About Central France: the northern Massif
The Massif Central, the vast granite plateau at the centre of France, is sometimes referred to as la France profonde. It is the heartland of France, isolated and rugged, steeped in tradition, and long ignored by both politicians and tourists alike. On the plus side it’s mostly industry free, but this is reflected in its status as one of the poorest areas of the country. Times are changing, however, and the growth of cities such as Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand, which has depopulated many of the tiny villages, has also improved communications links.
The locals take a cautious attitude to visitors. They have had the sense to preserve tracts of the most beautiful and inaccessible landscapes in the form of national parks, notably the marvellous Pare Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, which lies in a region of extinct volcanoes west of Clermont-Ferrand – see Highspots of the Auvergne.
This section covers the best places to visit in the northern part of the Massif Central, and incorporates the old province of Berry, one of the richest and most important regions of France during the Middle Ages. Bourges is its historic capital, with a fine cathedral and streets of Renaissance mansions. To the north, Orléans was the capital of the country under the old royal dynasty of Capet, and scene of Joan of Arc’s victory over the English, the turning point in the Anglo-French Hundred Years War. Numerous small châteaux, many of which are still privately-owned and inhabited, dot the countryside along the Route Jacques Coeur, and make a pleasant change from the echoing glories of the Loire Valley.
Between Paris and Clermont-Ferrand, the A10 and A71 autoroutes cut a swift path via Orléans and Bourges. Main roads, such as the N20/N144/N9 parallel the autoroute, but it is more fun to zig-zag about, taking in part of the Route Jacques Coeur around Bourges, and the spa town of Vichy. Or meander along the Loire between Orléans and Gien. The watery Sologne region was the childhood home and inspiration of novelist Alain Fournier; and there is another literary association at Nohant, where George Sand had a country retreat.
Frequent daily train services between Paris and Clermont-Ferrand make connections for Orléans, Bourges and MontluÍµcon. Orléans offers regular bus and train services to Sully-sur-Loire and Gien; Riom and Vichy are easily reached from Clermont-Ferrand.