Rubber and Rugby
From being the location from where the Pope preached the First Crusade through to being the home of innovative tyre giant Michelin and Top14 rugby side ASM Clermont Auvergne, Clermont- Ferrand has history, charm and sport to seduce the most demanding visitor
Article and Photography by Andy Barnham
Being gently pummelled by a jet shower in the middle of a thermal spa bath, it’s hard not to reflect on the attractions and benefits of the French city I am relaxing in. Sitting in the Massif Central, Clermont- Ferrand is surrounded by the Chaîne des Puys group of volcanoes, the most famous of which is the Puy de Dôme, located six miles from the city. One of the oldest cities in France, it was known to the Greeks as a Celtic settlement before being turned into one of the largest cities of Roman Gaul, following Julius Caesar’s defeat of the native inhabitants. Indeed, everywhere you look it’s hard to escape history, both ancient and modern, and also geography in a French city choc- a- block full of firsts that has been shaped by both in equal measure.
Despite the Roman influence, Clermont- Ferrand has few visible signs of their presence with building materials being re-purposed as the city became a Catholic stronghold in the Middle Ages. Indeed a stone’s throw from where Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade lies Clermont- Ferrand’s black, volcanic stone, cathedral. With spires reaching 100m tall, the cathedral is an obvious sign of the Church’s power, so much so that Count Guillaume VI left the then city of Clermont (The Light Mount) in 1120 to establish his own city of Montferrand (The Hill of Iron). The towns, 2.5 kms apart, were later joined into Clermont- Ferrand under the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI. To this day, a district of the city, Montferrand retains a strong identity. Sitting on the religious route of the Way of St James, Clermont- Ferrand and the surrounding area is also home to no less than five Romanesque churches. Built within 25 years, it is believed the city was named after the amount of sandstone used in the building of these churches (‘Clair’ and ‘Mont’).
Until close to the 19th Century, Clermont- Ferrand was surrounded with vineyards. The 16,000 hectares of vines were so prevalent in daily life that grapes are a frequent decoration in many of the city’s churches (indeed in one church frieze depicting the Garden of Eden, Eve’s apple is replaced by a bunch of grapes). Wine from the region travelled by boat to Paris with the resulting success seeing many Auvergne restaurants in the capital. This hegemony lessened in the 1870s with the advent of the rail network which saw small villages granted access to Paris and increased competition and collapsed just 15 years later with the destruction of the vineyards due to phylloxera. Today there are only 600 hectares, though this number is slowly increasing with young wine makers buying land and starting their own wines. Where the national average of organic wines in France is two per cent, the Clermont- Ferrand’s own vineyards is 11 per cent due to the impact of youth. While many wine regions struggled with and ultimately overcome phylloxera, Clermont- Ferrand found a different solution resulting in the few grape devoted hectares. That reason; Michelin.
In some circles more revered for its red guide, Michelin was founded in Clermont- Ferrand in 1832 manufacturing agricultural tools and machinery. In an age of dirt tracks and metal covered wooden wheels, rubber was a new material and yet to make an impact. With the death of Michelin’s founder in 1889, the company was succeeded by the two grandchildren and the rest is history. Starting with the Paris- Brest- Paris bicycle race which saw the winner, using Michelin patented bicycle tyres, win by eight hours, Michelin stopped agricultural tool production and transferred all their energies into tyres. The first car tyre appeared five years later followed soon after with the first tyre tread (for aesthetic purposes only) in the shape of an ‘M’. Having bought Citroen, Michelin pioneered the use and sales of the spare tyre. Keen aviators, Clermont- Ferrand was the home of the first ever landing strip and were such aviation experts they was asked to build combat planes in World War 1. While they have since stopped manufacturing airplanes, Michelin remain the global leader in airplane tyres.
With tyre development came the requirement to sell tyres and without GPS, road signs and other modern standards, Michelin created tools to encourage people to travel. The famous red guide began life as a tourist handout indicating gas stations, garages, hotels, and restaurants to eat at while waiting for the inevitable repairs. And who was responsible for French road numbers and signs..? You guessed it.
So how does phylloxera fit into this picture? With the demise of the local wine industry Michelin found a ready and willing work force desperate for employment. As the brand grew the city grew with the company quite literally bringing Clermont and Montferrand together through the construction of over eight thousand new homes. Health insurance was initiated, the hospital and public swimming pool built as well as the company sporting club founded, otherwise known as L’Association Sportif Michelin or ASM in 1911.
