On some maps, it is shown as Vallée du Mars (Valley of Mars), the name hinting of a place on another planet. But there is something very earthly about this wooded valley tucked away on the western side of the Cantal hills in France’s Auvergne district. Villages like Le Vaulmier and Espinouze are full of the region’s distinctive vernacular architecture: good, solid structures with steeply pitched roofs and the heavily textured roof tiles so characteristic of Cantal. Those tiles are known locally as lauzes.
It is in farmsteads around villages like these that the mahogany-coloured Salers cattle spend the winter months. “Wonderful animals,” says Charlotte whose family has been breeding Salers in this valley for half a century. “They calve easily, give a generous supply of milk, and they really don’t need a lot of attention. And they’re utterly beautiful.”
In the summer the cows and their calves take to the hills. “Transhumance has a long tradition here,” explains Charlotte. “And in recent years, there’s been a great revival in public interest in the seasonal movements of the Salers. People are especially keen to see, even to follow, the shift from the valleys and the lowland farmsteads up to the high pastures. It has become a rite of spring here in Cantal.”
Just upstream from Espinouze, we hear the distinctive whistle of the local marmots. Following the valley up into the hills, we come to Mary’s country. Up in the headwaters of this river catchment, by the old forestry road — named after the Italians who constructed it — there is La Plaine Mary (Mary’s Plain). Away to the east on the other side of the col, there is Bois Mary (Mary’s Wood), a striking sweep of woodland which drapes the east side of the Roc des Chamois — that name a nice reminder that the marmots share this wild terrain with the agile chamois, the archetypal mountain goat that was reintroduced into Cantal in the 1970s, so giving the chamois a second chance in a region of France where it was once hunted to extinction.
Then there is the crowning glory of Cantal, the rocky summit known as the Puy Mary. It is a lofty vestige of what was once Europe’s largest stratovolcano and it is the stark beauty of this relict volcanic landscape, rather than any great Marian piety, which impels crowds to gather at dawn on a summer Sunday to walk up to the summit of Puy Mary at 1,783 metres. Like the spring migration of the Salers, climbing the Puy Mary is a Cantal ritual. “I come each year without fail. For over 30 years,” explains an elderly gentleman as he prepares to head for the summit. “I come for the view and the wild gentian,” he says, referring to the yellow plant which Salers cattle love to nibble and humans use to make the trademark Cantal liqueur known as Avèze. “You must try Avèze,” says the hiker as he waves his staff and joins the crowd.
The ascent to Puy Mary is not as challenging as the altitude might suggest. A tarmac road climbs to Peyrol Pass. That road tops out at 1,588 metres above sea level, from where there’s a wide path with concrete steps up to the top of Puy Mary. In the snow-free months, there’s no scope for losing your way on this pedestrian highway. On the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, a solemnity in the Catholic calendar which fell on a Sunday this year, there is an unbroken line of hikers tackling the walk from the Pas de Peyrol up to Puy Mary, there to be rewarded by gorgeous views of the entire Cantal Massif, with its trademark eroded (and very dormant) volcanoes, green valleys and distant, hilltop towns — the most conspicuous of which is Salers itself, away to the west.