The Monts du Cantal comprise a massif that is the most southerly extension of the Parc des Volcans. Once calculated as being more than 3000m high, and still nearly 80km (50 miles) in diameter, it is one of the world’s largest volcanoes.
Lying within the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne, these green and wooded hills, originally formed as that vast volcano, were later moulded by glaciers into a central core with twelve radiating valleys. Highest of the peaks is Plomb Cantal (1855m/6086ft), part of a ring of summits that delimit the volcanic boundaries.
Rivers are also a defining feature here: the west and north-west of the Cantal département is bounded by the upper reaches of the Dordogne, the south by the Lot and the gorges of Truyère. Elsewhere, the river valleys of the Cère and the Rhue, the one rising on the slopes of the Plomb du Cantal, the other on Puy Mary, fashion dramatic and fecund landscapes that ripple into the hazy distance, supporting numerous small settlements of antiquity and agrarian rusticity. The entire region was once covered by forest, but gradually this was cleared by shepherds and has disappeared from large tracts of countryside.
The principal town is Aurillac, the provincial capital, albeit somewhat out-of-the-way, but with a charming pedestrianised centre.
Lying 42km north of Aurillac, at the foot of the north-west slopes of the Cantal, and scarcely altered in size or aspect since the 16th-century, Salers remains an astonishingly harmonised example of the vernacular architecture of the time.
Murat, on the eastern edge of the Cantal, is the closest town to the high peaks and a busy little place, its cafés and shops uncharacteristically busy for this generally tranquil region, and an agreeable ensemble of grey-stone houses, many dating from the 15th and 16th centuries.