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The Puy de Dôme: A Mystical Olympus in Auvergne

In the minds of the mythographers of ancient Greece, Mount Olympus was the home of the gods. Frequently covered in clouds and snow, it was wild and inaccessible — a constant reminder of the elemental nature of Zeus and his fellow immortals. 

A similar and perhaps more numinous mountain exists in the Auvergne highlands: the puy de Dôme. Standing over 1,460 metres high, it is without a doubt the Olympus of Auvergne — if not all of France. Visible from all corners of Clermont-Ferrand and its surrounding villages, it exerts a hulking omnipresence, towering like a mythic titan over the countryside and linking earth to the cloud-obscured heavens above.

The history of the puy de Dôme stretches back to Earth’s earliest ages, when the region now known as Auvergne was a hellscape, a primeval district ravaged by earthquakes, lightning, fire, and ice. This was the heyday of the mountain’s dragon days, when it spewed lava and ash, scorching everything in sight and in the process reshaping the land in its own image.

These cataclysmic powers faded over millennia and the puy de Dôme — like all elderly volcanoes — faded into dormancy. But the ancients, struck by the mountain’s transcendental beauty (and perhaps atavistically aware of its latent potency) would not let the monarch relinquish its crown. In the 2nd century AD, the Gallo-Romans — whose society was centred around what is now Clermont-Ferrand — adorned the puy de Dôme’s lofty summit with a massive temple.

Dedicated to the regional god “Mercurius Dumias”, the vast Temple of Mercury complex was comprised of marble, mosaic, and trachtye — as well as other local materials. According to Gregory of Tours, the sacred site was destroyed by marauding forces in the 3rd century. Centuries afterwards, Christians reassembled parts of its ruins to make a chapel, and it was this space that reportedly went on to play host to a world-famous witches’ sabbath.

In his 1597 book L’Antichrist, Florimond de Remond, a French magistrate published claims by an Auvergnate woman accused of witchcraft. Among other things, the woman asserted that sixty witches held meetings on the summit of the puy de Dôme every Wednesday and Friday night. In 1598, Pierre Aubeptit, another alleged sorcerer, also alleged that he had attended ceremonies on the puy de Dôme with other witches along with the Devil himself. Legend has it that these rites endured well beyond the Renaissance era. In 1857, for example, the French historian and writer Lambert-Élisabeth d’Aubert, count of Résie, wrote that “witches and wizards” still assembled on the mountain “to this day”.

Are these strange gatherings still taking place? To find out one must, of course, go and see for himself.

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Go and See

Today the puy de Dôme – part of the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d’Auvergne (The Regional Natural Park of the Auvergne Volcanoes) is a national treasure. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2018, the entire volcano is accessible to the public. And while visitors are forbidden from exploring the ruins of the old Temple of Mercury, they are free to view the building’s outer court and walls, minor relics of the puy de Dôme’s mystic past. 

Ascending the mountain by foot takes roughly 45 minutes via the popular Chemin des muletiers path. Those preferring a more streamlined experience can also hitch a ride on The Panoramique des Dômes, a train that snakes up the summit in a mere 15 minutes. Descending the mountain is also straightforward — unless one chooses to emulate the puy’s notorious witches. Daredevils can take to the air and fly under the supervision of one of the region’s many paragliding companies. Perhaps this is the best way to connect with the mountains sublime history: soaring through the heavens while taking in the smiling countryside below.

For more information on Auvergne landmarks, click “Trip Ideas” below below.