It all began with my first visit in 2014 to this region. First stop was the beautiful Vichy, in the heavenly Auvergne region with its formidable volcanic chains known as Chaine des Puys (hikers heaven). Famous for its beautiful Art Deco architecture, healing volcanic source water, and Spas. I found this region to be void of typical tourist, with authentic charming villages and people, great opportunity to immerse in the French culture, learn the language and relax, hence three visits to Vichy in the last three years!
Massif Central has breathtaking landscape, covering regions of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Rhone-Auvergne, and parts of Midi-Pyrenees (Occitanie). If you are open for an adventure, here is a list of my favorite places in the Massif Central, smaller towns and villages are my personal preference.
Where to start – Vichy
Vichy! Maybe you have heard of Vichy skin care products, or heard of the town of Vichy from WW II history, or you heard of it because Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps preferred Vichy’s pool over any other place in the world for his golden practice! Either way, today Vichy is known as a French national treasure and for its relaxing small town atmosphere, stunning Art Deco architecture, friendly people, fantastic luxury SPAs (the Celestine), its colorful indoor Farmer’s Market, and its healing volcanic source water.
Only 2 plus hours from Paris via SNCF train, you can get around Vichy on foot. Relax, drink the water and watch your skin glow in just a few days!!! The Allier, water front river, offers wonderful jogging, walking, boating, golfing to its visitors. I walked every day and shed all the fat I gained from the daily buttery croissants and all the glasses of wine!
- You can’t possibly go to Vichy and miss the Thermal Spas- I love the Celestine, because it is modern but still gives you the feel of old charm. If you spend about 60 or 70 Euros you can have a 1/2 day access to all the amenities of the spa like the pool, steam room and more. so book a massage, facial etc. and enjoy the Celestine. Try the Hotel’s restaurant for sample of healthy and delicious food for around 30 euros.
- The indoor food market at end of the town offers the best produce, meat, and wine.
- Restaurant Cave A Vin with its old charm stone interior, excellent fresh daily menu, delicious Île Flottante(see recipes) made on site, and friendly owners is a must. Located on Rue Marechal Foch
- Coiffure (just that – ask for Mdm Francine) and Mode Hair are next to each other and charge less than 20 Euros for shampoo and blow dry. Both located on Place de la source d’ Hopital. TChip is also a reliable place
- Monoprix is an excellent place to buy your groceries and all daily needs. Located on 17 Rue George Clemenceau.
- at 82 Rue de Paris, you will find a very local favorite restaurant of L’Escagrot qui Tette! Just 3 minutes walk from the Gare du Vichy.
- Check out the beautiful Art Deco buildings throughout the town including the Gare.Or book a train or walking tour with the city’s office of tourism.
If you spend 4 or 5 days in Vichy you can see the beautiful countryside and surrounding towns including:
- Moulins Just a 35 minutes drive or train ride, where you can see the charming town with 11 centuries of history, visit the grand Cathedral of Notre-Dame et Sacre-Coeur, a fifteenth century (late Gothic) beauty that towers over the town. Be sure to do the guided tour of the 3 panel wooden painting of the “Vierge de l’Apocalypse”. Also, do visit the Grand Café , where Coco Chanel used to sing while going to fashion school, the food is really good too! Finally, explore the beautiful Museum of Costumes, Centre national du costume de scène et de la scénographie, on the other side of the Allier river.
- If you decide you love this town and want to stay overnight, search on Airbnb for inexpensive lovely apartments.
- Montpeyroux – you will fall in love with this charming 11th century village with breathtaking view of the pay-du-dome and the heavenly food from Zen BistroZen Bistro (owned by the famous Iron Chef Finale, Cyril Zen)!!! Worth your time and the 45 minutes drive from Vichy. Sorry no buses or public transportation. Park in the marked areas and walk. If you want to eat lunch at Zen Bistro get there before 1:30, the food is heavenly!
- Lapalisse a tiny little town with a beautiful castle that is worth the visit. The chateaux hosts a 60’s car show in October!
