29 hours in Clermont-Ferrand

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Vercingetorix (82-46 BC)

Three and a half hours south of Paris by train, almost in the center of the country, is one of France’s oldest cities. Before the Romans arrived around 50 BC, it was Nemossos, the home of the Gaulish Arverni tribe led by the famous chieftain Vercingetorix. The invaders renamed it Augusta Nemetum, and then in the 9th century it became known as Clairmont after the castle Clarus Mons. Over the centuries, it was attacked by Vikings, Normans and Visigoths and also served as the starting point for the First Crusade (1095-1099). In the 18th century, it merged with the neighboring city of Montferrand and took on the name we know it by today.

How about now? What draws visitors not interested in invading or waging a religious war? Clermont-Ferrand is famous today for being the home of multinational tire manufacturer Michelin and hosting the world’s biggest international film festival dedicated to short films. It’s also surrounded by a chain of dormant volcanoes whose highest point is the lava cone Puy de Dôme, which can be seen from many parts of the city. And of course, street art—the main reason for my quick trip to Clermont-Ferrand the other weekend.

I arrived just after noon on a beautiful sunny day and left the next day around 5, so was there for only about 29 hours. But that was long enough to form an idea of the city, supplemented by vague memories of an even briefer trip there back in 2006. I can therefore share only a few things about Clermont-Ferrand, and this article will be more of an introduction to the city than anything else.

Day 1: vegan lunch, space invaders and dinner from a grocery store next to the freeway

As always when arriving somewhere, anywhere, directly from Paris, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the air and streets were. I then became enamored with the city’s splendid colorful houses and the deliciously ancient feeling that reigns in the area around the spooky Gothic cathedral made entirely of black lava stone. After navigating a few narrow medieval streets, I arrived at Myrtille, a beautiful little eatery where almost everything is vegan.

I had the beet and orange soup garnished with soy cream, chives and toasted hazelnuts for a starter and then a quinoa and azuki bean salad with arugula, potato and sweet potato, green beans, carrot and squash seeds. Both very nice, especially as I was famished after the longish train ride.

Clermont-Ferrand has a total of three vegetarian restaurants (no fully vegan places), which is not bad for a French city of 142,000 souls, and only Myrtille and another one called La BerGamoThée were open this particular day. As I wanted to try both, I headed to the second one for coffee. Although the owner of La BerGamoThée was washing dishes after the lunch service when I arrived and was starting to think about closing, she gave me a very warm welcome. I ordered coffee and a scoop of sorbet, and as the caffeine revived me from my sleep-deprived state (it had been a very early morning), I began to feel more like my usual self. The owner was curious to hear my story (what was a foreigner doing in those parts?) and we chatted a bit about our lives. She wasn’t a native of Clermont-Ferrand but had been there for some years after trying various other cities including Paris. One of the nice things about Clermont-Ferrand, she said, is that it’s almost always sunny, even in the winter. As someone who starts having an existential crisis every November, when the gray season in Paris begins, I made a mental note of this key detail.

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Invader’s CLR_09 from the 2016 wave greeted me at the station as I exited my train from Paris.

Back to our history lesson. Some 2,050 years after the Romans, Clermont-Ferrand was invaded yet again… but this time the intruders were a whole lot cuter. French street artist Invader placed his first mosaic on a city wall in 2001, then returned a few times to add more, culminating in 2016 with an impressive wave of 31 more creative and ambitious pieces paying homage to the things the city is famous for. As you stroll around town you may notice 8-bit aliens wearing 3D glasses, holding popcorn, featuring in film frames or fleeing volcanoes. A few pixelated bats, most likely escaped from the belfries of the ominous Gothic cathedral, can also be seen lurking about.

Those of you who follow my Instagram already know about Flashinvaders, the GPS game the artist created so his fans could “collect” his works around the world and score points for their finds. For every new city, you get 100 bonus points. Clermont-Ferrand is a particularly good city for this game as a lot of the works have high values and most of them are pretty close to each other.

After a long afternoon of exploring the city and finding mosaics, I headed to my hotel, which turned out to be a farther hike from the downtown than I’d thought when planning my trip. Moreover, it was right next to a busy freeway interchange surrounded by desolation. Once there, I scrapped the idea I’d had of returning to the city center for dinner and began looking for something nearby.

It turned out there was nothing much, and definitely nothing likely to have vegan options other than fries and iceberg lettuce, so it was time for Plan B: the large Intermarché grocery store on the other side of the freeway. Rain clouds were beginning to gather in a suitably dramatic sky, but I just thanked my lucky stars there was a store in that area at all and set out, umbrella in hand.

IMG_3374At the store, I had some trouble finding the hummus (every vegan’s lifesaver) and began to worry there wouldn’t be any, but in the end emerged with enough provisions for an evening meal and breakfast the next morning.