Today, located on land still owned by Michelin and next door to the Michelin museum (L’Aventure Michelin), stands French rugby club ASM Clermont Auvergne. ASM was one of the inaugural clubs of the top tier of French rugby established in 1925 and, along with Toulouse, is one of the only teams to never have been demoted. With the most registered supporters of the now Top14 rugby competition, ASM own their stadium and adjacent new training ground and rugby museum. With a capacity of 18,000 sitting and a further 3,000 standing in the ‘weigh in’ area around the pitch, the club continues to proudly bear the colours of Michelin who copied the Montferrand coat of arms; yellow and blue. When the club won the Top14 in 2017 half of the city’s population celebrated in the town square, with local seismographs recording the moment the team with a noticeable blip when the Yellow Army jumped to their feet to cheer the victory.
Things to do
The Metropolitan Tourist Office
Located next to the cathedral, the tourist office offers tours for both groups and individuals alike as well as general information.
Address: Maison du Tourisme, Place de la Victoire, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand/ www.clermont-auvergne-tourisme.com
The museum is a fascinating journey into Michelin with all displays in both French and English.
Address: 32 Rue du Clos Four, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand, France/ laventure.michelin.com/en/
Opened in 2015 with tours of the stadium available and entry to the only rugby museum in France. Dedicated to not just ASM Clermont Auvergne, but rugby in general, it’s not hard to see why the city is rugby mad.
Address: 35 Rue du Clos Four, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand, France/ www.asm-rugby.com
Located 15kms from the city centre this volcano dedicated theme park is one for the kids and volcano obsessed adults. Opened 15 years ago three quarters of the park is underground and is full of interactive displays and 3D CGI rides.
Address: Route de Mazayes, 63230 Saint-Ours, France/ www.vulcania.com/en/
Puy de Dome
Views from the 1,465m peak are spectacular. Paths for both cyclists and walkers are available, including a path around the Chaîne de Puys for those who want to pic nic inside the crater of an extinct volcano. Otherwise there is a train to the peak (and down again) every 40mins in winter and 20mins in summer. At the summit lies ruins of the Temple of Mercury, a canteen and a bistro and several paragliding locations. Be warned, the weather can close in quickly, so bring warm and wet weather clothes just in case.
Address: Puy-de-Dôme, Auvergne, France/
Panoramique des Dômes (train)
Address: La Font de l’Arbre, Chemin du Couleyras, 63870 Orcines/ www.panoramiquedesdomes.fr
Opposite the Saint Pierre market, this cheese shop is a Mecca for cheese lovers offering tasting and sharing plates, if you’re generous enough to share.
Address: 23 Place Saint-Pierre, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand, France/ fromagerie-nivesse.fr
Spa baths offering treatments, hammons, plunge pools, hot pools, cold pools… if you’ve pounded the pavements of the city, this is the perfect way to unwind.
Address: 5 Avenue Auguste Rouzaud, 63130, Royat/ www.royatonic.com/
Just off the town square sits this chocolate and fruit jelly cafe. Pop in to indulge that sweet tooth.
Address: 4 Rue Saint-Dominique, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand, France/ www.martial-ray.com
Places to eat
Set up in the 1930s this Restaurant/ Hotel oozes Art Deco. With a handful of rooms and Michelin Star fine dining to boot, Le Radio is located just outside the city centre.
Address: 43 Avenue Pierre et Marie Curie, 63400 Chamalières, France/ www.hotel-radio.fr/en/
La Flèche d’Argent (The Silver Arrow)
The main restaurant at the Princesse Flore Hotel, this fine dining establishment is perfect for lunch and dinner alike. Named after the Mercedes Benz Formula 1 team the restaurant has a strong car theme with images and pictures to match. Lovely presentation.
Address: 5 Place Allard, 63130 Royat, France/ princesse-flore-hotel.com/cote-restaurants-et-bars/restaurant-la-fleche-d-argent/
Auberge Relais du col de la Moréno
Located 15kms from Clermont Ferrand city centre and just south of the Puy de Dome, this hostel has seven rooms, one flat and serves the most incredible home style French cooking. Try the local speciality of Truffade (sliced potato, cooked with goose fat and then mixed with tome fraiche). Worth the car drive.
Address: Col de la Moréno, RD 942, 63122 Saint-Gènes-Champanelle, France/ www.aubergemoreno.com
Ryanair flies to and from Clermont- Ferrand twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The seasonal route is set to finish in October.