When you think of volcanic landscapes, is your mind is drawn to the barren, rocky, and dark moonscapes of Iceland, Hawaii or Lanzarote? Well, in the volcanic regions of Central France, a different kind of geology awaits.
With over one thousand volcanoes lying forgotten, dormant or extinct, what was once a volcanic hotbed is now a verdant, agricultural panorama in Auvergne; an area that’s probably more heavily populated by cows than people. These old inactive volcanoes make up the Chaîne des Puys, a chain of cinder cones and lava domes in the Massif Central region that runs from north to south.
Our journey revolved around the places we wanted to photograph, while keeping an element of randomness and surprises along the route. The Auvergne isn’t exactly a typical bikepacking destination, as we mainly met cattle and tractors on these seven days of adventure rather than hoards of tourists or other riders.
It seemed like there was much to be discovered in this area all too often forgotten, much like the volcanoes that lay beneath. We set off to explore with our bikes, cameras, a tent, and a knife; an essential accessory for sampling the plentiful Auvergne cheeses.
The volcanoes of the Auvergne make for a wonderful playground, wild, rustic and rough. Mostly empty too, and the roads that weave in and around them were completely ours. They don’t come for free though, as your legs pay the price for incessant climbing – but rewards await with stunning views on the summits. Not to mention that you can recompense yourself with the delicious local cheeses, such as Cantal, Saint-Nectaire, Bleu d’Auvergne, Fourme d’Ambert or Salers. Oh, and the Côtes d’Auvergne wines.
The passage from one region to another was observed by the change in the breed of cattle, which graze peacefully on the grassy plateaus. The first to be encountered were the hazelnut-colored Limousin, replaced by the rustic dark mahogany colored Salers in the Monts du Cantal. Finally, in the Cézallier, we met with the Aubrac cattle. They are the most beautiful, with their large black-rimmed eyes as if drawn with khol that contrast to their fair, tawny coat.
Some of the traditional villages here were built in basalt, a dark lava stone, creating a very unique atmosphere. Thick walls were built to withstand the harsh winters. Each time we reached one of these villages, usually after a long climb, it felt like entering a settlement straight out of the middle ages.
One of the most fascinating was Murat, a fortified city built in a basin against monumental boulders. Wandering through Murat, between ancient stone buildings and small stores that have kept the same design for centuries felt very surreal.
We were riding at the beginning of August, but it felt more like October: wet and chilly. Even the locals found the weather exceptional, and not in a good way. In the small village of Marcenat, we came across the one and only café for several dozen kilometers, untouched from its original decor from the 1950s. The owner predicted that with the incoming new moon, the temperatures should rise. Unfortunately, their prophecy didn’t come true.
There is of course a silver lining to every life situation: there’s nothing worse for taking pictures than the big blue sky of midsummer. And, in all honesty, we were truly spoiled: gray clouds, wet roads, and rain jackets flying in the wind added an epic touch to each shot.
Combining biking and photography is one of my favorite activities these days. It conveys a feeling of discovery and exploration, and I am constantly in awe. The tempo is quite different when you’re on the bike taking pictures. You cannot be in a rush; you need time to appreciate the surroundings, to witness the rays of light passing through the branches, to admire the fluorescent green color of the delicate moss in a forest, to wait for the perfect positioning of a fellow rider on a long descent.
It drives my road or trail companions crazy. The rhythm becomes very chill, stopping way too often, as soon as there’s a good viewpoint or when you gleam an incredible light that will disappear in an instant. You have to forget about the schedule; with a route simply meandering between some points of interest you’d heard of or noticed on digital maps rather than trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible.
The highlight of our trip was the ascent of Puy Mary, one of the highest peaks of the Monts du Cantal culminating at 1,783 meters above sea level. We’d started climbing in intermittent rain, up the Col de Serre leading to Le Puy. “You won’t see anything up there today,” the locals warned. “The summit is in the clouds”.
Heeding their advice, we branched off and took a slightly downward sloping road of several tens of kilometers which joins the village of Dienne. The panorama here was sublime, with verdant mountains unfolding before us along an invisible line that seemed to follow our route. The golden-colored ponies watching us in a grassy field couldn’t be more appropriate to complete the picture-perfect postcard.
The following day we rode through Allanche, the last village before the long climb to Cézallier, a high volcanic plateau nestled in the middle of dormant volcanoes.
This must be one of cycling’s best-kept secrets. An empty, expansive road stretched out before us, lined with rolling meadows, perfect grazing for the many herds of Salers who summer up there. Next to the fields, peat bogs and moorland yielded colorful heather and deep azure gentians.
This may have been Central France, but we found ourselves dreaming of the wild steppes of Mongolia, punctuated only by burons, the traditional shepherd’s huts made of stone.
The sun finally made a return for our last day, just as we dropped down out of the volcanic mountains to a rich, fertile agricultural plain to the north. Perhaps the café owner in Marcenat’s moon theory was right, after all.
This article is part of a sponsored partnership with Komoot. We’ll always disclose when content is sponsored to ensure our journalistic integrity. Written and photographed by Sophie Gateau. Edited by Katherine Moore