The Allier is the northernmost department of Auvergne. It is a gentle land of undulating hills and valleys, thick with forests and streams and threaded by several of France’s great rivers, the Loire, the Cher and the Allier itself. It is famous for the purity of its air and water, with several spa towns, like Néris-les-Bains and Châteauneuf-les-Bains, where both can be enjoyed. This is the old region of the Bourbonnais, a fertile landscape of rich pastures favoured by the Bourbon kings who once ruled much of Europe. Today, it is a green and pleasant land to escape to. The Foret de Troncais is particularly worth exploring, a huge hardwood forest of great oak and beech trees, a haven for wild life, with deer, wild boar, hares and many birds. There are signposted footpaths, pools to bathe in, and cosy country inns for romantic retreats. To the south are the gorges of the Sioule river, perfect for canoeing and sports fishing, and renowned for delicious trout.
The capital, Moulins, drowses on the banks of the Allier but its chateau was once an important base for the court of the Bourbon king, Pierre II. Though only a keep remains of the original chateau, there are many other fine buildings to see – in particular the Cathedral of Notre Dame which has incredible stained glass windows and houses a rich treasury, including the Triptyque of the Maitre de Moulins, a celebrated 15th century painting. There is also an intriguing 13th century belfry, the Jacquemart, which still chimes every hour. Every Friday a huge market takes over the town.
Vichy is the most famous of all the Auvergne spa towns since it became the seat of the Vichy government during the Second World War. Though there is little evidence now of its grim past, it is easy to understand why Vichy was chosen. It is full of sumptuous villas, colonial hotels, a grand casino and magnificent parks, especially the lovely Parc des Sources surrounding the thermal baths, with its vast dome. Since a dam was built across the Allier, a huge lake was formed and this is now a centre for watersports of all kinds, with swimming pools and an artificial river featuring controlled currents for canoe and kayaks. There are also any number of elegant restaurants and smart shopping streets as glamorous as Paris when lit up at night.
Other sights not to be missed in the department include Montlucon, a historic medieval city built at the foot of the chateau, Bourbon-l’Archambault and its spa and fortress, the Romanesque church at Châtel-Montagne and the priory at Souvigny with its golden-hued 12th century church. Another essential detour is St Pourcain-sur-Sioule, a charming old town best known as one of the oldest wine growing towns in France with vineyards that have been planted since Roman times. The wines produced today include reds, whites and rosés.