The fellow across the lunch table was puzzled. “How the hell do you get at this?” he asked. It was a good question. The first course had been served in what amounted to a jam jar. So contemporary. The main course had now come in what was a slightly bigger jar, but still a jar – into which it was almost impossible to introduce a knife and fork. And it needed a knife and fork. The dish was allegedly stuffed cabbage, intractable to spoon usage. Nor could it be picked up and drunk.
The effort-to-reward ratio wasn’t convincing – and a poor lunch was made all the more disappointing by the fact that we were 4,800ft up on the Puy-de-Dôme in the Massif Central. There is a brasserie at the top of the volcanic summit where life is magnified and everything is grandiose. Just skip the stuffed cabbage.
Our group was 42-strong, comprising mainly north-country English people and a splendid couple from Bath. Once a year, I stop being a reporter to become a tour organiser for a friend’s Yorkshire Dales coach firm. Covid had postponed our trip to the Auvergne for two years. But now we were there, based in Clermont-Ferrand, in the hottest week since the Bronze Age.
Now the thing you need to retain about British coach parties is that they may be older but are more disparate, cultivated, polite and clubbable than any other equivalent group. Any other at all. Being older, they are also more interesting: they have lived and done more, and have little left to prove. In our group there was a former showjumper, an electrician, several engineers, business people both national and international, ex-factory foremen, a schools manager, a former MP and diplomat, a toolmaker, a chiropodist, NHS workers, a champion fell-runner, farmers and a retired university professor.
They also tend to be more tolerant when, say, the organiser cocks up and has them served lunch in jam jars. The included wine helped. As did the glory of the setting. We had come up on the Panoramique des Dômes rack railway: ideal for those whose mountaineering needs are best met sitting down. It wound round the dormant volcano as if inserting stitches, then spat us out on a grassy summit featuring what is left of a Roman temple to Mercury, a weather station and edges that overlook the 80 or so other volcanoes of the Chaîne des Puys, lined up northwards for 20 miles. There is no equivalent in Europe.
These looked like proper volcanoes: conical with round craters and the air of having just burst through the earth’s crust. Which, in geological terms, they had. The Puy-de-Dôme itself is just 11,000 years old – only slightly more than the aggregate age of our coach party. From here, we dominated central France. The land extended forever.
The Massif Central (the geographical context of historical “Auvergne”) comprises grand rounded uplands, lacking the killer edge of the Alps but furnishing far horizons, lakes and slow rural certainties. Mountain roads proceed in curves and hairpins just wide enough for a coach, and sometimes not quite. High above the cheese and spa village of Saint-Nectaire, a bad-tempered white van came hurtling at us head-on, forcing the coach to the edge of a precipice, into low-hanging electricity wires. They snagged on the roof.
A lesser coach driver would have ploughed on, dragging the wires and blacking out central France. That is not the way of Dales drivers. With the help of a tall passenger, a very long-handled broom and lots of patience, our man Paul had us on our way to a distant farmhouse lunch. The wires stayed up. Up at the farm, they took us round the caves where the farmers used to live and where, now, they mature cheese. (“What about mice?” asked a Yorkshireman. “Traps,” whispered the guide.)
Saint-Nectaire, like many villages round here, had been a thermo-mineral spa for centuries.
Authors Balzac and George Sand both showed up, doubtless requiring treatment after reading one another’s works. Proust came later. The Saint-Nectaire waters are useful for more than urinary infections and literary relief, however: they also petrify anything left under them for long enough. The Fontaines Pétrifiantes family firm is apparently the only one to benefit from such a phenomenon, placing rubber moulds under constantly flowing water until calcium carbonate deposits build up, creating ornaments and designs. They used to do domestic pets, once dead and stuffed. You would leave your dead dog there until it turned into a stone statue of itself. Sadly, they do dogs no longer: “Wasn’t very artistic,” said the lady who showed us round.
So we roamed France’s Big Country. Volcanoes continued to bulk large. At Lemptégy, quarrying had gouged out a couple of overlapping volcanoes, revealing their inner workings and geo-history. A dinky little tourist train took us into the heart of the beast. I was worried. We had, in our group, a proper vulcanologist who had climbed more volcanoes than I had heard of. Putting him on a tourist train was like booking Ronaldo for table football.
I should have realised. You don’t underestimate senior Britons. He was elegant enough not to overwhelm our young guide – though he could have – and also to claim that he had learnt a couple of new facts. Elegant modesty: it is a defining characteristic of proper coach groups. Otherwise, you are soon found out.
