A Motor-Flight Through France

by Edith Wharton

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Chapter VI - In Auvergne

AT last we were really in Auvergne. On our balcony at Royat, just under the flank of the Puy de Dôme, we found ourselves in close communion with its tossed heights, its black towns, its threatening castles. And Royat itself—even the dull new watering-place quarter—is extremely characteristic of the region: hanging in a cleft of the great volcanic upheaval, with hotels, villas, gardens, vineyards clutching precariously at every ledge and fissure, as though just arrested in their descent on the roofs of Clermont.

As a watering-place Royat is not an ornamental specimen of its class; and it has the farther disadvantage of being connected with Clermont by a long dusty suburb, noisy with tram-cars; but as a centre for excursions it offers its good hotels and "modern conveniences" at the precise spot most favourable to the motorist, who may radiate from it upon almost every centre of interest in Auvergne, and return at night to digestible food and clean beds—two requisites for which, in central France, one is often doomed to pine.

Auvergne, one of the most interesting, and hitherto almost the least known, of the old French provinces, offers two distinct and equally striking sides to the appreciative traveller: on the one hand, its remarkably individual church architecture, and on the other, the no less personal character of its landscape. Almost all its towns are distinguished by one of those ancient swarthy churches, with western narthex, great central tower, and curious incrustations of polychrome lava, which marked, in Auvergne, as strongly distinctive an architectural impulse as flowered, on a vastly larger scale, and a century or more later, in the Gothic of the Ile de France. And the towns surrounding these churches, on the crest or flank of one of the volcanic eminences springing from the plain—the towns themselves, with their narrow perpendicular streets and tall black houses, are so darkly individual, so plainly akin to the fierce predatory castles on the neighbouring hills, that one is arrested at every turn by the desire to follow up the obscure threads of history connecting them with this little-known portion of the rich French past.

But to the traveller restricted by time, the other side of the picture—its background, rather, of tormented blue peaks and wide-spread forest—which must assert itself, at all seasons, quite as distinctively as the historic and architectural character of the towns, is likely, in May, to carry off the victory. We had come, at any rate, with the modest purpose of taking a mere bird's-eye view of the region, such a flight across the scene as draws one back, later, to brood and hover; and our sight of the landscape from the Royat balcony confirmed us in the resolve to throw as sweeping a glance as possible, and defer the study of details to our next—our already-projected!—visit.

The following morning, therefore, we set out early for the heart of the Monts Dore. Our road carried us southward, along a series of ridges above the wide Allier vale, and then up and down, over wild volcanic hills, now densely wooded, now desolately bare. We were on the road to Issoire and La Chaise Dieu, two of the most notable old towns of southern Auvergne; but, in pursuit of scenery, we reluctantly turned off at the village of Coudes, at the mouth of a lateral valley, and struck up toward the western passes which lead to the Pic de Sancy.

Some miles up this valley, which follows the capricious windings of the Couzes, lie the baths of Saint Nectaire-le-Bas, romantically planted in a narrow defile, beneath the pyramidal Romanesque church which the higher-lying original village lifts up on a steep splinter of rock. The landscape beyond Saint Nectaire grows more rugged and Alpine in character: the pastures have a Swiss look, and the shaggy mountain-sides are clothed with a northern growth of beech and pine. Presently, at a turn of the road, we came on the little crater-lake of Chambon, its vivid blueness set in the greenest of meadows, and overhung by the dark basalt cliff which carries on its summit the fortified castle of Murols. The situation of Murols, lifted on its shaft of rock above that lonely upland valley, is in itself impressive enough to bring out the full value of such romantic suggestions as it has to offer; and the monument is worthy of its site. It is in fact a very noble ruin, raising its central keep above two outer circuits of battered masonry, the ampler and later of which shows the classical pilasters and large fenestration of what must have been one of the stateliest specimens of the last stage of French feudal architecture. Though the guide-books record a mention of Murols as early as the thirteenth century, the castle now standing is all of later date, and the great rectangular exterior is an interesting example of the transitional period when Italian palace architecture began to be grafted on the rugged stock of French military construction.

Just beyond the lake of Chambon the road begins to mount the long curves of the Col de Diane, the pass which leads over into the valley of Mont Dore. As we rose through bleak meadows and patches of scant woodland, the mountains of Auvergne unrolled themselves to the east in one of those lonely tossing expanses of summit and ridge and chasm that suggest the mysterious undulations of some uninhabited planet. Though the Col de Diane is not a high pass, it gives, from its yoke, a strangely memorable impression of distance and mystery; partly, perhaps, because in that desert region there is neither village nor house to break the labyrinth of peaks; but chiefly because of the convulsed outlines into which they have been tossed by subterranean fires.

