The reputation of the south-central French region of the Auvergne is wild rural countryside, wide-open spaces, extinct volcanoes, cattle, and peace and quiet. The Auvergne sits atop the Massif Central (Central Highlands) of France.
Our good friends Jef and Val invited us to join them for a weekend in the village of Les Estables, in the Haute Loire part of the Auvergne. Les Estables is about a 4.5 hour drive from Carcassonne.
From the autoroute, it took about an hour along hairpin mountain roads to reach Les Estables. At the final turn, the high valley that holds the village opened before us. Les Estables is the highest village in the Massif Central, with an elevation of about 1350 m / 4400 ft.
The population of Les Estables most of the year is less than 500 people. In summer, some visitors come to hike in the forests and fields. In winter, many more people come for the skiing. Behind and above the village, the lifts take skiers to the top of Mont d’Alambre. Its peak’s elevation is 1691 m / 5550 ft. We stuck our heads in a ski equipment shop and noticed that a day’s lift ticket cost only about 15€. A day’s lift ticket at an inexpensive ski resort in the Alps is about 60€. So skiing in the Massif Central is a great deal, and much less crowded than in the Alps.
The Massif Central was formed by volcanoes and tectonic uplift eons ago. The heritage of that formation is a landscape full of volcanic rocks. These rocks form the walls and roofs of the sturdy village and farm houses. We noticed a sign for a ski shop with the name of Phonolite. A search online revealed that Phonolite is the name of an unusual extrusive rock (although usual here). Its thin flat forms are perfect for roof tiles.
The few houses and buildings of the city sit casually scattered on the hillside, with streets, paths and gardens in between. You are never far from a vista between buildings or over roof tops of the open landscape around the village.
Val’s father was born in Les Estables in 1941, and many of her aunts, uncles, and cousins still live there. As a child, Val spent many of her childhood summer and winter vacations in Les Estables. (She’s a good skier thanks to those winter vacations.) She recalled carefree times, playing with cousins and friends in and around the safe little village. As an adult, once she had her own children, she realized that carefree didn’t mean unmonitored. There were adult relatives everywhere, keeping their eyes on whatever the kids were getting into.
Val’s mother and father have a holiday apartment in the village. They hosted us for lunch on the day of our arrival, before they headed back to their main home in the Beaujolais region, about 2 hours away. After lunch and before their departure, Val’s dad took us to the stone building in which he was born 78 years ago. He said that he hadn’t visited the place in many decades. He struck up a conversation with the current farmer owner of the property, who happily showed us the insides of the building. Today, the farmer stores bales of hay for his cattle in the great upper space; those cattle spend the winter in the lower level. When Val’s father lived in the building, the family lived in the lower level.
Jef was interested to find the nearby ruins of Château de Chastelas, a medieval castle that he had read about. The woman in the village’s tourist office gave him enough directions that we could pick a place to start our hiking expedition. It was a beautiful, clear and gently warm day. The target destination is medieval, but we used twenty-first-century Google Maps to look for it. There is great 4G coverage even out in this countryside!
Jef led us through the forest and up to a rocky clearing.
The views from the promontory were spectacular. It seemed we could see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean (but not really). Patches of forest and of range lands covered the rolling countryside that extended below us for miles and miles. Both cows and hang gliders filled the vista.
When Jef said that he wanted to find the ruins of Château de Chastelas, both he and the rest of us imagined tall crumbling walls and turrets. What we found was a vague rectangle in the hillside, defined by tumbled rocks.
It is conceivable that this lined depression is in fact the remains of a local château, but we really don’t know. Jef reminded us that most châteaux in the medieval period were simply the homes of prominent farmers. Chevaliers (knights) were almost always farmers first, and the king’s sword-wielding knights occasionally. What a contrast: Jef and Val live in La Cité de Carcassonne, Europe’s largest medieval walled city, restored to dramatic effect; and here we were at the site of almost forgotten and disappearing ruins, maybe from the same period.
We weren’t sure that this little rectangle of stones was the château, some outbuilding, or some other place entirely. We continued our search, but in a new direction. We found another beautiful lookout but no châteaux. We sat on an outcropping to rest and enjoy the view and sunshine. Jef did some more research online and discovered that no one really knows where Château de Chastelas is. There are various conjectures. So perhaps we wandered — I mean, hiked — through the forest and up and down the hills in search of a place that may have completely vanished.
We finished the afternoon with a hike up to the Croix de Peccata atop Mont Mézenc (1753 m / 5750 ft). The first half of the hike was through the forest, before emerging amid the scrub and rocks below the peak. From the top, we looked down on the rock formations we had just hiked among; they seemed much more insignificant from here.
The view to the east was filled with mountains and valleys.
The vistas of this natural landscape entranced us. But so, too, did more intimate moments of trees, lichen, stones and grasses.
Now we want to come back in the winter to see this land covered in white, and find out if we remember how to ski.