hôtes in France.

Well, that’s it for Cantal for this time, but we hope to return very soon.

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  1. Hi Vanessa. We’ve been to Salers earlier this year and I photographed that very same door, as did many others in passing – a famous icon indeed. Thanks for the tip on the chamber d’hôte. We want to go back to that area in autumn when it fits in and will bear that in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve loved your posts about the Cantal, an area we know a bit but not in depth as you do. Lots of notes made for places to visit!
    Salers we have visited several times, the last one being one winter when the snow had arrived. I fancied a drive and envisaged that at Salers we would find a cosy bar with vin chaud and aligot. My husband was less optimistic and he was right. We found fabulous views and beautiful buildings as always but only an epicerie about to close and one gloomy bar. The proprietor told us which parts of town we should be sure to visit so we did. Then a drive home with Mr McGregor saying ‘I told you so’. Makes a good anecdote tho’.. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • We certainly found lots of new things to see this time. I think you’re a little closer to Cantal than we are, so you might have the opportunity to visit some of them.

      Salers seems to be geared up for the summer season but not for very much outside it. I don’t think they expect people to visit in the winter. And I suppose mostly people don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for you blogs , I always enjoy them always reminds me of when I lived I Valcanville near Cherbourg.
    Regards Marcel Evans.

    Sent from my iPad

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Marcel. I’m pleased you enjoy the posts. I see that Valcanville is almost at the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula – not an area I know. I am more familiar with the area around Dieppe-Rouen.


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