Usson most beautiful village of classified France Puy-de-Dome AS among France’s Plus Beaux Village located east of Issoire.
As one of only two villages in Puy-de-Dome classified among France’s Plus Beaux Villages, Usson is literally outstanding. Built on a volcanic plug, it looms over the Limagne, the River Allier’s floodplain. So a stroll equals a climb – but my! What a rewarding one.
From the municipal car park, we make for the Place de la Reine Margot and the fountain commemorating the confinement between 1586 and 1605 of the charismatic Marguerite de Valois, estranged wife of Henry IV. Once, the Chateau d’Usson was reputedly the most impregnable in the kingdom, defended by 20 towers within three concentric belts of fortifications. Demolished by a royal ordinance of 1633 to reinforce the monarchy’s power, only a few remnants remain.
Double-back at the fountain, past the 16th-century Maison des Capitaines opposite the mairie, built in the indigenous basalt stone and adorned with a portcullis-style gate and bestial gargoyles, and serpentine up through Usson’s ancient quarter towards the Eglise Saint-Maurice. A glance across the village’s terracotta roofs offers a taste of the topographical dish to come. With the church in sight, turn hard right instead for the war monument and the path to the summit. A statue of the Virgin Mary dating back to 1893 was built on a threetiered pedestal on the site of the chateau’s keep, over 600m above the plain below.
Such is the 360° panorama that there are multiple tables d’orientation describing the views: due west over Issoire towards the Massif du Sancy and the Cantal; north by north west towards Clermont-Ferrand and the volcans of the Chaine des Puys; east across the lesser-known Monts du Livradois-Forez; and south across the Massif Central towards Millau and the Mediterranean.
Now it’s downhill – but only after you’ve circumambulated la Butte. This bucolic circuit follows roughly the topmost walls, past the remarkable orgues basaltiques, the hexagonal basalt organ pipes formed from cooling lava, like those to the west at Bort-les-Orgues, then into the trees through which there are glimpses of the ancien quartier est. These ruins were still habitable according to Napoleonic records as late as 1829, when the population peaked at around 890, roughly three times what it is today.
The route then follows some well-preserved remnants of the north-eastern ramparts. Just past the upper car park you can see the Porte de France, on the site of one of old Usson’s five fortified gates.
Place of peace
Approaching the Eglise Saint-Maurice from the other direction, the road takes you under the bell tower, a tight fit for cars, to the porch of a church built essentially in the 12th century, but modified thereafter as an historical conglomerate. The interior is essential viewing, with its religious paintings, its walls coloured in the medieval style during the 19th century, its vaulted ceilings and its statuary art. Among the saints represented is Verny, the winemakers’ martyred patron saint. Alas, he was powerless to prevent the phylloxera that wiped out in 1899 the local
vines on which Usson’s wealth was once founded.
From the church, it’s now truly downhill by the straightest route, down the Rue des Giroflees behind the Maison des Capitaines, back to the car park. At around an hour and a half, it’s an invigorating walk that takes in just about all that this upstanding and genuinely outstanding village has to offer.
IN THE AREA
Nearby Issoire is a market town with history, suffering deprivations during France’s prolonged religious wars, including the period when Henry IV and la Reine Margot were at loggerheads.
The Saturday morning market offers a good reason to visit an historic centre that boasts the magnificent Benedictine abbey of Saint-Austremoine. It’s a fine example of the Romanesque architecture found in Auvergne, such as La Chapelle Perchee, sitting precariously above the village of Saint-Herent just south-west of Issoire. West of the town, beyond the ‘suburb’ of Perrier, lies another ‘brand name’, Saint-Nectaire; the extraordinary Chateau de Murol atop another volcanic plug; and thence, a little further north, the unique Parc naturel regional des Volcans d’Auvergne. Issoire’s railway station offers a chance to take the celebrated Cevenol train north to Clermont-Ferrand or south to explore some of the wildest reaches of the Massif Central.
From Usson’s summit, you can clearly see La Meridienne, the A75, surely one of the most scenic motorways in Europe. A short drive north takes you to Montpeyroux, the other Plus Beau Village of Puy de Dome.
A two-hour drive south takes you on a breathtaking trip to one of the architectural wonders of the modern world, the Millau Viaduct.
By train: Go from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand, where the NTmes line will take you a short trip south to Issoire, where you can find a taxi to Usson.
Clermont-Ferrand’s international airport lies roughly half an hour north of Usson.
WHERE TO STAY
GTte Auvergne Kermilo Rue de I’Eglise,
Tel: 0033 (0)7 62 89 15 04
Right at the top of the village, this small but tastefully restored, thoughtfully equipped house offers stunning views west across the plain below. From around €85 for a double room.
WHERE TO EAT
Auberge de Margot Le Bourg,
Tel: 0033 (0)4 73 71 97 92
Traditional Auvergnat fare prepared by an experienced chef with a maitre restaurateur classification.
WHAT TO SEE
The Usson tourist office houses local art and an audio-visual history that spotlights its emblematic exiled queen. L’Eglise Saint-Maurice is open to the public in season or, between 1 November and 31 March, by appointment via the mairie.