The unexplored French heartland of Auvergne offers Europe's most breathtaking scenery. With spa towns, medieval hamlets and history on every corner, this remarkable region is waiting to be discovered
Mention France to the majority of British tourists and Paris, the Riviera and the Alps automatically spring to mind. Chances are the undiscovered gem of Auvergne will languish near the bottom of the list. And to be honest I'd never heard of this spectacular part of central France before heading there.
A swift and scenic three-hour train ride from the centre of Paris, Auvergne comprises of four distinct regions – Allier, Puy-De-Dome, Cantal and Haute-Loire. It offers an endless choice of pleasures and pursuits, from horse riding, handgliding, climbing, walking and mountain biking to the less outdoorsy spas, restaurants and museums.
I'm no ballet buff, but just couldn't resist a trip to the newly-established National Stage Costume Centre in the historic town of Moulins in the Allier region. It has dedicated an exhibition to renowned dancer and choreographer Rudolph Nuyerev, exploring his career through photos, films and hundreds of lavish costumes. I was incredibly impressed with the exhibition's content and Mr Nuyerev's fascinating life story.
The town of Moulins dates back to 990AD and it was the capital of the Bourbonnaise region in the 15th century. It is also home to the art nouveau Grand Café – a beautiful building serving fabulous food, where a young Coco Chanel used to dance on the tables.
The reasonably-priced four-star Clos De Bourgogne Hotel is just a short walk away from the centre of town. Prices range from £70 to £140 a night - and the food is not to be missed!
My trip to Auvergne was one of firsts. I had never been horseriding. I had always wanted to but the nearest I'd got was a short trot on a donkey on a beach, aged eight. This lack of experience proved no problem for the friendly staff at the Rocs de la Serre riding centre in Begues. They found me their shortest, fattest pony and giggled as I perched on top of it - looking terrified.
Fortunately our ride through the beautiful hills, valleys and forests was a gentle experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was the perfect way to see France’s finest countryside.
For more adventurous souls, Auvergne offers a wealth of outdoor activities. We tried mountain biking from the historic town of Riom in the Puy-De-Dome region, winding our way to the forested Mirabel plateau. We then descended through rugged terrain through the pretty village of Marsat.
Another hidden gem of the region is the medieval hamlet of Charroux, officially designated as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Visitors can walk its cobbled streets, enjoy a fantastic meal at La Ferme Saint Sebastien and enjoy its sculpted facades and magnificent clock gate from the comfort of a horse-drawn carriage.
One of the greatest attractions of Auvergne, unsurprisingly, is its unspoilt natural beauty. The area of Puy-De-Dome is home to a 1,465-metre dormant volcano bearing the same name. From the summit visitors can walk, paraglide and admire the Chaine Du Puys – a magnificent range of 80 volcanos.
The hotel that greeted me on my return from an active day simply took my breath away. The imposing Chateau De La Caniere, just outside Thuret in the Puy-De-Dome region. The building, which has a history to match its grandeur, recently acquired its fourth star. And well-deserved it is too. Prices range from £126 to £345 per night.
It would be a fussy traveller who didn’t find something to savour in the elegant spa town of Vichy. The town, a Nazi stronghold that housed the German secret police in the second world war, offers the ultimate in thermal spas as well as stunning bars and elegant boutiques. Visitors can even view the former headquarters of the secret police – the House of Gestapo – in Boulevard des Etats Unis.
Top off a day of stunning sightseeing at the Sofitel Thalassa Hotel. Delicious food, gorgeous surroundings and a direct link to Vichy Spa Cente - what more could you want? Prices start at £115 a night.
Auvergne is just waiting to be discovered by British tourists. I cannot wait to return for a longer holiday.