I am visiting the village of St Nectaire in the hope of tasting some of the local cheese but I soon discover that there is much more to this village that I first imagined.
I arrive from the east and enter the lower village first, once a favoured spa resort. The main road is lined with formerly grand hotels and the tourist office. As I continue to the higher village I come across a more modern spa centre opposite the ‘Petrified Fountains’. 200 years ago, the enterprising Papon family discovered that they could create interesting and unusual works of art from the 50 °C mineral springs that emerge from an underground source. Now they have a rather profitable business providing tours of this natural phenomenon and selling the resulting products in their gift shop.
Meanwhile, in the upper village is another cave complex which the Romans used as a bath complex in the 1st century AD. The Cornadore Caves feature 2,000 year old stalactites, as well as the 55°C hot springs and a petrified waterfall. Opposite the caves is the Maison du Fromage which offers tours of their cheese cellar with explanations of the cheese-making process. There’s also the opportunity to taste some of the cheese and buy some from their shop. There are two types : Fermier, which is strong tasting and made entirely on the farm, and Laitier, a milder cheese which is refined by wholesalers and made from the milk of many different herds.
However, the one thing that I find most interesting about St Nectaire is the large Romanesque church that dominates the skyline above the village. Inside are some beautifully carved capitals which still show evidence of their once colourful paintwork, and some beautifully detailed stained-glass windows. Outside there is some fine mosaic stonework and, in the wall leading back down to the town, a curious cross made from old stone tombs.
I stay overnight in the neighbouring village of Murol where a dark medieval chateau is perched on top of a basalt hill. Opposite the aire is a ski rental shop which seems incredibly busy. It is the beginning of the school holidays but I wonder where exactly they are conducting such winter sport. The following morning I discover the answer to my question when I climb out of the village and the volcanic peaks to the west are revealed. The Monts Dore are topped with bright white snow, though after a week of nice sunny days, I wonder whether it is actually much good for skiing.