I’m a sucker for a difficult hike and stunning, jaw-on-the-ground views.
I recently completed seven days of a French-English language exchange in Vichy, France with a family of four, including two young children. Vichy itself is known for its natural springs that produce sparkling water, which the city uses in various candies, medicines and soaps. So, I began writing this article about my time in Vichy.
That is, until my host family took me on a road trip to Puy de Dôme volcano near Clermont-Ferrand in the Volcans d’Auvergne Natural Regional Park. This peak, which rises to nearly 1,500 meters high, is one of the younger volcanoes in this area of Central France. It’s part of a chain, and you can observe several other smaller peaks which dot the area around Puy de Dôme when at its summit.
Clermont-Ferrand is only about 10 kilometers from Puy de Dôme. The city itself has a population of about 150,000 people, so there are plenty of hotels, hostels and other forms of accommodation. There is a train station and airport, and several shuttles at various points in the city which will take you directly to the Panoramique des Domes station (the train that snakes its way to the summit) at the base of Puy de Dôme for €1.50.
This is an area where volcanic rock is strewn along the ground, and that material has been used in one highly visible way, at least to this traveller’s inexperienced eyes. The cathedral in Clermont-Ferrand is constructed of black volcanic rock, making it a highly memorable structure. It’s quite difficult to miss a black cathedral rising above the Clermont-Ferrand skyline.
The top of Puy de Dôme features a physics laboratory, along with television and radio towers. But this spot goes back far into the pages of history, as remains of a temple dedicated to the god Mercury was discovered in 1873. Currently, a recreation of the temple is under construction.
Though I’m a hiker, I do admit that my hosts and I rode the Panoramique des Domes to the summit along with paragliders who recently landed from a flight and were eager to go up again. We only bought tickets one way, so that meant we had to hike down the mountain and back to our car. The one-way ticket cost €9.80, and the return was €12.30. That price rises to €10.40 and €13, respectively, beginning on 1 April and slightly more beginning on 15 June. You can also buy a year-long pass for €32.80.
The train runs on a 5.2-kilometer track and takes about 15 minutes to reach the top. During this time of year, the train leaves the station once per hour and that frequency increases closer to the summer.
Once at the top, the view was mind-boggling. I immediately set off for an outcrop to see the view of tiny Clermont-Ferrand in the distance, and my hosts fell back. When I hike and have these kinds of views, my mind detaches from everything around me. I see not in real time, but snapshots to be captured with a camera. So, the opportunity to catch the numerous paragliders taking off from a steep outcrop with snow-capped mountains in the background was too good to miss.
With my Pentax K-30, I actually crept closer to the paragliders, making sure not to trip on the steep grassy slope. There were many people above me standing on the flat cement pathway, but I got a thrill from getting closer. In my detached state, I only saw in potential photographs and was lucky enough to catch a quality shot.
One of my favorite things to do with a good view is to lie down in the grass and just look. No phone, no camera, no thoughts. But here, I had wandered away from my hosts looking for a quality shot. There were no people around me. It was silent, besides the wind whispering in my ear. The world was below me in progressively lighter shades of blue. I could have stayed in this spot in the grass until sunset, but my hosts would have eventually wondered where I had gone.
As we descended the volcano, I could see that the hike to the summit was brutal. There are no breaks, especially in the steep switchbacks of the final third of the climb. There was little shade. My legs soon felt wobbly from 30 minutes of hiking a steep downward slope. I had no water (something that happens to me quite a lot when hiking).
Despite all of the minor challenges, I was giddy with excitement from the views. I was like a child with a camera, getting distracted every few yards for another photograph. I was in my element, my soul free and flying high.
Once we crossed the train track, the trail slope levelled out a little bit, and the path meandered through a thicker, greener forest. It was cooler than higher up on the volcano. The whole hike back to the car took a little bit less than two hours, but we did take a couple of breaks throughout the trek.
I highly recommend a visit to Puy de Dôme, but it should ideally be done in the offseason such as in winter. Judging by the size of the car park, the volcano can become crowded at the top and along the trails in the spring and summer seasons.
Happy hiking, my fellow hikers.