When I found out I would be moving to Clermont-Ferrand my first thought was “where?”. At this point I probably should have known the answer, given I put the city down as one of my chosen destinations for my first semester abroad, but the last-minute nature of my form-filling (30 minutes before the deadline) meant that my research had consisted of a quick google, seeing it had a nice-looking cathedral and confidently placing it in the “second-choice” box. Honestly, the positioning of Clermont-Ferrand on this application form sums up my initial mindset; it seemed like a solid option, but understanding was limited. This slight scepticism about the city was exacerbated by the response of the French (Parisian) people I asked about the city: “If you like rugby and tyres, you will like Clermont-Ferrand”. Unfortunately, I was not well-versed in either area, so I began my stay in Clermont-Ferrand with a curiosity (and slight apprehension) about what was in store for me.
Fast-forward four months and my stay was coming to an end and my goodbyes turned out to be much harder than expected. I discovered in Clermont-Ferrand a city that is rich in culture, geographically beautiful and made up of diverse communities tied together by an inherent French-ness. Forget Toulouse, Paris and Bordeaux; here are 5 reasons why Clermont-Ferrand is the hidden gem of France.
- Enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the Puys mountains
Clermont-Ferrand, situated in the centre of France with a population of around 150,000, is surrounded by the volcanic Chaîne des Puys mountains, where you can hike while admiring breath-taking views of the city. The mountains are even host to a marathon in November and the Auvergne is a popular spot to ski in the winter months.
2. Eat well
The Michelin Engineering Company, founded in Clermont-Ferrand, also established the prestigious Michelin guide and Clermont-Ferrand, as a result, is scattered with numerous spots to eat exquisite French food. The traditional cuisine of the Auvergne region is cream, cheese and potatoes, and, unlike the Durham college dining halls, the Clermontois cook these simple ingredients to culinary perfection. A classic is the Truffade, which uses local Cantal cheese and potatoes to make a melty carb-loaded heaven. Clermont-Ferrand also offers an extensive choice of international dishes, from a creamy carbonara at “Le Venetien”, to a spicy Bo-Bun at Vietnamese “Le Tonkinoise.” Whatever your dietary desires, Clermont-Ferrand can probably meet them.
To quench your thirst Clermont-Ferrand boasts a great (and affordable!) selection of bars. Unlike the €14 fortunes that I find myself spending on pints in Paris, the €4 Clermontois pints in the city-centre won’t break the bank.
3. Discover Art and Architecture on foot
Whether you’re tempted by Martin Parr at the Hotel Fontfreyde Photographic Centre (a converted Renaissance townhouse) or Gustave Doré at the Musée d’art Roger Quilliot, Clermont-Ferrand has a lot to offer. In ‘FRAC’ you can browse the work of local artists, and the international ‘Festival du Court-Métrage’ (short-film festival) takes place in Clermont-Ferrand each February. The Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption Cathedral, constructed from lava stone, is a Gothic masterpiece at the heart of the city, surrounded by winding streets of independent galleries, boutiques and quaint cafés perfect for a Sunday afternoon. Just a stone’s throw away is the equally impressive Romanesque Basilica of Notre-Dame du Port.
4. Meet the locals: Clermontois proud to be Clermontois
During my stay in Clermont-Ferrand, local markets, wine-tasting and watching famous Clermont rugby team ASM at the ‘Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin’ were great opportunities to meet local people and improve my French. Since Clermont-Ferrand doesn’t have the tourist label that some French cities carry, you will be exposed to an arguably more quintessential French experience, while many of the people you meet have grown up in either Clermont-Ferrand or the surrounding towns.
Michelin’s headquarters still reside in Clermont-Ferrand, where they employ nearly 1000 people, and the company is still largely owned by the Michelin family themselves, with one of the Michelins even working in its HR department; perhaps if you call the French HQ Monsieur Michelin himself might pick up.
5. Find yourself somewhere well-connected and outward-looking
Clermont-Ferrand is quite literally in the middle of France, and, with its own airport and train station, the rest of the country and beyond are easily accessible. Lyon is just a €5.99 FlixBus (a coach company and your best friend for travelling around Europe) away if you’re looking for a big-city experience. The presence of the Université Clermont Auvergne and Michelin – who have offices and factories all over the world – means that Clermont-Ferrand is noticeably diverse for its humble size.
During my 4 months there Clermont-Ferrand became home, and it’s safe to say that I left this city with it placed firmly in the first-choice box. It’s a beautiful city with so much to explore and I promise that you are by no stretch obliged to love tyres or rugby to love Clermont-Ferrand.
Photographs: Amana Moore