Auvergne France - Massif Central France
The Massif Central is cleverly named because it is indeed rather large and right in the middle of France. Auvergne is at the heart of this area, and contains the départements of Allier (03), Cantal (15), Haute-Loire (43) and Puy-de-Dôme (63). The Massif Central is made up of extinct volcanoes, reaching heights of 1,885m (6,180ft) in the area surrounding the region's capital Clermont-Ferrand, and less than 10 per cent of the region has been urbanised.
Agriculture's decline and the ageing population have made Auvergne a relatively poor region, especially in Haute-Loire, but what it lacks in economic growth it makes up for in natural and cultural heritage.
Auvergne's greatest attraction is of course the volcanoes and a theme park has recently been opened in their honour, explaining how they came about 20 million years ago (long before the Alps were formed) and giving a guided tour around one extinct volcano's crater. The highest peak is Mont Dore (1,885m) in this, the largest group of volcanoes in Europe. There are two large environmentally protected parks in the area: the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne and the Parc Naturel Régional du Livradois-Forez. The volcanic cones are called puys (pronounced pwee), the most famous and impressive of which is the Puy de Dôme on the west of Clermont-Ferrand.
With so many footpaths through the mountains and in the lower plains, it is no surprise that walking is a very popular activity in the Auvergne, and mountain biking is also possible on some of the paths. The region has several ski resorts, and cross-country skiing is particularly good here with most snow falling between January and March. The puys are used as take-off platforms for hang-gliding and paragliding (parapente), and the thermals between the hills make this ideal territory for such activities. There is a lot of water about as well, so fishing and other water-related sports are often practised in Auvergne.
The Auvergne is blessed with more than five hundred Romanesque churches, some of which are considered to be the best in France, ten spa towns and around fifty châteaux. It also has some very beautiful villages, particularly in Haute-Loire. Well-known cheeses such as Cantal are made in Auvergne, and wine is made at the ancient Saint-Pourçain vineyard on the banks of the Allier.