Trying the language in backpack France

Salers is a typical French Renaissance village in the Auvergne. Salers is a typical French Renaissance village in the Auvergne. (CYNTHIA THOMAS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Cynthia Thomas
Globe Correspondent / March 2, 2008

SAINT CIRGUES DE JORDANNE, France - We are trying to avoid the muck but have no choice. We are in a valley. It's raining. I'm cold and my feet are wet. It is hour three of our hike, and we are lost. Our only choice is to slog through a mélange of mud and "bouse de vache" (cow dung).

After three days of hiking in the rain I had begun to feel like a soldier in a World War I movie. All around me, mountainous beauty, but I could not care less.

This part of France has some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe. And few tourists. It's only a matter of time before this agricultural paradise of fairy tale stone houses is discovered.

We're in the Auvergne, six hours south of Paris. Known for its inactive, ancient volcanoes, this hiker's paradise is cheap, euro-wise, and the food is great. This is not where you people watch at outdoor cafes between museum visits. This is backpack France.

I am struck by the colors. Then it hits me: All the colors I'm seeing are green. There is the light green of the grass, the dark green of the pine forest, the rolling green of the flowers that come up knee-high as you walk through them, the emerald green of moss on stones.

We are in a group of 11 here to hike while speaking only French. We have a French teacher, who hails from Versailles. Our abilities range from nearly fluent to "I can't speak a word of French and refuse to do it anymore so stop talking to me in French!" Most of us know the grammar. It's just that pronunciation and putting sentences together are a chore.

Our base is a hotel called Les Tilleuls, where the sunny innkeeper is gracious enough to put our clothes in the basement to dry, because like many places across Europe, the inn has no dryer.

One day we hike to Lascelle, the next town over. We pay about $4.50 to hike a trail called Les Gorges de la Jordanne that is inundated with waterfalls. The path has bridges that sit on top of the water, Japanese-style bridges that swoop up in a very high arch, and covered spans.

Brown Salers - cattle prized for not only their meat but also the cheese made with their milk - are everywhere in these mountains. We pass one that scurries up a hill to get out of our way. That leads to a lot of hilarious jokes (at least we think so) in our bad French.

We hike (legally) along paths that cut through peoples' farms despite the barbed wire and "private property" signs. At a barbed wire gate, we take down the fence, and the last person through has to hang it back on its post.

One day we visit Tournemire, with its 15th-century castle, Château d'Anjony. Although it soars high into the sky, it feels small by today's standards because there's only one room on each floor. Walking around the village is a joy; it is shockingly free of other visitors in the middle of July. There is an eighth-century church painted in trompe l'oeil, as if made of marble.

Salers is our destination another day. This Renaissance village has fewer than 500 residents but far fewer windows than is typical because of a tax on windows in the 16th century.

Being in the middle of nowhere, we eat dinner at our hotel every night. In Paris, I ate at the restaurants of named chefs two nights in a row, but the salmon with lentils the first night here is the best meal I have had in France. Typically we eat the menu of the day. Salmon the first night, then white fish, then sausage. On tripoux night, when the local specialty of lamb stomach with a veal foot is served, there's always an option. Nine of us choose the sausage.

Other times we taste the local dishes: pounti, truffade, lentils de Puy, and Cantal cheese, which tastes like a mild cheddar. Pounti tastes like turkey stuffing with prunes. And the truffade is a potato and Cantal dish. The cheese is hours old - a couple of days at most - and is found only here.

And there are other attractions: the farms on the Route des Fromages, the cheese road; the Vulcania, a theme park about volcanoes; and country music and Renaissance festivals.

The one drawback: English does not go far here. But if you act gracious, you'll impress the locals.

Cynthia Thomas can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay Les Tilleuls 15590 Saint Cirgues de

Jordanne 011-33-471-47-9219 Simple rooms and a restaurant, pool, and a bar where the locals hang out. About $82. Les Remparts Esplanade de Barrouze 15140 Salers 011-33-471-40-7033 You're "in town" when you're staying here. About $87. Where to eat Au Bout du Monde 15590 Mandailles 011-33-471-47-9247 Have the pounti, the house specialty. About $29. Café Peyral 15310 Tournemire 011-33-471-47-6128 In Auberge de Tournemire.

Entrees start at $30. What to do Châteaux hop If you love castles, there are 45 to choose from.

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