On other days, we bobbed to Orcival, a mountain village (population: 250). The chocolate maker – excellent visit – is opposite one of the Auvergne’s finest romanesque churches. Legend has it that the basilica’s Virgin and Child statue was sculpted by St Luke. If so, it is fortunate the evangelist was better at writing: it looks like a ventriloquist and dummy. Chains and shackles 25ft up the church’s outside wall testify to the Orcival Virgin’s other role as patron of liberated prisoners. The released lags would hang their irons up there in thanks. “Must have been damned tall prisoners,” said a chap from Kendal.
So we wove on, by way of first-rate lakes, mountains and the town of Le Mont-Dore, whose spa grafted fin-de-siècle fanciness to agricultural rootstock. Happening on the neo-Byzantine baths building was like spotting a pasha among peasants. Or King Farouk – he was a regular. The town’s weekly market indicated once again that, if you don’t like cheese, beef, ham or charcuterie, you will likely go hungry round here.
Quail in pastry was pretty good, too, eaten beside Lac Pavin, an almost perfectly circular crater lake. Pavin formed 7,000 years ago. Or was created. There had apparently been a village there but the flightiness of its women annoyed God so much that He flooded the place.
“Why is it only women who are ever called ‘flighty’?” asked a woman from Lancashire.
“Men are flighty by definition; you don’t need to specify it,” explained another woman, to about 55 per cent approval.
Group lunches and dinners favoured further exchanges. One minute you were talking to someone about horses, then to someone else about Kendal mint cake or motorbikes, Eric Morecambe, Acapulco, cattle judging, wine tasting, China, Westminster politics from the inside or any damned subject under the sun. Including Turf Moor stadium, Garstang and the Hebrides.
And Caesar’s Gallic wars. We went up to the Gergovia plateau above Clermont where, you will recall, Gallic hero Vercingetorix took on a rampant Caesar in 52BC. Despite looking like a refugee from Jefferson Airplane, Vercingetorix gave the Romans a leathering, right here, on the 175-acre plateau. A museum tells the story, or would have, had it been open. And there is not much left of the 2,000-year-old defences. But the story is good, especially when you have, unexpectedly, a Gallic wars expert on the coach, to fill in details I had missed. The views – you can pretty much see Bulgaria from here – were outstanding.
So to Vichy, famous for two things and infamous for a third. The waters, of course, have long been celebrated and (second thing) became much more so when Emperor Napoleon III and his mistress favoured the town with their weaknesses. Vichy suddenly took on belle-époque splendour. Infamy came in 1940, as Marshal Philippe Pétain set up his wartime Nazi collaborationist government in town.
His offices were in the monumental Hôtel du Parc, which still overlooks the central Parc des Sources. So was his flat, apparently now owned by fans of the war criminal, and maintained as a shrine. Vichy itself doesn’t linger much on this episode, and neither did we, given that the entire town had burst into 19th-century party mood, for a Napoleon III festival weekend.
Ladies gambolled in crinoline; blokes in frock coats and waistcoats must have been melting, for the sun was hot enough to roast birds in trees. There was dancing, riding and fellows in smart uniforms firing cannons.
“It was all so much more gracious back then,” said a lady from Lancashire.
“Maybe, but think of the dental care,” I said, as I generally do when people grow wistful for the good old days. Then we had an ice cream.
Back in Clermont, a walking tour took in the sights. This was quickly done. Clermont is among the most disarming cities in France but, sights-wise, it has a romanesque basilica, a strikingly vast black-stone cathedral, and then you are finished, free to do what you really want to do, which is join everyone else on the bar terraces of the two great central squares.
Meanwhile, on a boules terrain in front of the hotel, we held the North Country Invitation Pétanque competition. This generated some interest among locals, who had perhaps never seen 10 English-speaking couples competing in Clermont with, let’s be frank, varying degrees of skill. The winners were Tony and Eldy Rucastle from Ingleton, which I mention here because I don’t think the information has been published anywhere else.
Later, in the bar (it is a striking talent of senior Britons to get changed into posh clothes and be in the bar for the correct number of drinks before the meal) a chap from Cumbria asked: “We’ve met Napoleon III today. I know who Napoleon I was. Who was Napoleon II?”
“How long have you got?” I asked.
“Not long,” he said.
We cracked it in 45 seconds. Coach groups have a thirst for knowledge, conviviality, beauty – and concision. Stuffed cabbage, not so much.
How to do it
Leger (leger.co.uk) runs regular coach trips to the Auvergne, with seven days costing from £899pp.
If you are travelling independently, the Hôtel Littéraire Alexandre Vialatte in Clermont-Ferrand (doubles from £79, but check for early booking deals; hotelvialatte.com) provides a good and friendly base. It pays tribute to Auvergne journalist and writer Vialatte, in four-star style
Anthony Peregrine’s 2023 trip to France has yet to be finalised but will likely be in June to southern Normandy. For details, see bibbys.co.uk