Flying south from Paris Orly Airport revealed thousands of square miles of flat farmland with sparse tracts of managed forests in the French countryside. There are many geographical regions in France with many different kinds of topography and climates. The flight distance is 206 miles from Paris Orly to Clermont-Ferrand in a slightly southeast direction. About 50 miles north of Clermont-Ferrand the landscape changes from flat farmland to hills.
France is 50% larger than California, the 3rd largest state and about 25% smaller than Texas, the 2nd largest state. Clermont-Ferrand is in the Auvergne region, one of 27 administrative regions in France. Auvergne is known for its mountain ranges and dormant volcanoes with the last eruption about 6,000 years ago. The rounded hilltops from these volcanoes are known as Puys. The tallest volcanoe is Puy de Dôme at 1,465 m or 4,806 ft. Puy de Dôme can be seen from Clermont-Ferrand.
Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne Airport with Puy de Dôme in the background.
Holiday Inn Clermont Ferrand on PointBreaks
I had never heard of Clermont-Ferrand until the last IHG Rewards Club PointBreaks list came out in August. When I decided to take up the American Airlines Executive Platinum fast-track challenge through flying 30,000 EQM by October 9, 2015, I purchased my initial tickets for three round trips between California and Scandinavia on July 27. I structured the trip to allow seven nights in Europe on trip 1, five nights on trip 2 and seven nights on trip 3. Since staying in Norway and Denmark would be quite expensive for hotels and I have visited those two countries in the past year, my plan was to see what hotels came up on IHG PointBreaks and try and plan my stays in Europe around cheap hotel nights. That is what brought me to Clermont-Ferrand. It sounded like one of the more interesting locations of the PointBreaks hotels in Europe and the hotel is located in the city center.
A reader last month, upon learning my reasoning for coming to Clermont-Ferrand solely for a cheap hotel described the city as the ‘armpit of France’. As a Californian I know some real armpit towns and some are pretty close to my ‘damn near paradise’ hometown of Monterey. The scenic setting alone excludes Clermont-Ferrand from my definition of an ‘armpit city’. To continue with metaphors, if Clermont-Ferrand is an ‘armpit’ place, it certainly is not Gerard Depardieu’s armpit. Audrey Tautou (The Da Vinci Code) is from the Auvergne area and she is a good metaphoric representation of perfectly pleasant French armpits to get tangled up with for a few days.
First impressions of Clermont-Ferrand
Transportation from the airport cost 2€ for the train and I was at the city train station within 30 minutes of stepping outside the airport. City trams are modern and cheap at 1.50€ as the full ticket price and the line covers about 18 kilometers through the valley. Day passes and a variety of ticket options reduce the price even more if you plan to use the tram frequently.
Holiday Inn Clermont Ferrand is across the street from a beautiful city park Jardin Lecoq. The residential population of Clermont-Ferrand is about 140,000 and this is a university city with around 35,000 students. There is a youthful vitality to the place. The female population exceeds males by about 12%. That is a ratio I enjoy seeing.
Jardin Lecoq, Clermont-Ferrand
In contrast to Paris, I have not seen anyone sleeping on the streets in this city. Clermont-Ferrand strikes me as authentic France with few tourists interfering with the ambience. I have seen perhaps five people with cameras snapping photos. I have heard one American voice since I arrived and she seemed to be a business woman discussing business matters. I feel like I am immersed in authentic France with people going about their day-to-day business and routines. Tour buses on the streets? None that I have seen.
This city has history. The city had a population estimated around 20,000 in Roman Gaul some 1,800 years ago, making it one of the largest ancient centers of civilization in France. Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in a speech made in Clermont in 1095.
Pope Urban II, a native of France (1042-1099; Pope 1088-1099).
Basilica de Notre Dame du Port is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This church from the 11th-12th century replaced a church from the 6th century founded by the Bishop of Clermont, St. Avitas.
Clermont-Ferrand is a multicultural city.
And this town rocks. I have not seen so many record stores and music shops in years. There is something retro about the place. Vinyl records are all around.
I truly feel like I have found myself in the center of real French living with authentic experiences. This is far removed from the Paris experiences I have had in the past 15 years. One of the reasons I wanted to come to this area is good memories from when my family made a road trip from Mainz, Germany through the region on our way to Barcelona, Spain in 1975. We remember that trip through rural France as a laid back time, in contrast to the high intensity of Paris.
For me, culture is found in the experience of children fascinated with a big dog, a father playing peek-a-boo with his barely walking infant on the porch of a closed bank after dinner, a group of college students playing cards on the grass in the park, and the number of locals who have stopped to stand in the spot I occupied a moment before looking in the direction to view the imagery I photographed a few seconds before. I think I am also helping some locals see Clermont-Ferrand with fresh eyes.
Clermont Ferrand is a beautiful and meaningful experience for me. The fact that the sun has been out all day long really helps brighten my spirit after the rough trip to rainy Norway a couple weeks ago.
I’ve seen evidence for at least one Californian already with deep roots here in Clermont-Ferrand.
Giant Sequoia tree in Jardin Lecoq Clermont-Ferrand is definitely a native Californian transplant to the Auvergne region of central France.
Tomorrow I will see if I can get my feet on top of a volcano.