Why You Need To See Clermont-Ferrand In The Deep Heart Of France

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Richard Alexander
Hi, I'm Richard Alexander, and I’m passionate about France -- especially about the parts that most tourists never see.  With my family, I lived in the Massif Central for seven years in two separate expat assignments, and I’ve worked there several weeks every year for 13 more years.  In all that time, we discovered history that stretches back to the beginning of time and stories about people who came out of these wild regions and rose to prominence on the world stage.  We discovered medieval and Renaissance architecture unlike anything we’d seen anywhere else, charming inns and world-class French cuisine.  There are hundreds of blogs about Paris, but very few that take you out of the big city into the real heart of France.  That’s not too surprising, really – even many French people know relatively little about the center of their country. 
Richard Alexander

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The French newspaper L’Express calls it “#4 among the “Best Places to Live in France “(outside Paris) — yet most tourists have never heard of Clermont-Ferrand.  (From long experience, I’d say not even most French people could tell you where it is or why it’s worth seeing!)

Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne France

It’s a place I know well, having lived there for 7 years and traveled there regularly every year for 21 more years.  Whether you prefer walking the narrow medieval streets of the richly historic center of this city of 500,000, or you’d rather head to the spectacular range of volcanoes behind the city for hiking, cycling, camping, or paragliding, this is a part of France that deserves your attention.  Here are 8 reasons why it’s a great place to live or visit:

#1 – Clermont-Ferrand is France’s “most innovative” city (outside Paris)

Le Figaro studied the list of patents issued in France in 2015, among other indicators of “innovation”, and found (to their evident surprise) that Clermont-Ferrand comes in at number seven nationally.  All the other “usual suspects” – Alcatel, Renault, L’Oreal, and others – are located on the west side of Paris.  And why would such a town in the center of the country count for 325 patents?  Almost all of them came from the fact that …

#2 – It hosts an industrial powerhouse that’s rich in history

Of France’s 30 biggest companies in the CAC 40 Stock Index, only 2 have headquarters outside Paris and its suburbs.  One is Arcelor-Mittal, the steel and mining giant, with its siège social in Luxembourg.  The other?  The Group Michelin, which goes back and forth with Bridgestone in claiming its place as the world’s #1 tire manufacturer.

Michelin Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne

The company has been in Clermont-Ferrand since its founding by Andre and Edouard Michelin in 1889.  It’s a business that has been driven by amazing technical advances throughout its rich history – the first dismountable pneumatic tire in 1891, the first radial tire in 1946, the only tires to be installed on America’s space shuttles, and hundreds of “firsts” in motor sports and racing.  (I can attest, too, that its one of the best-run companies anyone could ever have the opportunity to work for!)

Michelin Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne

#3 Clermont-Ferrand is a major university town

To outsiders, this may be one of the least well-known aspects of life in this city:  The Université Blaise Pascal (recently renamed the Université  Clermont Auvergne) the has its roots in a college founded here in 1854, and it was significantly expanded when the faculty and many students of the University of Strasbourg were forced to flee here by the Nazi occupation in 1939.

Today it has 35,000 students studying in all the fields you’d expect from a university, although it’s becoming particularly noted as a center for medical research.  Almost 5,000 of these students come from foreign countries, so the school adds a distinctively young and international air to the culture of Clermont-Ferrand.

(I have a particular interest in this since I’m from Oklahoma, and Blaise Pascal is a “sister school” of the University of Oklahoma, with several exchange students every year.  When we first moved to France, you can imagine my surprise when I pulled up behind a weather-beaten Renault Clio bearing a “Boomer Sooner” bumper sticker.  And when my son walked through the Place de Jaude wearing his T-shirt from the Oklahoma City Thunder, a guy stepped aside from an approaching group of students to give him a nod and say “Thunder Up, dude!”)

#4 The city hosts the second-most important Film Festival in France

Of course, the most famous film festival in France is the annual big event down in Cannes…but the annual Festival du Court-Metrage (International Short Film Festival) brings around 160,000 people to town every February – producers, directors, buyers for TV networks and movie houses, critics, and lovers of the art form known as “the R&D department of the cinema.”  This year was the 41st edition.

It’s a “gateway” event – films shown here often go on to feed other major festivals like the one at Sundance, and the auteurs who create short films for this occasion go on to produce and direct the kind of features that get shown at Cannes.

Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne France

#5 Clermont-Ferrand is a great base for exploring the rest of France

One of the most surprising aspects of our expat life in France was just how central our adopted home in the Auvergne turned out to be.  (By way of analogy:  France is roughly the same size as the American state of Texas, and Clermont-Ferrand is centrally positioned about where you would find the mid-point between San Antonio and Austin.)

Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne France

It’s at the intersection of several major high-speed autoroutes – Paris is 4 or 5 hours to the north, but you can be on the beaches at Cap d’Agde on the Mediterranean, in Geneva on the Swiss border, or in Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast in about the same amount of time.   (And places like Barcelona are not that much farther away!)

Sadly, there’s still no direct TGV high-speed train service (the debates rage on), but the busy train station does provide regular service to most of the rest of France; the airport at Aulnat has multiple flights every day to Paris, and occasional service to Amsterdam, London, and some other cities.

We took advantage of this central location to travel aggressively both times we lived in Clermont-Ferrand. It’s easy to leave on a Friday evening, spend 2 nights in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux and be back in time for work on Monday morning.

#6 This is a spectacularly beautiful part of France.

I never got tired of looking out a conference room window at the volcanic Puy Pariou or walking from Clermont-Ferrand’s great cathedral down the Rue de Gras toward the spectacular Puy de Dome, one of the most iconic symbols of central France.  That backdrop – the chain of 80 or so ancient extinct volcanoes that rise behind the city, the plateau of Gergovie looming to the south – make this one of the most instantly recognizable urban skylines in France.

Central France - Cantal - Auvergne

#7 Clermont has a vibrant city center.

It’s true that Clermont-Ferrand has something of an industrial character once you’re outside the city’s center – but true, too, that its medieval quarter is large and well-preserved.  As in so many European towns, there are places where you can walk down a small street and touch the walls on both sides.  There are half-timbered houses and a few Renaissance gems.  And, as everywhere else in the Auvergne, many of the buildings are built of the characteristic gray/black lava blocks quarried from local volcanic sites, all giving the city a distinctively somber cast.

Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne France

The beating commercial heart of the city, the Place de Jaude is a vast open space surrounded by stores, cinemas, and restaurants. On any reasonably nice day (even Sundays when most stores are closed) crowds of people stroll the square, which is book-ended by the 17th-century Church of Saint-Pierre-des-Minimes at one end and by a multi-story, contemporary shopping complex at the other. This is where people gather to celebrate, to party, to learn, or just to get out of the house and into the company of other people.

Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne France

#8 Oh, the history!

Regular readers of my blog (DeepHeartOfFrance.com)  know that I’m enthralled by history in general and by French history particularly, so you won’t be surprised to know that the long record of events in this region stretches at least back to the Iron Age. The Romans came through here – in fact, the only battle Julius Caesar ever lost in ancient Gaul was to an Arvernii chieftain named Vercingetorix on the plateau de Gergovie south of town.  Vikings invaded in their time.

Pope Urban II famously came to Clermont to launch the First Crusade to Jerusalem.  Blaise Pascal tried out his science experiments in laboratories here and up on top of the Puy de Dome.  And for one extraordinary weekend, the city was actually the capital of France; on June 29, 1940 the Petain government came to town as it fled the Nazi advance in Bordeaux before eventually settling in for its infamous reign in Vichy.

Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne France

So yes, there’s a lot of history here.  Check out the Bargoin Museum on rue Ballainvillier for a dazzling archeological overview of the long chain of human habitation and the earth-shaking events that took place here over the centuries.

Still not convinced?

Clermont-Ferrand is a welcoming center for expats.  Michelin usually has dozens of families from all over the globe on assignment in town, and the thousands of foreign students at Blaise Pascal add to the mix.  There’s an international women’s society that meets regularly, and an international branch for schoolchildren at the Ecole Massillon.

The city has a growing national reputation as a place to find progressive music, and it’s easy to find movies in English at several of the city’s theaters (look for the label “VO” for version originale).  If you like sports, check out the ASM’s professional rugby team – national champions of France in 2010, and when they won again last year, 40,000 people gathered in the Place de Jaude to celebrate.  Seismologists in the local observatory noted a sharp spike in their records at the exact moment the final whistle blew in Paris!

All of this is to say that, for us and for many of our closest friends, it’s not surprising to find Clermont-Ferrand on a list of “Best Places to Live in France”. It’s not Paris, but for anyone looking for all the amenities of city life in a spectacular natural setting, this is the place to see!

Place de Jaude Bartholdi Clermont Clermont-Ferrand Auvergne Vercingetorix Sculpture

All images (including featured image):  http://deepheartoffrance.com/

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Richard Alexander

Richard Alexander

Hi, I'm Richard Alexander, and I’m passionate about France -- especially about the parts that most tourists never see.  With my family, I lived in the Massif Central for seven years in two separate expat assignments, and I’ve worked there several weeks every year for 13 more years.  In all that time, we discovered history that stretches back to the beginning of time and stories about people who came out of these wild regions and rose to prominence on the world stage.  We discovered medieval and Renaissance architecture unlike anything we’d seen anywhere else, charming inns and world-class French cuisine.  There are hundreds of blogs about Paris, but very few that take you out of the big city into the real heart of France.  That’s not too surprising, really – even many French people know relatively little about the center of their country. 

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