It had been almost a month that I finished my work projects. After two weeks of dealing with french paperwork and another two weeks of looking for a new project, I was saturated.
Everyone who is looking for a new passion would understand that it is frustrating. Passing your time at home in front of your screen, you have all the time in the world but at the same time you don’t have time at all.
I needed to take a break.
While the eve is celebrated in the US as Halloween on 31 October- and now France, who got more and more Americanized and capitalized – , France celebrate the all Saints’ day (Toussaint) on 1 November. The Mexican’s dia de muertos has now been associated with this holiday as well. It was holiday and we decided to go to Clermont-Ferrand.
In the first part of the story I will focus on what I did inside Clermont-Ferrand and later on the second part I will write about what we can do around Clermont-Ferrand by public transportation (amusement park, volcanoes and hiking).
Clermont-Ferrand may not be too famous but it’s not that unknown either. It is located in the center of France; at the south of Paris, west of Lyon, and north-west of Grenoble. Despite its relative proximity from Grenoble, where I live, I had never visited this city. I first knew this city from my friends who took their french lesson in Vichy; a smaller city on the north of Clermont-Ferrand.
Clermont-Ferrand is located in the new Auvergne – Rhône-Alpes region (after the territorial reform in late 2014). It was the capital of Auvergne before fusioning with Rhône-Alpes.
I was excited because Clermont-Ferrand is also located in the massif Central. Out of the five main mountain chains in France, massif Central with the Pyrénées were the only two that I had never been to. Also, if Grenoble has the Alps, Clermont-Ferrand has volcanoes!
The only problem was to find a place to stay. Finding cheap hotel during holidays is never easy, regardless your destination. After booked a hotel, cancelled it, booked an airbnb room, cancelled it, I finally booked a hotel-apartment that could not be cancelled, to find out that leaving luggage was not possible. So… hiking backpack it is!
On the road..
The trip was planned for four days from saturday to tuesday during the Toussaint holidays. It was the first time that I tried travelling by bus. I usually go by train for short distance trip but with the tickets that became more expensive, cheap bus was a really good alternative.
There are many cheap bus options in France, some of them are flixbus, isilines, and ouigo. Of course you can also take the car sharing option, but the idea of having to talk to strangers terrifies me. We booked seats from Flixbus that has a direct trip from Grenoble to Clermont-Ferrand; 22€ for a return trip. By direct I mean that we don’t have to change bus, but obviously there are stops around the way. In fact the whole trip was Grenoble to Nantes with stops at Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand, Bourges, Tours, and Angers. This is more logic than to take a centralized railway system in France (sometimes you need to pass by Paris and change train to go to your destination). I might be wrong but I have a feeling that this cheap bus culture came from Megabus in the US.
Saturday morning, the bus was supposed to leave Grenoble at 9h in the morning. The bus arrived ten minutes prior the scheduled time. Considering how great, French, at queueing, people were pushing each other to get inside the bus. Well, I’d been trained in Jakarta, so it was nothing.
The bus was new, the seats were clean. They had wi-fi inside the bus that actually works (I took the airport shuttle from Geneva once that supposed to have wifi but it didn’t work), and power plug on each seats row. The driver was particularly funny and nice for that trip.
It was autumn, the weather was mild cold. The sky was concrete grey with some rays of sun piercing here and there, shining the leaves and made them golden.
Leaving Lyon it started to rain and the bus stuck in a traffic jam. The driver made a joke on how all Lyonnaise, on a saturday morning, always go to mont d’or. On the road the driver acted like a tour guide. He explained us that the name mont d’or (golden mountain) came from the golden color of the rocks found on the area and are used as a construction material in the region. Passing through A89 highway he explained about the bat tunnel near Balbigny. This bat tunnel was built to avoid the crash between bats and vehicles passing the highway. When he explained this I could not stop thinking of Batman. In addition, he told us that the highway we were on was the highest highway in France until the famous Millau highway was built not long ago.
We finally arrived at 13h15 at Salin bus station, just at the south limit of the city center. Everything except eating places was closed before re-opened at 14h. Now, everything in Clermont-Ferrand has a very unusual, at least for me. Most of the places close on sunday and monday. Most of the places close between 12 to 14h. Some places close at 17h or 18h. There, you have been warned.
So Clermont-Ferrand is in fact a fusion of two cities: Clermont and Montferrand (duh!). They were united in 1630 and it was the capital of Auvergne region before the fusion. If we see Auvergne before the fusion, it had four departments: Allier, Haute-Loire, Puy-de-Dôme, and Cantal. The Haute-Loire department is passed by the Loire river, close to its source in Ardèche. The regional natural park of Volcanoes of Auvergne spans vertically from Puy-de-Dôme, where Clermont-Ferrand is, to Cantal.
During my stay, Clermont was definitely where everything is going. Heading north from the bus stop, I was welcomed by two face-to-face shopping centre just in Place de Jaude with a tram line cutting the two malls. The Jaude square is huge and is a limited pedestrian zone. At the north end, we can find the statue of the Vercingétorix, the chief who united Gallic tribes and beat Ceasar. At the north-west end of the square, there stood the Saint-Pierre church.
On the south-west of the city center a rather spacious Lecoq garden could be found. For me this was a good place to rest, to calm a bit in the nature with some geese, a pond, and also equipped with free wi-fi. Well the whole city of Clermont-Ferrand was covered with wi-fi network.
