26 July 2013

Walking the Volcano - 7 days in the Cantal

The Cantal is a department of the Auvergne region in south-central France. It's one of the country's most sparsely populated departments and is known primarily for its high-mountain pasturelands where farmers graze their cattle during the summer months.

These mountains are the remnants of one of Europe's largest volcanoes, stretching an impressive 70 kilometers in diameter. Active until only a few million years ago, what first catches the eye when you visit the Cantal are the many peaks thrusting nearly 2,000 meters into the air, and the barreled out valleys typical of an eroded, post ice-age landscape. If you're up for a walking challenge, the Cantal might be that next perfect destination.

For our walking tour, we chose to follow the GR 400. The first GR (grand randonée or long distance footpath) was established in 1947 in Orléans and was about 30 kilometers long. Today there are about 180,000 kilometers of signposted footpaths crossing the country in all directions. Some of the more mythic trails take walkers through the Alps, the Pyrénées and across the island of Corsica. Another, known as GR 70 or the "Stevenson Trail", follows the 12 day, 220-kilometer trek Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson made with his donkey in 1878.

The village of Murat.
One of the many trailheads of the GR 400 can be found in the village of Murat, about 100 kilometers south of the city of Clermont-Ferrand. Walking east, you quickly leave Murat's 900-meter altitude and head into higher country. With the exception of the first night, where we camped out on the cold and windy Rombière Pass, we slept in Bed & Breakfasts located in villages roughly seven hours' waking distance apart.

One way to walk the GR 400 is simply to do a seven or eight day loop, beginning and ending in Murat. But one of the advantages of this path is that it also offers several variations that allow you to create your own circuit for shorter day hikes (better if you don't fancy carrying too much weight) or to hook up with other paths that cross through the region, such as the GR 4.

Approaching the Rombière Pass (1, 550 m) - 1st night.

A herd of Salers - buron d'Eylac (1, 423 m)
One of the particularities of crossing the Cantal on foot is that it takes you through one pasture after another, and that means cows - most commonly the reddish-brown or pitch black Salers. If you're not used to being in such close proximity to cows with really beautiful but dangerously sharp looking horns, walking through a herd of them while they're grazing (or sitting!) directly on the path can be a bit intimidating, especially if there's a bull or two around. But all the locals we consulted said not to worry, that we'd be perfectly fine, as long as we didn't have a dog with us, because dogs and bovine aggressiveness don't mix well. That didn't stop us from detouring off the path from time to time to admire them from a more comfortable distance.

Day 3 - descending into La Falgoux.
If you're doing the Cantal volcano, you're either walking up one peak, or down another; with the exception of certain ridge lines, there's very little flat land here. We very quickly fell into a routine, albeit a slow one, of climbing for three or four hours, reaching the peak or pass, stopping for lunch, then crossing into another valley before walking back down again. You don't need to be an expert walker, but it helps if you are somewhat in shape before attempting the walk all in one go.

When you live in a city it's sometimes easy to forget that quiet, wide open spaces like this
still exist. It is possible to walk for miles and hear nothing but the rustle of grass bending in the wind or cow bells ringing up lazily from distant valleys below. You will see other walkers, though, rambling by on their own itinerary, but even they disappear quickly enough, leaving the mountain silence to fill up the space once again.

Signpost with typical GR "balisage", the red and white stripes that tell you
you're on the right path.

In the afternoon of our second-to-last day in the Cantal, we reached the highest point of the entire department, the Plomb du Cantal (1, 855 m). At the top you are greeted with sweeping views in all directions of the other volcanic peaks and verdant valleys that make up this unique mountain range.

To complete the loop from here, it's all downhill, literally, for more than 950 meters or 3,000 feet. Stay overnight at the B&B at the Col de Prat-Bouc and your final day of the GR 400 is an easy, four hour walk back to Murat.

To find out more

highpointholidays - This link provides a geologic description of the Cantal.

cantaltourism - To find out more about what to do and where to go in the Cantal.

ffrandonnee - The official site for the French "hiking club" responsible for maintaining the long distance walking paths and developing la randonée pédestre as a sportive activity. Here you can also find paper and electronic copies of the topo guides for all the signposted GRs throughout France, including the Cantal's GR 400.

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