Dotted with extinct volcanoes and the last natural river in France, the Auvergne is one of the most impressive regions in the country. The region is divided into four departments: Allier, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Puy-de-Dôme. This sparsely populated region in the heart of the Massif Central has managed to preserve its remarkable natural landscapes to this day. Auvergne attracts an average of 3.5 million tourists each year.
Over a distance of around 60 kilometres, no fewer than 80 volcanoes, which were formed around 60 million years ago, stretch from north to south. The volcanic nature park of the Auvergne, one of the largest and oldest in Europe, covers an area of 40,000 hectares and is inhabited by a sparse 90,000 people. The regional nature park Livradoix-Forez lies opposite to the east. This park contains real treasures such as the beautiful Chaudefour valley, which has been declared a nature reserve. At 1465 metres, the Puy de Dome is the highest peak in Auvergne and attracts millions of tourists who come to admire this region, which has been designated “Grand Site de France”.
Its immense clear mountain lakes, its rivers and wild streams, its waterfalls and springs provide the Auvergne an almost infinite abundance of water. In 2013, the Lake of Aydat and the Lake of La Tour d'Auvergne were awarded the “Blue Flag” label. In the centre of Auvergne, in the Département Haute-Loire, you will find the last protected river course in Europe, which is part of the WWF “Loire nature” conservation programme.The Haut-Allier region is home to, among other species, the Atlantic salmon, considered the last wild fish species in Western Europe, which travels some 1,000km to reach its spawning grounds starting from the ocean. Auvergne is also famous for its thermal baths. These include the spas of Vichy and the Massif des Mont Doré, whose medicinal springs are particularly esteemed.
In addition to its natural riches, Auvergne also has an important historical heritage. The regional traditions have always been maintained by the men and women who live here and passed on from one generation to the next. Auvergne's cultural heritage is one of the most extensive in Europe and includes some 280 Romanesque buildings, numerous castles from the Middle Ages and countless picturesque villages. The historic town of Le Puy-en-Velay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there, the Via Podiensis, one of the routes of the Way of St. James, leads to Santiago de Compostella.
Its cuisine also holds up with the other French regions. Among the regional specialities are the potée auvergnate, the lentil stew petit salé aux lentilles du Puy and aligot, a thick mash of potatoes and Cantal cheese with garlic. It is therefore no coincidence that the region has 13 star chefs. But Auvergne would not be what it is if it were not for its famous AOP cheeses: the Bleu d'Auvergne, the Cantal, the St Nectaire, the Salers or even the Fourme d'Alembert. A cheese production of around 90,000 tons per year that accounts for a large part of the regional economy.
In the 19th century, the agricultural crisis forced thousands of French rural dwellers to leave their homes in search of work. The inhabitants of Auvergne left the volcanic soil of their homeland and moved to the capital. There they founded a community known as “Bougnats”.
Despite all of these advantages, Auvergne is a vulnerable region and locals worry about its future. The region is striving for an effective environmental policy with an annual budget of only 7.6 million euros allotted to environmental protection and nature conservation. Thanks to ecologically and agriculturally appropriate practices, the local environment has been preserved for a long time. However, with increasing changes in the management of agricultural land and forest areas, part of the biodiversity is now strongly endangered.
The water quality of the rivers is generally very good because many efforts have been made to preserve it. However, there are some critical points and the problems of excessive water consumption threaten to become more serious in the future. Moreover, the more than 800 obstacles in the rivers are a serious threat to the vitality and development of some fish species.
In contrast to other regions of France, there is no mass tourism in Auvergne. Instead, the region has specialized in nature and cultural tourism. For one, it is a great destination for hikers and nature lovers, as it consists of eleven long-distance hiking trails, six voies vertes (“green” cycle routes), 14km of signposted footpaths and 70 spas, 50 of which are in the open-air. Hiking aficionados can find what they are looking for by following parts of the Way of St. James, the Stevenson or other marked paths. Probably the most famous, though not the easiest part of the route is the crossing of the Puys, during which you can discover around 90 volcanoes in five days. The railway line along the Cevennes offers a wonderful opportunity to explore the area whilst being respectful to the environment.
Around 35,000 tourists travel every year from Puy-le-Velay on the Jacob's Way to Santiago de Compostella and around 14,000 take part in the pilgrim masses. One would think that this tourist rush is a danger to the beautiful Auvergne landscape. However, it seems that these hikers are reviving the local economy and thus ensuring the survival of the small villages along the way. Tourism now accounts for 8% of the region's GDP. Encouraging more ecotourism and the conservation of its natural heritage can only be of benefit. The Puys range of hills applied for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014.
The region of Auvergne is made up of about 70% of agricultural land, a large part of which is devoted to animal husbandry. However, most of the land is cultivated via conventional methods, requiring massive amounts of herbicides. Moreover, the lack of regulations leads to soil degradation and the tilting of wetlands -with serious consequences on the environment. In view of the increasing mechanisation of agriculture, some actors are committed to protecting the environment and biodiversity. For example, since the early 1990s, a group of passionate horse lovers has been fighting for the survival of the auvergnatic horse and other endangered species. Thanks to this private initiative, the rustic breed is increasingly being bred again. Their population has grown to 400 horses in the present day as a result, compared to just 30, 20 years ago.
In order to overcome the difficulties caused by the impassable relief, some farmers have decided to switch to organic farming. At the beginning of 2014, there were 996 organic farms in the region, representing approximately 3.5% of agricultural production. Biodynamic agriculture, on the other hand, still is a niche sector. More and more farmers are now selling their produce directly, whether it be on their own farm, at markets or through the AMAP agricultural association. The figure of farmers engaged in direct sales currently stands at 45%. The Clermont Ferrant regional association is particularly committed to local development and, with over 40 members, aims to offer quality products bought directly from the producers.