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Blog: WHC 2018: Chaîne des Puys

After two Referrals in 2014 and 2016 respectively, France will try once again to get the Tectono-volcanic ensemble of the Chaîne des Puys and Limagne Fault enlisted – probably already next year. It’s a natural site that covers a string of 80 dormant volcanoes and a parallel geological structure to the west that shows inverted relief.

Cloud cover over the Puy de Dôme

When I prepared for this trip, I opted to visit the Gour de Tazenat – an almost perfectly round crater lake or “mare”. But when my rental car plans fell through, I had to find a way into the core zone of the Chaîne des Puys by public transport. Fortunately its main landmark, the Puy de Dôme, lies just 15km west of the city of Clermont-Ferrand and I was able to catch a shuttle bus between Clermont-Ferrand and the Dôme Railway Station on the last day of the season.

The Puy de Dôme itself nowadays can only be accessed via the Panoramique des Dômes, a panoramic rack railway that covers the final km’s to the top. A return trip costs 12.30 EUR (in low season), though you can save a bit by riding up and walking down which supposedly takes some 50 minutes. At 10 a.m. I unfortunately found the Puy covered in the clouds. A temperature of -1 degrees Celsius was displayed at the departure station. Apparently it’s best to sit to the left in the train (for the better views), but it didn’t matter much this day as nothing was visible anyway.

Ruins of Mercury temple at the top

So what did I encounter at the top of the Puy de Dome? It was freezing cold indeed, the grass covered with hoarfrost. A strong wind was blowing as well, making any form of hiking a struggle. The clouds were so low that I could not see where to go from the upper train station. I just went uphill a bit more until I arrived at the ruins of the Temple of Mercury. This Roman temple was discovered when the scientific station at the top was constructed. They’re now trying to rebuild it – it is fairly large and it’s interesting to know that the Romans came to the top of this hill as well. The best thing on this day however was the adjoining exhibition room: clean, dry and warm.

Beforehand I wondered whether 1 hour and 10 minutes at the top would be enough (as that was all I had to be back in time at Clermond-Ferrand Airport). Well, I even had time for a 30 minute break at the convenient cafeteria next to the upper station. Around it there are many panorama viewpoints, but on a cloudy day there’s just nothing to enjoy.

A few more dormant volcanoes

So will it be third time lucky for the Chaine de Puys? Rarely have I read such negative reviews of a site by IUCN as these, and I guess they will continue to try preventing inscription. The Advisory Body’s opposition is based on two pillars: the high degree of human intervention and the comparatively low interest of the volcanic features on a global scale. The human intervention takes many forms, such as the antenna on top of the Puy de Dôme: “this entirely unnatural feature dominates the landscape and significantly and permanently detracts from its natural aesthetics”. Also active quarrying within the area must be stopped.

Regarding its volcanic features, “IUCN considers that the Convention should aim to list the sites that have the most significant scale and extent of natural values. Identification of the most significant sites in absolute terms, and not their "scale models", is the appropriate basis for defining Outstanding Universal Value.”

Published 18 November 2017

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