The next destination on my Dog-friendly France road trip was the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes – a travel destination seemingly reserved for serious Francophiles. It’s an extraordinary and prosperous region untouched by the ravages of modern tourism, offering dramatic elevated landscapes of high hills and plateaus, enchanting medieval hilltop towns, deep valleys, endless vineyards, protected national parks where lynx, wolves, chamois and ibex roam, wide alpine lakes and seriously high mountains, the magnificent Mount Blanc being one of them. Its capital Lyon is the sophisticated second city of France and its towns and villages offer stone-built houses, Romanesque churches, and a rustic, peaceful and admirably preserved way of life.
The arguably even more unspoilt region of Auvergne has been tagged onto the Rhone-Alpes since 2016 and this area is built on a series of extinct volcanoes (no less than 80 to be more precise) with the mighty Puy de Dôme being the most famous. A region as yet mostly undiscovered by the British, I must admit I couldn’t help but feel a little smug when I drove around the Auvergne-Rhone Alpes for a whole week, just me and my dog Rosa, without seeing a single other GB badge.
France has savvily classified its most attractive villages as Les-plus-beaux-villages-de-France (or ‘the most beautiful village of France’ in English) and my tour of Auvergne-Rhone Alpes started with one of the finest villages in this collection – the medieval hilltop village of Pérouges. Perched high upon a hill, untouched by time and encased in an impenetrable stone fortress wall, its uneven cobblestoned streets – where rich merchants once roamed – wind through narrow alleys and open out onto wide squares. During the day the beautiful historic treasure is filled with tourists, perusing its tasteful medieval-themed shops or dining at one of the many fine eateries on offer.
As evening fell the crowds dispersed and my furry travelling companion and I were left to our overnight stay in Hostellerie du Vieux Pérouges (pictured above). A hotel quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, it’s housed in the most beautiful patrician house in the village with a garden overlooking serene and beguiling countryside and in the house, a narrow winding stone staircase leads to richly decorated medieval style rooms featuring four-poster beds, antique furniture and marble bathrooms.
The next day I was back on the road and continued to explore more beautiful villages of France, managing to squeeze a visit to not one but two highly regarded hilltop towns, Oingt and Theize, before lunch. Both have medieval origins, are encircled by vineyards as far as the eye can see and populated with a small collection of honey-coloured houses and public buildings (built from the stone unique to this area).
Stopping at a cafe in Oingt to take in the panoramic vista of the beautiful Pays Beaujolais region, I logged on to update my social media and safely connected with the aid of the VPN service F-Secure FREEDOME (which I was trialling on this trip). Securely encrypting all my communications when using public WiFi, it’s a service I’ll definitely be using from now as it averts any scary cybercrime attempts while on the road – an essential nowadays!
After an hour’s drive winding along vineyard-lined roads I reached Mont Brouilly and the Beaujolais Global Geopark which has just gained a new UNESCO status. Beaujolais is one of the most well-known wines in the world but fine wine aside, there are plenty of other treasures to unearth in this unique corner of France, including an exceptional geological diversity that has been shaped over nearly 500 million years (hence the world heritage site status), diverse bird and wildlife to spot, hikes to trail and miles of unspoilt scenery to gaze at.
Juxtaposed with the traditional vineyards and rustic ambience of this part of France are the collection of upscale boutique hotels and restaurants often housed in former stone farmhouses. For example, my hotel for the evening was the Hotel Le Savigny a former winery comprising of three stone buildings turned swish boutique hotel with decor that combined French-country with stylishly quirky details. During the evening I dined on inventive French cuisine at the La Benoite Restaurant a rustic/contemporary hotel restaurant which was also owned by the Savigny’s hotel manager. This area of France is refined, elegant and completely devoid of the tourist masses which has sadly spoilt other areas of Europe and I was completely enchanted by it!
The next day I set off to explore the neighbouring region of Auvergne and my first stop was one of its most famous attractions the Puy de Dome which peaks at 1,465 meters high – here visitors can reach the site by rack railway, or if they’re feeling energetic by foot. One of the most unique places to stay in the area was to be my home for the night, the extraordinary Volca Lodges, built amongst a series of long-defunct volcanoes. It was easily one of the best ‘glamping’ I’ve ever experienced, the small and cute wooden eco-lodges perfectly balanced a back-to-nature experience with environmentally-friendly modern comforts – and that’s no mean feat! They also combine this with private hot tubs on the lodge’s terrace (mine looked out onto a deep yellow-flower lined volcanic valley), a stylishly decorated stone vaulted restaurant/bar, a welcoming service and even a couple of friendly resident goats.
My final ‘beaux-villages-de-France’ on this trip was one that is just as famous for its mustard than it is for its beauty. Rivalling the much bigger town of Dijon, the Moutarde de Charroux has legions of fans around the world including many top chefs. The fortified town is also beautifully preserved and filled with carved stone facades dating from the 15th to 18th centuries, a remarkably well preserved 14th century corbelled, half-timbered house, a number of quirky guest houses and boutique and artisan food shops galore. Visitors come from miles to see local craftsman keeping the traditional way of making food alive, as well as buy and dine on artisan food produce (head to the Vintage Palette tearoom to sample their delicious vegan quiche made from the village’s very own mustard).
The spa town Vichy is another Auvergne treasure and it was my final stop on my tour. Filled with baths, casinos and an opera house, its curative sulphurous springs once drew thousands of visitors to the town – a place which was the height of fashion from the 1880s to the 1940s. Almost like a healthy Las Vegas.
Today visitors are drawn here by its extraordinary mix of Art Noveau, Neoclassical, Belle Epoque and Art Deco architecture and it’s also having something of a fashionable renaissance – its healing waters are now attracting a fitness-conscious and spa-loving crowd. One of the best places to worship at the wellbeing alter, is the prestigious Thermal Spa which belongs to (and is connected by a covered walkway) to the Vichy Célestins Spa Hotel, a refined 5-star hotel which enjoys a very privileged central position close to Lake Allier. Spanning an impressive 7,500 m2, the spa is truly exceptional and has even been recognized as the most beautiful “Destination Spa” of Europe (in the World Spa Awards).
With my dog Rosa discovering a new nomadic spirit and me fast on my way to becoming a die-hard Francophile, I knew it was going to be a tough call to prise myself away from this refined, dreamy and elegant world and begin my journey back to the UK…
For further information on the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region please visit www.en.auvergnerhonealpes-tourisme.com.
For further information on the F-Secure FREEDOME VPN service I used on this trip follow this link.