Since it’s located in volcanoes region, the topography of the city is like a small dome with the highest point at the center. This is why the train station is actually located quite far from the city center, similar to Saint-Emilion. We ascended straight to the center where the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Assomption was, at the end of Place de la Victoire. This gothic cathédrale was built from XIII to XVIII century. It has a really high ceiling and it was huge inside. There was option to climb up the tower but it was closed during our visit.
Close to the cathedral, there was the Saint-Pierre market. It should have the local products but during our four days visit, it was close (remember what I said about the hours).
Another impressive structure is the roman Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port built in the XII century. This church is on the UNESCO world heritage list. The size is smaller than the cathedral, but I like the architectural and the warmth of this church.
While admiring the basilique I accidentally step on dog poo. It always amazes me how on this developed country people don’t pick up their dog’s poo from the street. While looking for something to clean my left shoe.. I step on another poo, this time on my right shoe.. How lucky..
With the three days stay that we had, we got the 72hours Clermont-Ferrand pass that cost 18€ from the tourist office located at the other end of Place de la Victoire. With this pass, we got to use the public transport for 72hours including the shuttle bus and the panoramic train at the Puy-de-Dôme, Aventure Michelin entry, one of the three museums (Art, natural history, and archeological), and other reductions.
We chose to go to the Art museum (Musée d’Art Roger Quilliot – MARQ). This museum is located in the Montferrand side unlike the other two museums. I adore this museum. Normally when I go to an art museum I would have a hard time to connect but on this museum, the level were separated by the period so you would start from the gothic part (XI to XII century), then evolved slightly to roman period then the influence of church come into artworks, and then evolved until modern work we have nowadays. The collection was not too big so that confuse you but it was enough for you to actually be satisfied.
From this museum we roamed around Montferrand side, which is more more quiet than Clermont. I only found some crowd around place de la fontaine.
There were three big names in Clermont-Ferrand history that you would see everywhere in the city: Vercingétorix, Pope Urbain II, and Blaise Pascal. But if there should be one additional name, it would be the Michelin brothers.
Clermont side and Montferrand side were separated by Michelin industry, and they also occupy an important percentage of Montferrand side. That’s perhaps why I felt that the Montferrand side was more quiet and more industrial (if that make sense).
Before arriving to the Michelin site (industry and museum), we were greeted by the huge Michelin stade where the ASM, a relatively strong and well-known rugby team from Clermon-Ferrand, homebase was.
To understand more about the importance of Michelin for Clermont-Ferrand, it was worth it to experience l’Aventure Michelin, a sort of museum dedicated to the work of Michelin brothers. For those who are not familiar, Michelin is a french tire manufacture based in Clermont-Ferrand. They developed the rubber tire that changed the world of vehicles. Michelin is also known for their travel guides, road maps, and of course the famous Michelin star restaurants.
In front of the site, the biggest tire in the world was displayed to welcome the visitors. Entering the core of the site we were welcomed by a Michelin man water jet, previously installed in the public pool in the city. The history began on how the Michelin brothers took over their family company and how the brothers developed the rubber tire.
Then the story continued when they applied for the first time their tire on a bicycle and took part in a biking race from Paris to Brest, which they won. This was also the origin of the famous french dessert Paris-Brest.
My knowledge of Michelin brothers was initiated when I came to study in Paris. Inside the hall of my school they put a huge banner of André Michelin, one of the brothers, who did his engineering study there. Hence, reading the story of the brothers definitely gave me a proud feeling to be in the same alma mater with one of the brothers.
The story continued with their development in cars, trains, and airplanes tires. They developed also the road signs and also roadmaps and travel guides.
The site put importance on the marketing of the brand with the Michelin man, or Bibendum in french. This funny white balloon-ey man has definitely became an easily recognized icon nowadays.
The visit finished with explanations on their future developments, one of them being the tire used for rovers to explore the moon.
What to eat?
Foods from Auvergne region are really really good. During my stay I went to a restaurant that proposed real regional menu. The restaurant called “le kitchen” and located not far from the cathedral. There was another restaurant just beside the cathedral but it was fully booked when we got there. It was our faults since it was saturday night and we didn’t book any place to eat. Even in the place we ate, we were lucky to get the last seats available without reservation.
We all got Salade Auvergnate for starter, a green salad with cantal cheese, a slice of ham, and garlic croutons. We all liked it since it was tasty and more than anything light enough so that we were not full for the main dish.
We again all got truffade for our main dish. So truffade is another version of tartiflette if you are familiar with it. Basically they are potatoes, onions, bacon, and melted cheese. In truffade they use cantal cheese. I loved my truffade especially because the croutes (the hard skin of the cheese) were well-gratined that they became crunchy.
For dessert I got myself a pompe aux pommes (it’s funny when you pronounce it rapidly in french, it sounds like pom pom pom). Pompe aux pommes is basically an apple tourte pie. In France, there are two types of pie: tarte if the pie is not covered by another layer of crust, and tourte if the pie is covered by another layer of crust. The apple had been caramelized before put inside the crust. The tourte then served with two sauces, vanilla and raspberry sauce. It was heaven..
Other than that, the region is also specialized on cheese. Some of them are Bleu d’Auvergne, la fourme d’Ambert (both are two of my favorite cheeses, especially when they have a lot of blue-green mold on it, yummm), le cantal, and le saint nectaire. We wanted to buy them during our stay, but unfortunately with their strange rhythm, all the fromagerie/cheese stores were close during our visit.
+ Auvergne, le guide du routarde edition 2011