Wild, lush and mountainous and with a pure volcanic heart, the Auvergne seems lost in time.

Few places are so influenced by their geology as this unspoilt expanse of south-central France. And what made the Auvergne is its volcanoes.

You can see it in its lava-stone buildings, such as the black gothic spires of the cathedral in its elegant and hilly capital Clermont-Ferrand; you can taste it in its food – the rich fertile soil supporting one of the richest agricultural areas in the country, with enviable dairy produce and a sophisticated gastronomic culture; and you can even taste it in its water – this being the home of Volvic and more than 100 other mineral waters, filtered by the volcanic rock.

More than anything, though, you can see it in its mindblowing landscapes, rising to the softly rounded heights of the Chaîne des Puys – a 25 mile-long range of eroded cinder cones, lava domes, and craters, rising to the iconic 4,806 ft high Puy de Dôme.

It is all very dramatic. However, with the last volcano blowing its top something like 10,000 years ago, it's all reassuringly quiet today – the craters covered in grass, and the peaks the domain of walkers and paragliders.

Topped by a landmark communications mast, the Puy de Dôme is a beacon for lovers of the great outdoors, and so I came to be wandering around its grassy crater on a bright yet breezy Friday afternoon.

I'd like to say I had scaled it on foot, but had actually done it the lazy, fun, way by taking the swish, futuristic-looking Panoramique des Dômes funicular to the summit, before walking the crater rim as paragliders glided from the steep flanks beneath me – drifting off on thermals over the chain of domes and craters stretching into the empty, forested heart of rural France.

Despite the feeling of space, we were only 10km from Clermont-Ferrand, a treasure trove of a city with a captivating, quirky edge.

Clermont-Ferrand is known to most of the world for two things: its two-times championship winning rugby team ASM Clermont Auvergne, and the company that gave birth to it – Michelin.

L'ASM's Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin faces the factory which is still a major local employer. A slick visitor centre gives a crash course in all things rubber, and, naturally for the Auvergne, vulcanisation.

There are historic cars and even a French colonial rail car shipped back from Madagascar. It's a bouncy (if you'll excuse the pun) exhibition and surprisingly illuminating. Who knew the Paris Metro ran on rubber tyres?

But it's Clermont-Ferrand's hilly centre which is the main draw, with a wealth of treasures, such as the richly ornate Romanesque Notre-Dame du Port (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and reaching its zenith in that jet black cathedral, with its riot of flying buttresses.

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The climb up to its door is steep but affords great opportunities to pop into cafes, patisseries and the superlative indoor market for samples of local cheeses, sausage and, uniquely, mineral waters – the finer bottles costing as much as vintage wines.

The views over the narrow streets to the countryside beyond are breathtaking, with the odd-shaped peak of the Puy de Dôme a constant companion, standing guard over the city.

A foodie heaven, there are no shortage of places to eat. Don't miss the local speciality of truffade – a hearty concoction of sliced potatoes cooked in goose fat, garlic and fresh Cantal cheese. It is rich and absolutely delicious, though you may feel the need to scale a volcano to burn it off after. Head down into the cave-like Le Kitchen ( le_kitchen@yahoo.fr) for one of the best examples.

For something more refined, but still proudly Auvergne, visit the gourmet L’Ostal (lostal-restaurant.fr), where the restaurant and its menus have a volcanic twist. It's a visual feast as well as gastronomic delight, chef Emmanuel Hebrard working wonders with fine local produce.

The surrounding countryside is dotted with scenic gems, but if you have to single out one destination, make it the Bourbon village of Charroux – ranked among the Plus Beaux Villages de France.

An important trading centre in the Middle Ages, Charroux boasts rich stone and half-timbered buildings dating back to the 14th century, but is these days a sleepy place of art studios and artisan producers making and selling everything from candles to honey and what is regarded as the best mustard in the world.

Beyond, on the Allier Rive, lies the spa town of Vichy, with its parks, gardens, opera house, Napoleonic architecture, extensive stunning wrought iron arcades and palatial spa buildings, at which you can sip the pungent mineral water (an acquired taste, but great for the digestive system, apparently) or, better, eat magnificently.

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And there is nowhere better than the sophisticated Michelin-starred Maison Decoret (maisondecoret.com) where chef Jacques Decoret, holder of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award, has converted a Napoleon III house into the hippest place in town, and presides in the kitchen over creative and eye-poppingly visual cooking – which, again is all about that produce.

And the flavours? Volcanic, of course!

Fact file

STAY: Hôtel Le Lion 16 Place de Jaude, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand hotel-le-lion-clermont.fr/en

Hotel De Grignan 7 Place Sévigné, Vichy hoteldegrignan.fr

EXPLORE: Gare du Panoramique des Dômes

 Le font de l’arbre, Orcines


INFORMATION: Auvergne: auvergne-tourism.com

Clermont-Ferrand: clermontferrandtourism.com

Vichy: ville-vichy.fr

France: For information on the whole of France, go to Feel France uk.france.fr/

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