The great French thinker and philosopher Blaise Pascal so loved the Auvergne 'that he had himself born there'. Bibby's have left it a bit later to bring their own thinkers and philosophers to the region in south-central France, but there's a good chance we'll fall for the place in much the same way.
The Auvergne is the region covering the Massif Central - manageable mountains wild and impressive enough for most tastes but more rounded and marginally less threatening than the Alps or Pyrenees. Great swathes of upland forest, pasture and lakes ensure grandiose horizons before tumbling into spa towns whose raffish gentility has barely faded since the Belle Epoque. Villages folded into the landscape run to the rural certainties of an earlier age, when no-one had a smartphone, few had cars and, if you were going quicker than the cattle, you were going too fast. Food usually comes in tasty heaps rather than prissy quarter-platefuls and, in village cafes, mojitos are things that the lady of the house sprays against.
Perhaps the most dramatic elements of our district are the Auvergne volcanoes, 80 of them, running roughly north-south over about 40 miles. These are volcanoes which actually look like volcanoes - mainly conical with craters at the top - and, as mountains go, are relatively recent: the last one erupted into existence just 7000 years ago, which is last night in geological terms. There's no other similar collection anywhere in Europe, and we'll get a chance to get in among them.
We'll be based in regional capital Clermont-Ferrand, a surprisingly big city in very rustic surroundings. Clermont is the historical HQ of Michelin tyres - at one time, almost everybody worked in the tyre factories, and a lot still do. It also has an honourable earlier history. Near here, Julius Caesar's legions were given a good hiding by Vercingetorix, the legendary Gallic leader in 52BC. Clermont was also the spot where the First Crusade was launched in 1092. Its religious heritage is strong, and its rugby union heritage pretty impressive, too. Rugby fans will know Clermont as one of the leading club sides in France.
All in all then, there's a lot to discover - and, we hope, to enjoy - in a region of France which, because relatively unknown (compared to, say, Provence or Brittany), is generally surprised, then delighted, to welcome foreign visitors.
CURRENCY - Currency required for this tour will be the Euro.
PASSPORT REQUIRED - We require full christian names, date of birth, passport number, country of issue & expiry date. Please have these details ready when booking.
TRAVEL INSURANCE - Required.
The 3 star Best Western Hotel La Metairie is in the quiet village of Gosnay, a short drive from Calais. All bedrooms are en suite with TV, telephone, hairdryer, minibar and Wi-Fi. The hotel has a restaurant, bar and garden terrace. There is no lift, most bedrooms are on the ground or first floor.
The 4 star Best Western Plus Hotel Litteraire Alexandres Vialatte boasts a superb position in the centre of the city of Clermont Ferrand with a breath-taking view of the cathedral, Notre Dame du Port basilica and the Chaine des Puys. All of the modern air-conditioned bedrooms offer en suite facilities with TV, telephone, hairdryer, safe, minibar and Wi-Fi. Relax in the 6th floor terrace that offers a 180° view of the city. There is a lift.
Early departure to Dover for the afternoon ferry crossing to Calais. We transfer into Northern France and the village of Gosnay, for overnight bed and breakfast accommodation at the Best Western Hotel La Metairie.
We continue our journey through France to the capital of the Auvergne region, Clermont Ferrand. We check in for 6 nights half board accommodation at the Best Western Plus Hotel Litteraire Alexandre Vialatte. Our tour will be accompanied by the renowned travel writer Anthony Peregrine, who will join us in Clermont Ferrand for the duration of our stay.
We kick off with a very short drive out of Clermont-Ferrand and up to the Gergovie plateau - where Gallic hero Vercingetorix held off the Roman legions of Julius Caesar. It’s a short but dramatic introduction to the region. We then return to Clermont centre for a brief walking tour of the city centre, to get our bearings. Anthony will lead us from the hotel up to the city centre. In distance, it's not very far at all, but it's quite a steep walk, so we'll take our time - stopping here and there, and topping out by the cathedral. The fact that it's black doesn't mean it's dirty; black is simply the colour of the volcanic stone from which it's built. There'll then be free time and a free lunch before a return to the hotel for another very short coach ride across town to the Michelin Museum, which is a brilliant and contemporary evocation not only of tyres but of all sorts of transport, including planes. Even non-motor fans should be interested. There is also a good section on the world-famous Michelin Guide to gastronomy - first brought out by the company in order to get people motoring around the country, motorists to whom they could then flog more tyres.
