To those who enjoy that ‘keenest pleasure of travel, getting off the beaten track’, Auvergne is full of charm, combining in itself every variety of scenery, from the ordinary sylvan, to wild rocky passes and ravines…
America’s “Wild West” holds a special place in the imagination. Thanks in part to the long arm of Hollywood, the phrase itself brings to the mind’s eye a range of adventurous scenes: sweeping canyonlands, boomtown saloons, gunslinging vigilantes, daring train robberies, and harrowing encounters with grizzly bears — just to name a few. There aren’t too many places in the world that can compare with the Wild West, but Auvergne — it must be emphasised — is one of them.
Not unlike America’s Great Plains, which were once stalked by a rogues’ gallery of sharpshooting bandits, old Auvergne was formerly the stomping ground of the routiers, gangs of mercenaries. From their fortified eyries high in the mountains, these heavily armed desperados swooped down on nearby villages, slaughtering anyone who had the gall to stand in their way.
Another predator that struck fear into the everyday montagnard was the wolf. In the modern age, wolves are a rare sight in the Auvergne highlands, but in earlier times — as late as the nineteenth century — they prowled the countryside in droves, terrorising rural hamlets in the dead of winter. In certain areas, the depredations of wolves were so severe that residents abandoned their homes. Municipalities reportedly became ghost towns overnight.
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Fortunately, Auvergne’s renegade wolves and routiers are a thing of the past, but for those who still want a taste of Auvergne’s Wild West, here’s a list of five things to do.
Go horse-back riding in the Sancy Mountains
Situated about 40 minutes south of Clermont-Ferrand, the Sancy mountains offer some of the most breathtaking sights in the entire department of Puy-de-Dôme. With their towering peaks, rushing waterfalls, and deep forests, the Sancy mountains bear a striking similarity to the majestic landscapes of Yellowstone National Park. The best way to get a feel for the terrain is on horseback — and there are plenty of riding groups to choose from, such as Les Galopins du Sancy, Les Ecuries De La Dordogne, and Sancy Cheval.
Hunt for amethysts in the Mines of Pégut
In many ways, the American Gold Rush — which attracted prospectors from all over the world — helped shape the no-holds-barred culture of the Old West. While Auvergne has never been known for its gold deposits, the region is rich in amethyst crystals, which have been mined in the region for over 400 years. Today some mining facilities, such as the Mines of Pégut are open to the public. Spread over almost five acres of woodland in Champagnat-le-Jeune, the mines are a family-friendly attraction that features an on-site gemstone shop and allows visitors to hunt for their own crystals.
Navigate the Gorges of Allier on a white-water raft
Rafting has a long tradition in the American West. In the nineteenth century, trappers used wooden rafts to travel speedily between trading posts. In Auvergne, white-water rafting is a key attraction of the Gorges of Allier, which are located in the department of Haute-Loire. With deep ravines and rocky, tree-lined cliffs that bring to mind the canyons of Montana and Wyoming, the Gorges are perfect place to plan a rafting adventure.
Watch bison in the Margeride
The bison is incontestably the mascot of the Wild West. These beautiful creatures, which once roamed free across America’s forests and prairielands, can still be seen up close at the European Bison Wildlife Reserve. Located on 500 acres of protected land in the Margeride, a highland district situated just across Auvergne’s southern frontier, the reserve lets guests use horse-drawn carriages – or sleighs in winter – to see Europe’s largest land mammals up close.
Drive a rail handcar in the Combrailles
Rail handcars — known as velocipedes or draisines in France — once enabled America’s railroad workers to maintain important networks of tracks across the burgeoning Western provinces. Some American pioneers, like the Mormons, also emigrated to Western outposts via handcar. Today, visitors to Auvergne’s majestic Combrailles region can rent an electric velocipede and get a unrivalled, eco-friendly look at one of the region’s engineering wonders: the Fades Viaduct. Built above the River Sioule in the 1900s, the viaduct was once the tallest bridge in the world.
Located at the main station of Les Ancizes-Comps, the Vélorail Électrique des Fades lets riders pilot their own velocipedes “over the river and through the woods” along a miles-long track that includes three tunnels.
For more tips on must-see attractions in Auvergne, click “Trip Ideas” below.