I spent a cozy evening at the remote but otherwise nice hotel eating hummus, resting my feet (12.5 km covered that day), editing photos and watching vintage episodes of The Simpsons in French. The French version is pretty good, although some jokes are untranslatable and the voices always seem a little wrong. Fun fact: they blur the Duff Beer brand name when it appears on-screen because it has become a real beer in Europe and France has strict laws on alcohol product placement on television.

Day 2: a museum of tires, a ghost town and more street art

The next morning, after breakfasting on the remaining hummus plus some hotel coffee, it was time to learn about tires at L’Aventure Michelin! Back in 1889, brothers Édouard and André Michelin were running a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand when they developed a removable pneumatic bicycle tire. Two years later, these tires, which they patented that same year, were used by the man who won the world’s first long-distance cycle race, the Paris-Brest-Paris (an ancestor of today’s Tour de France). The Michelins then shifted their focus to rubber tires for those newfangled horseless carriages, and the rest is history.

This museum is quite interesting, especially if you’re like me and have never thought much about tires and what went into developing them. For example, at a certain point different types of coverings to protect the tires from puncture were tested—the materials included leather, fabric, cork and steel rivets, each of them presenting some kind of major disadvantage. Michelin eventually developed innovations making these additions unnecessary. Later, in a bid to promote their brand, they added an “M” tread to the tires to leave distinctive tracks everywhere the cars went, and accidentally discovered that it improved safety too.

It so happened that this year marks the 120th anniversary (birthday?) of the Michelin Man, who over the years has become a familiar character around the world and was even named “best logo of all time” by an international panel of experts in 2000. To mark this anniversary, L’Aventure Michelin had put together a special exhibition about the man made of tires. Like many cartoon characters, his appearance has changed over time, going from a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike to his current incarnation. Presumably, his designers wanted to make him seem more friendly and approachable, and less likely to encourage smoking (!), but I will always prefer the original look.

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Of course, there’s also a Michelin Man invader! (CLR_37 from 2016)

After the museum, I set about hunting down the last few invaders on my list. Incidentally, it was lucky I’d bought so much bread the night before, as it turned out that Clermont-Ferrand is almost a complete ghost town on Sundays. Even if I were a meat-eater, it would have been difficult or impossible to find anything to eat. To get a much-needed coffee in the afternoon, I had to duck into a hotel and bother the front-desk guy. The streets around the cathedral, bustling and packed with people on Saturday, were eerily empty on Sunday. The cathedral itself even seemed to be closed (!), so I sadly can’t report on the inside of it this time.

The most challenging invader to add to my score on this trip was CLR_35, located on the wall of a freeway right where it forms a bridge (making the mosaic invisible from the street level below). With coaching from an expert invader-hunter friend, I discovered there were nevertheless two ways to “flash” it with the app: 1. entering the freeway on foot from the nearest entrance ramp or 2. scaling a small but steep slope next to the bridge. Preferring to avoid activities that could lead to arrest and deportation, I chose the more discreet option 2.

Clinging precariously to the fence, the thorns in the poisonberry bush next to it digging into my skin as rain clouds menaced overhead, I still couldn’t see more than the tips of the invader’s ears. But I held my phone up above my head and hoped for the best. This, by the way, was one of the “What am I doing?” moments that everyone with an obsessive hobby reaches at some point. Happily, it worked after just a few tries—the left-hand flash capture above shows how little of a piece needs to be visible sometimes. And best of all, I didn’t get arrested. On the right is the official photo of the invader in all his glory as he races down the road.

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Another fun one was this large 100-point piece of a certain French singer on Rue Serge Gainsbourg…

But Clermont-Ferrand also features creative works by other street artists, such as Lyon-based Lasco, who—true to his name—paints animals inspired by the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux Cave in southwestern France. Made around 17,000 years ago, the paintings were discovered by chance in 1940 by a group of teenage boys and are now among the first things mentioned in timelines of the country’s history. I, in turn, discovered the street art paying homage to them completely by chance and was delighted!

Several trees and posts in Clermont-Ferrand had been yarn-bombed when I visited. In French, this is known as tricot urbain or “urban knitting”—love that term! These pieces are by a group calling themselves Les Peloteuses du Kfé Tricot.

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A collaboration in Rue Savaron by Apogé (left) and Repy One (right).

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If you love art too and are planning a trip to Clermont-Ferrand, you’ll want to pick up the free Such’art map of art galleries and street art from the tourist center in Place de la Victoire for a self-guided tour of works by Invader, Lasco and others. On Instagram, you can follow the latest street art developments in Clermont-Ferrand at @such_art_63.

At 5 pm it was time to board my train, and a good thing too because after 22.2 km of walking that day (!) and 34.7 km for the weekend as a whole, I was ready for a bit of a rest! The skies continued to offer dramatic clouds as the train sped northwards and the sun began to set.

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The places mentioned in this post:

  • Myrtille restaurant: 4 Petite Rue Saint-Pierre, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • La BerGamoThée restaurant: 1 Place du Mazet, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • L’Aventure Michelin: 32 Rue du Clos Four, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand
  • Maison du Tourisme (tourist office with street art map): Place de la Victoire, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand

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