Image – A church in the middle of vineyards, Jongieux near Hautecombe Abbey, Copyright Atout France/Franck Charel.
The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Region now encorporates the previous Regions of the Auvergne and Rhone Alpes.
As its name suggests, this vast region rising between Burgundy and Provence encompasses a stunning variety of landscapes, stretching from the Rhône Valley and the source of the Loire in the west to France’s highest Alps in the east. The splendid city of Lyon, a World Heritage Site, is its capital.
The region is home to Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, and to many of the most famous ski resorts in the world. It also boasts the largest collection of national and natural parks of any French region, coming into full bloom in early summer. In the south, the départements of the Ardèche and the Drôme touch on the South of France, sharing such delights as lavender fields and olive groves. The region’s gastronomic glories are unrivalled outside Paris , and the Rhône-Alpes offers the temptations of gorgeous vineyards such as those of Beaujolais and many Côtes du Rhône, as well as the wines of Savoie. In short, this region proves exceptionally rich all round.
With twelve départements, the region has a remarkable variety not just of landscapes, but also of cities, towns and villages. Beyond Lyon, the main cities include Annecy, set beside the most romantic lake in France, Chambéry, still reflecting its glory days as home to the dukes of Savoy, dynamic Grenoble, capital of the historic Dauphiné region, overseen by the sensational Chartreuse and Vercors ranges, and St-Etienne, with the Loire river gorges and the regional nature park of the Pilat just a stone’s throw away. Pérouges above the Ain valley is one of the most famous villages in the region, but you will find countless other beautiful ones scattered right across the entire region.
Historic sights abound. Sensational prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered in the Ardèche, while extremely impressive Roman vestiges still stand in towns like Lyon, Vienne and Aix-les-Bains. The Italian architects of the Renaissance and Baroque eras also left their mark much later, after the medieval lords and vassals of the Lyonnais, Savoie and the Dauphiné had peppered the region with castles. In terms of religious heritage, the region’s peaceful mountain ranges witnessed the birth of several major European monastic orders, most famously the reclusive Carthusians of the Chartreuse. Uplifting cathedrals, churches and chapels call you in all across the region.
The Auvergne – Rhône-Alpes being a dynamic, thriving area, modern architects and museums also feature, for example in cities like Chambéry, Grenoble and Lyon, the last with its opera house boldly restored by Jean Nouvel. The region now has a handful of airports taking international flights. Arriving at the region’s main airport of Lyon Saint-Exupéry, you are greeted by the amazing sight of Santiago Calatrava’s TGV train station, which seems ready to fly into the air. All told, this region is one to explore. Copyright: Sarah Francis
The Cantal, Puy de Dome, Allier and Haute Loire once a remote and inaccessible departments, have retained much of the wild and unspoilt character making it the ideal choice for nature lovers. The volcanic landscape (the largest in Europe) with verdant mountains and dramatic gorges, lakes and wide plateaux, bear testament to its ancient past. Yet this region in the heart of the Massif Central, is only 3 hours from Paris. On one of the main routes of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims, there are more than 500 Romanesque churches in the region and over 50 castles dating from the Middle Ages through the reigns of the Dukes of Bourbon and Auvergne, a proud reminder of the region’s prestigious past.
Of its ten Spa towns, the most famous is Vichy on the Banks of the Allier with its parks, restaurants, opera house, horse racing and vast lake. It has retained the charm, elegance and atmosphere of the twenties when it was first fashionable, with architecture from art nouveau to neo gothic and much wrought ironwork. Better known for its part in World War II, and despite the devastation caused, there is a total absence of any reference to this in terms of monuments or museums. The region enjoys fine cuisine as well as splendid AOC cheeses, especially those of the Cantal and the famous Puy Lentils of Le Puy en Velay. The capital of the Haute Loire, a starting point for pilgrims to Compostela, Le Puy with its 13th Century Cathedral is a remarkable sanctuary town where hand-made lace is still made.
In terms of leisure activities, the choice is endless. There are eight ski resorts and over 1,300 kms of cross country skiing. For the golfer, seven 18 hole golf courses and nine 9 hole golf courses await. There are many footpaths for hiking and trekking, many routes for cycling tours (over 32 tours in all) and 10 mountain biking centres. This rugged and unspoilt land naturally has its share of wildlife, flora and fauna. Clermont-Ferrand, with its black buildings of volcanic rock, nestled at the foot of the Puys range, is the capital and a lively university and cultural town including a cathedral, churches and a museum. With its four volcanic masses, the youngest of which is 10,000 years old, this part of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes is unique.
Travelling to these departments By plane: Flights from Southampton to Clermont-Ferrand with Flybe. By train: From London to Saint-Etienne (via Paris, Lille or Lyon) by Eurostar and TGV. Copyright: Sarah Francis
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