A cold wind swept the top of the pass, and snow still lay under the rocks by the roadside; so that it was cheering to the spirits, as well as to the eye, when we presently began our descent through dark pine forests into the vale of the Dordogne. The baths of Mont Dore lie directly beneath the pass, at the mouth of a valley hollowed out of the side of the Pic de Sancy, the highest peak in Auvergne. In spite of milder air and bright spring foliage we were still distinctly in high places; and Mont Dore itself, not yet decked for the entertainment of its bathers, had the poverty-stricken look which everywhere marks the real mountain village. Later, no doubt, when its hotels are open, and its scanty gardens in bloom, it takes on a thin veneer of frivolity; but it must always be an austere-looking village, with its ill-kept cobble-stone streets, and gaunt stone houses grouped against a background of Alpine pastures. We were not sorry, therefore, that its few restaurants presented barred shutters to our mid-day hunger, and that we were obliged to follow the first footsteps of the infant Dordogne down the valley to the lower-lying baths of Bourboule.

The Dordogne is a child of lusty growth, and at its very leap from the cradle, under the Pic de Sancy, it rolls a fine brown torrent beneath steeply wooded banks. Its course led us rapidly down the mountain glen to the amiable but somewhat characterless little watering-place of La Bourboule, set in a depression of the hills, with a background of slopes which, in summer, might offer fairly pleasant walks between one's douches; and here, at a fresh white hotel with an affable landlady, we lunched on trout that must have leapt straight from the Dordogne into the frying-pan.

After luncheon we once more took our way along the lively curves of the river; to part with them at last, reluctantly, a few miles down the valley, and strike out across a dull plateau to the mountain town of Laqueille—a gaunt wind-beaten place, with nothing of note to offer except its splendid view from the dizzy verge of a high cornice which overhangs the valley running south from the chain of the Dôme. Beyond Laqueille, again, we began to descend by long windings; and at last, turning off from the direct road to Royat, we engaged ourselves in a series of wooded gorges, in search of the remote village of Orcival.

The church of Orcival is one of the most noted of that strange group of Auvergnat churches which some students of French Romanesque are disposed to attribute, not only to one brief period of time, but to the hand of one architect; so closely are they allied, not alone in plan and construction, but in their peculiar and original decorative details. We had resolved, therefore, not to return to Royat without a sight of Orcival; and spite of the misleading directions plentifully bestowed on us by the way, and resulting in endless doublings through narrow lonely glens, we finally came, in the neck of the last and narrowest, upon a huddled group of stone roofs with a church rising nobly above them.

Here it was at last—and our first glance told us how well worth the search we had made for it. But a second made evident the disturbing fact that a cattle-fair was going on in the village; and though this is not an unusual event in French towns, or one calculated, in general, to interfere with the movements of the sightseer, we soon saw that, owing to the peculiar position of Orcival, which is jammed into the head of its glen as tightly as a cork in a bottle, the occupation of the square about the church formed a complete check to circulation.

And the square was fully occupied: it presented, as we descended on it, an agitated surface of blue human backs, and dun and white bovine ones, so closely and inextricably mixed that any impact from without merely sent a wave across the mass, without making the slightest break in its substance. On its edge, therefore, we halted; the church, with its beautiful rounded chevet and central pyramid-tower, islanded a few yards away across a horned sea which divided it from us as hopelessly as Egypt from Israel; and the waves of the sea setting toward us with somewhat threatening intent at the least sign of our attempting to cross it. There was therefore nothing to be done but to own ourselves intruders, and defer a sight of Orcival till our next visit; and with much backing and wriggling, and some unfavourable comment on the part of the opposition, we effected a crestfallen exit from that interesting but inhospitable village.

The road thence to Royat climbs over the long Col de Ceyssat, close under the southern side of the Puy de Dôme, and we looked up longingly at the bare top of the mountain, yearning to try the ascent, but fearing that our "horse-power" was not pitched to such heights. That adventure too was therefore deferred till our next visit, which every renunciation of the kind was helping to bring nearer and make more inevitable; and we pushed on to Royat across the plain of Laschamp, noted in the records of motoring as the starting-point of the perilous circuit d'Auvergne.

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