by Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, July 10, 2018
Who knew France had volcanoes? Last week Unesco unveiled 20 new World Heritage Sites - it now recognises a staggering 1,092 - including the Chaine des Puys, a string of cones and craters in the Massif Central.
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The Chaine des Puys, which translates - rather prosaically - as “chain of volcanic hills”, stretches for 25 miles through the Auvergne region of the Massif Central, a highland area of south-central France.
There are 48 cinder cones, eight lava domes, and 15 maars, or explosion craters, with the highest point being the 1,465-metre Puy de Dôme, right in the middle of the chain.
Formed 95,000 years ago, they have been inactive for around 6,000 years - so modern visitors need not worry about unexpected rumbles.
It is one of the loveliest stretches of the Auvergne, with splendid uplands, lakes, churches and plenty of old-fashioned villages - with Orcival, Le Mont-Dore and Aydat being among the most enticing. Exploring the region is easy. There are more than 3,000 miles of signposted hiking trails, including many suited to families, while the region offers possibilities for riding, paragliding, kayaking and - in winter - even skiing.
Families might also be interested in visiting Vulcania, a scientific, subterranean theme park dedicated to volcanoes, with features including a Rumbling Gallery and a Lava Tunnel.
Cycling is another lure, and the Puy de Dôme formed the backdrop for one of the greatest photographs in sporting history: Raymond Poulidor and Jacques Anquetil battling one another at the 1964 Tour de France, and literally rubbing shoulders, on the steep three-mile road to its summit.
Unfortunately - for keen cyclists, that is - a tourist train to the top was unveiled in 2012 and two-wheeled forays up the mountain are no longer permitted, except in special circumstances.
Away from the Puy de Dôme, the poster boy of the Auvergne, you’ll likely find solitude.
Anthony Peregrine, Telegraph Travel’s France expert, recalls a visit to the region: “We climbed to hamlets where our presence doubtless fuelled fireside chats through winter. Miles from anywhere, we bumped into farmers on tractors the size of aircraft carriers. The middle of nowhere is, of course, somewhere for them. Invariably, they waved in minimalist fashion and made room for us to pass. And then there was no one at all.”
How do I get there?
Clermont-Ferrand is the capital of the Auvergne and gateway to the Chaine des Puys. But there are no direct flights from the UK, so you’ll need go via Paris or fly to Limoges or Lyon. From Lyon, France’s gastronomic capital, it’s a two-hour drive.
Are these the nearest volcanoes to Britain?
Not quite. The Chaine des Puys is around 400 miles from London. A little closer is the Vulkan Eifel, a corner of Germany’s Eifel Mountains that’s still volcanically active. But it is far less dramatic in appearance.
The volcanic island of Surtsey, the most southerly of around 130 volcanoes found in Iceland, is around 600 miles from the northern reaches of Scotland.
Does Britain have any volcanoes?
The UK might not have any proper volcanoes, but Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh is what remains from an eruption during the Carboniferous period. That was around 335 million years ago, when Pangaea was still forming (it wouldn’t break apart for another 160 million years).
“In Britain you do not walk on volcanoes, you walk within them,” explained the Volcano Live presenter, Professor Iain Stewart, writing for the BBC in 2012. “All along what is now the western shores of Scotland, huge volcanic centres erupted colossal quantities of magma. The islands of Arran, Mull and Skye are among the remains of a chain of volcanoes that draped much of northern Britain and Ireland in enormous amounts of lava and volcanic ash.”
Ben Nevis, Glen Coe, Snowdon, Giant's Causeway, the Cheviot Hills and Scafell Pike also have volcanic origins.
Five more things you wouldn’t expect to see in France
A giant sand dune
The tallest sand dune in Europe, the Dune of Pilat, rises, inexplicably, 110m above the otherwise forested coastline of Arcachon Bay, 40 miles from Bordeaux. It is a relatively new addition and is growing – in 1855 it was reportedly just 35 metres high – as well as moving inland at a rate of around four metres a year. More than one million people visit annually.
A wind-sculpted canyon
Are we in Colorado? Rustrel, in Provence, is known for its red-hued rock formations.
A rival to Venice
Pretty canals, ornate bridges, pastel-coloured buildings: from some angles Annecy could almost pass as Venice. Almost. You’re unlikely to be pining for Italy here, though, because this endearing French city has a charm of its own. One also might be bold enough to say it has a number of advantages over Venice – chiefly its freshwater lake, beautiful mountains and lack of crowds.
A Roman amphitheatre
“The Romans settled in Nîmes, France, when they were building the road between Rome and Spain,” explains Janette Griffiths, writing for Telegraph Travel. “Their legacy includes a 20,000-seat arena, the spectacular Pont du Gard aqueduct, and the remains of baths and temples dotted through the Jardins de La Fontaine, where today the Nîmois play petanque.
“Be sure to also visit Les Halles, the central food market, for specialities such as brandade de morue (a purée of salt cod and olive oil) or delicious crunchy green picholine olives.”
A slice of Scotland
Anthony Peregrine writes: “Aubigny-sur-Nère is a half-timbered French country town in a Caledonian cloak. The Saltire is ubiquitous, high-street shops have kilted blokes adorning their façades and there’s a three-metre monument to the Auld (Franco-Scots) Alliance outside the library. The place abounds in unexpected jockery, and has done, off and on, since the Hundred Years’ War. Around 1420, Charles VII was having terrible trouble with the invading English. His own nobles being unreliable, Charles called on the Scots for help. Predictably, they came hurtling across the sea, some 10,000 or so under John Stewart to rip into the Sassenachs at the Battle of Baugé. Following that victory, they remained mainstays of the French military for years. Having no cash, Charles paid the Stewarts with the lordship of Aubigny. They stayed for only 250 years but the links remain. Aubigny has its own blue and green tartan, its own whisky, an annual Franco-Scottish festival (July 14-16 2017) and, Lord help us, a pipe band.”