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Trip Report Cooking from a Suitcase - Notes and photos from Auvergne and Paris

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Last May my wife and I spent nearly three weeks in France, most of it in the Auvergne. Some of these notes were written when we returned, but what with one distraction or another, I have only recently pulled them together (it’s tough work being retired).

Auvergne is a beautiful region of volcanic domes and lush meadows that doesn’t seem to be as well travelled as other parts of France; these notes and photos might help anyone considering a visit to the region. I’ll cover some of the scenery, driving suggestions, Romanesque churches, the pleasures of cooking from a suitcase, and some notes on Paris.

Thanks, by the way, to all who have posted about the Auvergne in the past. There haven’t been that many, but your recollections and recommendations were very helpful.

The bones of the journey

Our route was Halifax to Paris by air, leaving on May 5, then on to Clermont-Ferrand by train (we took the Air France bus from CDG to Gare de Lyon). We stayed in Clermont-Ferrand for two nights, picked up a rented car, and moved into a house in Montaigut-le-Blanc, a small village near Issoire. Two weeks later, we returned to Paris by rail, spent four days in Paris, and flew back to Canada on May 25. As I go along I’ll put in links to our hotels, the rented house, a few restaurants, and some photographs.

Clermont-Ferrand as a starting point

We looked at a map and chose Clermont-Ferrand as our starting point. It is only three and a half hours from Paris, and there are several trains a day. We found it a welcoming city with interesting walks and a couple of architectural gems. Still a bit jet-lagged, we wandered through the Marché Saint-Pierre for a taste of the Auvergne (cheese, local produce, freshwater fish, and all parts of the pig were on display) and lingered at the Fontaine d’Amboise, a Renaissance fantasy constructed of the distinctive black Volvic lava that is so common in the area.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption towers over the city. Begun in 1248, it was only completed in the late 19th century under the hands of Violett-le-Duc, the military architect who supervised the restoration of Carcassonne and parts of Notre-Dame in Paris. The church maintained a remarkable consistency of Gothic style despite its centuries of construction. It is all the more striking for being built entirely of the black stone.

But it was the nearby Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port that was our main reason for scheduling a day in Clermont-Ferrand. Small, dark, and somber, its solid and comforting Romanesque embrace is a sharp contrast to the tall thin walls, soaring ceilings, and huge windows of the neighbouring Gothic cathedral. The basilica is one of five unique churches within an hour’s drive of Clermont-Ferrand. I’ll describe them a bit more in a later post.

We stayed at Dav’Hôtel, a short walk from Place Jaude. Our room was cheerful, comfortable, and quiet. The staff were extremely helpful, particularly the young woman who helped us track our errant luggage (it had decided to stay in Montreal) and who spoke to the airline about delivery arrangements. (Dav’Hôtel, 10 rue des Minimes, 04 73 93 31 49, www.davhotel.fr)

We ate dinner at Le Château Chardonnay, a wine bar close by the cathedral. Michelin says it has “regional dishes, delectable and copious,” which we can confirm. It was lively on a Friday night. An animated party of chic young women chatted near the bar, families and young couples crowded in, and there was soon a buzz of conversation and a haze of cigarette smoke. (There is a non-smoking room at the back of the restaurant.) My wife had a lentil salad, with pied de cauchon and cantal, one of the region’s justly famous cheeses. I chose saumon mariné, which was intensely flavoured with lemon and mustard. We followed with rabbit in a mustard cream sauce and escalope de veau panné—seared, almost blackened, and subtly seasoned. Our waiter suggested aligot, a regional dish of potatoes, cheese, and garlic, which was delicious. (Restaurant Le Château Chardonnay, 1 place Phillipe-Marcombes, tel: 04 73 90 18 28)

Next: the rented house

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