Unspoilt serenity in hidden France

By Peter Bills

Superb meals and historic works abound in a remarkably peaceful region, writes Peter Bills.

The town of Le Puy-en-Velay occupies an imposing hilltop site. Photo / Supplied
The town of Le Puy-en-Velay occupies an imposing hilltop site. Photo / Supplied

Try to conceive a land of complete tranquillity, where you can walk all day over fields and through woods without meeting a single person; an area where you can find comfortable accommodation and superb regional food at prices you thought had gone forever.

And try to imagine that this is in modern-day, overpopulated Europe; in France, to be precise.

The great migration south of tourists and residents in a French summer is a sight to behold. Trains heading to the Mediterranean are packed, and the roads jammed with holidaymakers. Yet in this stampede, almost every single one of them rushes past one of the loveliest regions of France.

The area to the northwest of industrial Saint Etienne, a little further up the motorway from Lyon, is strictly unfashionable. The beautiful people who flock to the beaches of the Mediterranean, intent on getting a tan, wouldn't know about this area.

Yet if you want natural beauty, isolation and a glimpse of the real France, this part of the country offers myriad treasures.

Here you can find country walks, activities such as horse-riding and golf, meals in local inns, a taste of fine cheeses from the region, and take a quiet break. For all this and more, this region of the Haute Loire and Auvergne is hard to beat. There are all manner of charming villages here in what is mostly farming country. I stopped at the Auberge Lou Pinatout in tiny Solignac and found stunning value for money.

In places like this, Madame cooks for pride in entertaining her guests, not profit. She offers a set menu, not a la carte, but it is no worse for that. We started with four aperitifs and then a kebab of mussels, deep-fried. The main course was slices of roasted local pork with a prune sauce and vegetables. A plate of six different cheeses followed, and dessert was a sabayon of summer fruit.

With the half-litre carafe of wine consumed, it seemed a good idea to wash down this feast with glasses of calvados. The cost for four people? Just €68 ($118).

Le Puy is the biggest town of the area and has much history. Aristocratic military officer Lafayette was born nearby, many of the old kings of France came here and Charlemagne visited twice. The town was a bishopric in medieval times and was also a starting point for pilgrims making the 1600km trek to Santiago de Compostela.

At its heart is an imposing cathedral which dates back to the early 1100s. Its Romanesque porch is superb and the bronze statue of the Virgin Mary, which overlooks the town, was made from Russian cannons taken in the siege of Sevastopol in 1854-55.

If you get tired of soaking up the peace and quiet, you could take lunch in one of the town's delightful squares or explore lace-making, the main local craft.

Not far away is Polignac, where a particularly tasty cheese is made. The small, 1000-year-old town of Craponne-sur-Arzon, slightly less than an hour away, has nice cafes and shops. Each year, it hosts a country-and-western music festival which attracts up to 35,000 visitors from many corners of the world.

It also has stunning pine forests with spectacular views of the Velay and Ardeche mountains.

If you want a taste of the old France, the real France, go there soon. Doubtless, it won't remain as unspoilt forever.

Further information: See ot-lepuyenvelay.fr.

Peter Bills made his own way to the Haute Loire and Auvergne.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 02 Sep 2014 02:01:34 Processing Time: 833ms