Returning to the Auvergne: Eight years ago, I spent a year as an English language assistant in Le Puy-en-Velay, a small, historic city in the south of the volcanic Auvergne region, deep in the heart of rural France – la France profonde, as they say.
As an adult, I had never lived abroad before, and I still feel very grateful for this opportunity to experience life in what I think is one of the most beautiful areas of the world. Having never written about it at the time, I return to it now – perhaps eight years too late.
Arriving by car, you approach Le Puy from the surrounding hills and the views are breathtaking: the red roofs, the chapel-topped volcanic rocks reaching for the heavens, the sight of endless hills and valleys in the distance.
Le Puy is one of the starting points for the Way of Saint James, the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
My job was to spend fifteen hours a week speaking English and devising ways of getting French teenagers to attempt to do the same. I would obviously have a bit of free time on my hands… So I had ample time to meet wonderfully hospitable people (contrary to popular belief about tight-fisted Auvergnats), sample delicious local food (try dishes incorporating the local green lentils) and see wonderful countryside.
Winter days in Le Puy are extremely cold, but bright and clear. I spent my weekends visiting the regional capital Clermont Ferrand for the nightlife and, by day, taking winter walks in the lush pine forests between Le Puy and Saint-Étienne. I was sometimes lucky enough to see dozens of hot air balloons racing each other through the blue skies.
One winter experience left a mark not just on my mind, but also on my body. A scar on my left wrist will always remind me of an ill-fated skiing trip in the Alps. The second day of my first experience of skiing ended quite literally in tears, with my hand almost severed from my wrist and blood squirting from my radial artery onto the pure, white snow of l’Alpe d’Huez. The operation and stay at a hospital in Grenoble taught me how good the French health service is and that I would never want to go skiing again.
Summer in Le Puy can be excruciatingly hot and dry. The best remedy for this is a dip in one of the local lakes. Lac du Bouchet, a crater lake, being just one of them, and the much smaller and relatively unknown Lac Bleu, which is, despite what the name suggests, turquoise.
At the end of my year abroad, in the summer of 2002, I travelled around France, seeing rain-soaked passengers strip down to their underwear on trains in the Corsican mountains, the Mistral blowing up rubbish on the streets of Marseille, and learning oyster farming techniques in Finistère.
Stanfords – France in the heart of London
Now working at Stanfords – back then I didn’t know about the shop – I have at my disposal maps and guides that might have taught me a great deal more about France. Take the Topo-guides, for instance: a superb series of walking guides I could have used to explore the countryside near Le Puy; or the IGN's detailed Top 25 walking maps; or even the Michelin Green guide to the Auvergne and the Rhône Valley. And a spectacular section of maps and travel books about France that I once never even knew existed.
- Browse our collection of maps & guides:
- > France travel guides
- > France road maps and atlases
- > Travel literature inspired by France
Author: Tim Cleary