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Regions of France - Auvergne

One of France's hidden treasures, Auvergne is located in the mountainous Massif Central. The region is one of the least populated, not just in France, but in the whole of Europe. Not deterred by this, the Auvergnats, who have a reputation for being tough and thrifty, like to describe France as "the Auvergne with a bit of land around it".

What it lacks in population, Auvergne makes up for with natural beauty boasting beautiful valleys, large expanses of coniferous forests and spectacular hillscapes. Three impressive rivers: the Loire, the Allier and the Dordogne all have their headwaters in the heights of this region.

No surprise that nature lovers, walkers and people wanting to get away from it all are drawn here for their holidays. Apart from Clermont Ferrand, the region's capital, the hustle of city life is gloriously absent and things move at a slower and much more agreeable pace.

The area has a rich history too, with historic dungeons and castles, as well as some of the finest romanesque churches in France, many with frescoes. The small city of Le Puy, famous for lace-making, is one of the most unusual cities in France, due to the rocky pinnacles that stick up in the middle of it.

And there are modern attractions too, including a safari park, scenic railway lines, cable cars to the peaks of the highest mountains, kayaking and rafting facilities, mountain bike tracks and the Vulcania theme park. No, nothing to do with Star Trek! With the help of 3D and Imax, the museum explores the story of Auvergne's volcanoes.

As the experts stress, the volcanoes are dormant... though not extinct. There's plenty of volcanic activity deep underground, which explains the hot springs at Chaudes Aigues in the Cantal. The water here comes out of the ground at a temperature of 82°C, the hottest springs in Europe. Even so, there's little reason for alarm, as there hasn't been any volcanic activity in Auvergne for over 7,000 years.

The region is predominantly agricultural with tourism slowly becoming more important. Visitors will see lots of cows which are used for meat and milk, which is made into a number of well known cheeses: Bleu d'Auvergne, Cantal, Fourme d'Ambert and Saint-Nectaire.

The region has a strong peasant cuisine which has spread to the rest of France and is often served in the small Paris cafés traditionally run by Auvergnats. The key ingredients are potatoes and cabbage; try potée Auvergnate (pork with stuffed cabbage). The Auvergne is also noted for its salted hams and dried sausages and Le Puy is famous for its superior green lentils.

The main industry in Auvergne is the tyre industry, with Michelin's headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand and Dunlop based in Montlucon.

It is also one of the premier research areas in France with more than 8,000 researchers in the fields of chemistry, tyres, steel, medical, pharmaceutical, agriculture, biotechnology, seismology, meteorology and more.

Auvergnats often pop up in positions of power in France: politicians such as Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing, Georges Pompidou and Jacques Chirac all hail from this region.

Auvergne is made up of four departments: Allier, Puy de Dome, Cantal and Haute Loire. Apart from the capital of Clermont-Ferrand, the major cities are Montluçon, Aurillac and Vichy.