Volcanoes of the Auvergne

When  you  think  of  France,  you  may  not automatically  think  volcanoes.  Yet  in  one 385,000-hectare  (950,000-acre)  region,  no fewer  than  90  extinct  volcanic  cones—known in French as puys—rise dramatically and  eerily  above  the  pine  forests. Their symmetrical shapes, formed over centuries of  successive  eruption  and  cooling,  are cloaked  with  the  vivid  green  grass  of  the region;  peat  bogs  and  lakes,  formed  by glaciers, are tucked in between. The peace-ful rural calm of this region, where few tourists venture, seems at odds with the violent geological activity that blasted craters out of  the  mountaintops  5,000  to  6,000  years ago; nowadays villages and farms are interspersed with the volcanoes, where farmers tend  the  cows  and  goats  responsible  for the Auvergne’s luscious cheeses.

The  highest  and  oldest  peak,  Puy-de-Dôme,  has  been  used  as  a  worship  site since  prehistoric  times  by  the  Gauls  and the  Romans.  In  1648,  Pascal  used  this mountaintop  to  prove  Torricelli’s  hypothesis that altitude affects atmospheric pressure;   in   1911,   aviator   Eugène   Renaux landed  here  after  a  nonstop  flight  from  Paris in just over 5 hours. There’s a handy shuttle  bus  up  the  treacherously  winding road to the summit, where on a clear day you’ll have a panoramic view as far east as Mont Blanc.

Les Puys (also known as Monts Dômes) are  a  minichain  of  112  extinct  volcanoes (some  capped  with  craters,  some  with rounded  peaks)  packed  densely  into  an area  4km  (2 1 / 2   miles)  wide  by  31km  (19 miles) long. Each dome is different: Some were  built  up  by  slow  extrusions  of  rock; others were the source of vast lava flows. This rectangle of extinct volcanoes traces one  of  the  most  potentially  unstable  tectonic  areas  in  France,  the  San  Andreas Fault of the French mainland.

This  is  a  fantastic  area  for  hiking  and biking.  The  hills  may  look  dramatic,  but they’re gentle; and the quiet country roads and footpaths through the park have little or no traffic, yet you’re never far from civilization.  Throughout  the  region,  even  in the simple farmhouses, look for blocks of black  stone  formed  by  ancient  volcanic deposits, with roofs of overlapping tiles of dark  gray  volcanic  schist.  (You’ll  find  a prime  example,  the  Romanesque  Eglise Notre-Dame-de-Paris,  in  the  Auvergne’s capital, Clermont-Ferrand.) It’s just another way in which the bizarre beauty of the old volcanoes has been tamed and embraced by the people of the Auvergne.