- Clermont-Ferrand the capital of Auvergne and the home of Michelin tires! YOU must see the jaw dropping black lava stone Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption de Clermont-Ferrand. It is a gothic cathedral and a French national monument! I only spent an afternoon there and wondered around the main square. Personally, I like small town and villages vs. big cities, but the view from the very top of the cathedral is worth the 350+ spiral stairway steps.
How to get there?
Option 1 – From Paris, you can take the SNCF train for around 30 Euros each way. If you plan to travel with Train, I suggest that you sign-up for their news letter to get the best deals in advance..I like to take SNCF and TGV, so the EuroRail passes do not work well for me. if you are going to make France your only destination SNCF and TGV are good ways to travel.
Option 2– You can also rent a car and drive down to Vichy, two and half hour drive, the road is flat with beautiful countryside. You can take the Auto route (like a freeway, marked as A on the map) or the what is known as National route (marked as N on the map with 4 lanes) or the country roads (2 lanes and marked as D on the map). Be sure to get a Michelin yellow map as the French roads are always FULL of detours.
Central parts of Limoges & Midi-Pyrenees
With the beautiful rive Dordonge snaking around this area of Missif Central, you are treated to flat lands, mountains, and lime stone rocks of the Midi-Pyrenees. The Camino de Santiago walk for the French is marked througout this region. The serenity, beauty, historical caves, age, the amazing pilgrimage site , number of medieval chateaux and the less traveled path by the tourist is what I found to be so attractive.
Beau-lieu sur Dordogne
A small quaint village with its large squares, bridges and beautiful views of the river Dordogne. Beau-lieu sur Dordogne means the beautiful place on the river Dordogne, and indeed it is beautiful. A great place to stop overnight or stay a few days if you like to kayak, hike, fish near the Dordogne. My visits have been short, but my memories are found. I love the trees surrounding the river giving it the illusion of rich mysterious forest green color. The cathedral Saint Pierre is worth your time and so is the quaint town square with its surrounding hotels and restaurants.
Beau-lieu sur Dordogne is a friendly town and on your way to Gouffre de Padirac, definitely worth a stop.
Gouffre de Padirac
One of the national treasures of France, and often unknown to the tourists who come to see France by only visiting Paris or and surroundings, Gouffre de Pardirac is one of the worlds wondrous places. You will be amazed by this magical cave and the tenacious geologist that discovered and opened it to the world to see in the late 1800’s.
The chasm is visited by the French and some tourists from around the world, but definitely not a “touristy” place.
The best way to get there is simply with a car as the drive is beautiful. If you need to go with a tour, just click here to get guidance directly from the Gouffre.
- When you go down 115 feet under the earth it is cold, so bring a sweatshirt or jacket. The boat ride, included in the price, is the only way to go around the 325 feet chasm.
- Be sure to tip the guide, they do a great job. The Gouffre takes a photo of you while on the boat, since photography isn’t permitted in the Gouffre, so it may be worth paying 9 or 10 euros for your souvenir photo.
Coming Summer of 2017
Named as one of the most beautiful villages in France, Rocamadour is a national heritage and a pilgrimage site for all the French Catholics. The history and stories are rich and entertaining, but the town is an amazing natural architecture. Build on massive rock, Rocamadour today is filled with tourists from all over France and the world. It is worth seeing, focus on the town, the natural surroundings, and only stop for the essentials, while ignoring all the zillions of shops around you. More on Rocamadour.
- The climb to the sanctuary is steep and can be avoided by paying about 3-5 euros and using the village elevator!
- Don’t miss out on the famous and delicious Rocamadour Goat Cheese, most of the stores are good, but my favorite is the first store passed the Golden Lion Hotel (same side, can’t remember the name!).
- Remember that this region is famous for it Fois Gras (luxury goose or duck pate) and Truffe du Perigord (Truffles). My favorite place to buy high quality Fois Gras .
- Rocamadour is known for its leather and a visit to La Licorne Botique is another must, they will custom fit your belt and you get to pick the buckle!