A trip to the Massif Central

By Lorna Marsland

The Massif Central is large volcanic area in central France, about 2/3 of the way down.  It is characterised by rounded, pudding basin peaks bursting up from the valley floor, some of which can be linked together, and these provide spectacular views over an otherwise flatish landscape.  It is off the beaten track and generally ignored by the Brits, so much quieter than the Alps or Pyrenees and well-worth exploring if you’re looking for something a bit different.  I came across it about 15 years ago when Helen Stephenson, an erstwhile member of the club suggested that she and I should visit the area to attempt a 3 day tour she’d found in a magazine.  I don’t remember much about the location of this tour other than it involved The Breche Roland so it must have been in the Cantal area.  We spent a long time researching transport and eventually came to the conclusion that whilst the route looked interesting, transport options were proving expensive and difficult to connect.  Nevertheless the area had not been completely obliterated from my consciousness, and during a clear-out, triggered by my recent move south, I came across the details which fired my interest for further investigation.

Moving house successfully accomplished, this was the year to sample a different area of France. Helen was occupied with dog  walking and working her way around the coast of Wales, so I persuaded David that  it was a place he would really enjoy visiting and now that we were living on the south coast, driving to France was a much more enjoyable prospect and one he’d been eager to take up.  What’s not to like!

There isn’t a huge amount of information on the Massif Central and what there is I found rather confusing.  I bought a Cicerone guide which offers detailed routes of differing lengths and difficulty but compares the area with the Lake District or Wales, which is endorsed by the route descriptions and the accompanying photographs.  It fails to take into account the scale and altitude of the area and ignores the difficulty inherent in scaling mountains shaped like huge suet puddings i.e. rounded tops but very steep sides.  The fact that they are also considerably higher than anything the UK has to offer means that all ascents and descents take considerably longer than the mileage suggests and what appears on first impressions to be a moderate walk, can turn out to be a far more serious undertaking.  But all this I was still to discover.

We arrived in Murat, our base for the first few days, in brilliant sunshine and were full of optimism for the week ahead; sadly this was short-lived.  The forecast was not in our favour and rain was scheduled for the following day about 11.30am.  With that in mind we rose early and drove to the Col de Serre to park.  From there we walked up Puy Niermont via the well-defined path and bagged our first peak.  Today was to be an introductory day to acclimatise and become familiar with how the guidebook relates to the land and we accomplished this in a couple of hours and were back at the car before the first drops of rain hit the pass.  I wasn’t too disappointed at this point as I hadn’t intended a long walk after a long and tedious drive in difficult conditions the previous day, so we returned to our accommodation and went shopping.

Sadly the next three days proved frustrating as the general theme was precipitation.  Although we managed to walk each day between heavy outbursts, (the weather forecast proved more reliable than the one at home) none of these walks was above 3 hours in length and I was forced to abandon my original plans in order to avoid a thorough soaking.  Still we did manage to get a good look at the area from various vantage points, when the clouds parted, and it was becoming clear to me that walking here was a more serious undertaking than I had anticipated.

The fourth day’s early morning sunshine filled us with hope and energy.  We were moving our base to the Sancy region, but not before an ascent of Puy Mary, the most well-known peak in the area.  We had packed up the car the night before to make an early start, trusting in the forecast and there would just be time to bag this peak before hitting the road.

The ascent of Puy Mary is a bit like the tourist route up Snowdon, only much shorter and without the train. There is a concrete pathway all the way up and we passed many tourists in all shapes and sizes as befits a mountain attraction, and aided by sticks, partners and dogs, they struggled up to the summit.  Some were dressed more appropriately for a walk along the promenade, and it was evident from the level of struggle required, that this was a new and probably unpleasant venture for them, but that’s nothing new. I didn’t notice any Scholl sandals, but I could have missed them. 

The summit of Puy Mary was quite large There were as a fair few folk thrusting their way up to the viewing platform as we prepared to descend.  I had originally planned to walk to Puy de Peyre Arse from Puy Mary, via the Breche de Roland, and had taken a couple of long slings and karabiners in case I needed to protect the descent, but one look at the descent from the summit of Puy Mary onto the ridge, which was described as a perfectly normal descent route, made me realise that it wasn’t a goer.  David is not good on exposed ground and this was a very exposed descent and very steep and I could see him regarding it with some misgivings. If he was reluctant to do this, then there is no way he’s going to downclimb into the Breche Roland and out again, so we retraced our steps to the col and sought refuge on Puy de la Tourte just across the valley.  It was like the sublime to the ridiculous in reverse.  The views along the route of Puy de la Tourte were just as impressive, but it was deserted except for us and it was heavenly.  The path was well-defined but a proper path not concrete and we had it to ourselves which came some way towards making up for abandoning Puy de Peyse Arse.  On reflection, we wouldn’t have had time to do this but I consoled myself that we had at least done some walking in sunshine, albeit too little.

Moving onto the Sancy area, we found our accommodation in a lovely site around a lake and sat out drinking a beer and soaking up the long-awaited sun.  During the night the heavens opened and we awoke to the pitter patter of heavy rain on plastic roofing, announcing the sabotage of yet another adventure.  By afternoon the rain had eased off and so we set off in search of something to do involving walking.  We were now in the Puy de Dome area, but that being swathed in mist we opted for a lower and less challenging hill called Puy Pariou.  This was an easy walk on a good path to emerge onto the rim of a spectacular crater, rather like a Roman amphitheatre lined with grass.  It provided a good viewing point and a walk around the rim showed a line of these pudding basins with interconnecting paths.  I was on the point of suggesting we might link a few together and make a better walk, but one look at the sky made us hurry for the car just in time to escape another torrential downpour.

The following day we visited Mont Dore as the rain lashed the pavements and we tried to make out the route I had been planning, through the mist, but it was hopeless.  In winter this is one of the many minor ski areas enjoyed by the French, and consequently there are lifts.  Unfortunately these weren’t working which would have enabled us to shorten the route and there was something closely resembling snow on the tops.  At that point I threw in the towel.  It just wasn’t going to happen on this trip, so with some reluctance, on my part at least, we beat an early retreat to the fleshpots of Vichy.  I had promised David that the second part of the holiday would be spent in more leisurely pursuits, sampling the local wine and visiting places of interest, so he was delighted to be leaving the mountains behind us and heading for Burgundy.

From this point he was chirpy and the weather as if by pathetic fallacy, improved immeasurably.  We spent the next week enjoying the cultural attractions of France in glorious sunshine, to say nothing of the 3 hour wine-tasting extravaganza in Beaune, chatting to two Belgians in French, (they didn’t speak any English) and becoming more incoherent with each glass, to the point where David began speaking to me in French and I referred to the Isle of Wight as the ‘Isle de Blanc’ – so it wasn’t all bad!  We were thrown out eventually, but that’s another story…

I think we were unlucky with the weather and I think if I was going again, and it’s well worth a visit if you like walking, I would go later in the season – we went 7-21 June.  I also feel that if I had been in possession of a better understanding of the area before embarking on the trip I would have chosen more achievable objectives, but then that’s life.   English is not commonly spoken here so some French is helpful and the cuisine is not what we have come to expect from the more tourist areas of France, so don’t expect your too much on the gastronomic front.   Nevertheless self-catering is an option and there is a huge supermarket in Murat selling a wide variety of produce and plenty of delicious wine and beer.  If anyone is thinking of visiting the area and would like some information, then please get in touch.  I have maps and a guidebook and lots of pictures all of which you may find helpful.


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