Volcano day. We head into the hills for what is, at more than 4800 feet, France's highest volcano, the Puy de Dome. It's extinct now but the volcano chain itself is merely dormant. Another volcano could blast through the earth's surface at any moment. We'll take the recently-completed electric rack railway to the top - this works well for people whose mountaineering needs are fulfilled by stepping onto a train - for a visit, including the Roman temple up there, a little museum, utterly arresting top-of-the-world views and then a three-course lunch, wine and coffee in the superbly-sited summit restaurant. Later we'll track down again for the coach ride to the nearby Lamptegy volcano which, for decades, was quarried for pozzolana (more popularly known, I fear, as 'slag'). The quarrying, now over, has revealed all the different geological layers - which we'll tour in a little train, before a couple of short, sharp and rather dramatic volcanic 'experiences'.
Busy day today. We have a lovely trip into the hills, stopping at the village of Orcival, whose very famous Romanesque chapel is typical of the region - and contains a Virgin and Child statue allegedly sculpted by Saint Luke. It is a spot of serious pilgrimage. While half the group tour church and village, the other half will visit one of the region's leading chocolate makers - Auvergne is famously good at satisfying the sweet-toothed. The two groups will then switch over, before we travel on to St Nectaire - a spa village nestling in folds in the mountains. But St Nectaire is best-known for having given its name to one of the region's finest cheeses -so we'll travel up into the landscape to a farm, to discover the cheese-making and then have a what should be a sustaining farmhouse lunch, wine and coffee. After lunch, we shall visit the on-site caves which have served as quarries, troglodyte housing, refuges and much else besides. These days, they are where the farm-made cheeses mature. A film and 3D photos recount the 1000-year of the caves, including the secret of Abbot Dubois, who hid out here during the French Revolution. The Auvergne pretty much runs on cheese - it has five appellation cheeses (ie, cheeses thought to be so good that they warrant a quality label similar to those which distinguish good wines) so it's vital that we get this proper look at it. Back down in the village are the Fontaines Petrifiantes. The valley water round here is so hard that anything placed under s steady stream eventually petrifies. The Papon family have been benefitting from this underground spring and waterfall for almost 200 years to make sculptures and art objects. You can also have your pet done - as long as it's dead and stuffed. (On my last visit, a pheasant was being petrified.) We'll tour the premises, before driving back to Clermont.
A gentler day today. We ride up into the mountains, taking in lakes and other beauty spots before a traditional lunch in the hill village of Besse. In the afternoon, a short drive will bring us to medieval Montpeyroux, one of the most beautiful villages in France. What should be an earlyish return to the hotel will allow time for further exploration of Clermont or, if the weather's fit and for those who fancy it, a further round of the peerless Bibby's French boules competition. There's a pitch right by the hotel.
To Vichy. A little over an hour's drive from Clermont-Ferrand, Vichy is famous for three things. Firstly, it is France's best-known spa town, and has been since the Romans. Secondly, and because of its renown as a spa, it was a magnet for fashionable people from the end of the 19th-century and into the 20th - the Belle Epoque end beyond. From the Emperor Napoleon III down, everyone who was anyone came to take the waters here, then eat the mints, gamble, gambol and generally make merry. Elegance became its calling card, with buildings of Parisian sumptuousness, and both standards and scandals also of Parisian intensity. The third element of Vichy's renown was, of course, its role as capital of collaborationist France during the Second World War. This was the HQ of the government of Marechal Petain. We will have a guided tour of the town, covering all these elements - a chance to discover that the town retains its rakish refinement. A chance also to learn some of the darker tales of wartime Vichy. Later we shall lunch together in the town's casino, before free time to benefit from what remains perhaps the best shopping centre we'll meet on this trip.
We bid farewell to Anthony and re-trace our steps through France, returning to the village of Gosnay, for overnight bed and breakfast accommodation at the Best Western Hotel La Metairie.
We depart after breakfast and travel to Calais for the short ferry crossing to Dover. Arrive home mid-evening.
6 nights dinner, bed & breakfast, 2 nights bed & breakfast (overnight hotel) plus 4 lunches (as stated in the itinerary), Luxury coach travel with on-board toilet & facilities, Return ferry travel, Services of experienced tour driver, Services of excellent guide/travel writer in Auvergne.
EXCURSIONS - entry to the Michelin Museum, Lemptegy quarry/volcano, Orcival church and chocolate maker, cave visit, Fontaines Petrifiantes, guided tour of Vichy.
Please note: This is quite a demanding tour with several visits on foot and is therefore not suitable for people who have mobility issues.
DEPOSIT: £80.00 per person
Single supplement: £300.00