The magnificent Le Pont d'Arc on the River Rhône in south east France

Enjoying a real taste of France in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region

Guest travel writer Marion Ainge climbs a volcano and savours the flavours of France

Walking the cool, stone-walled corridors of the Couvent Vagnas Hotel, a former convent in the Ardèche region of France, I imagine living as a nun in this peaceful, idyllic retreat.

Those thoughts are soon banished, though!  Among other restrictions, I don’t suppose the sisters savoured many, if any, of the region’s 900 wines, including the revered Côtes du Rhône or enjoyed a picnic, paddle and giggle at the riverside.

The delightful, newly-opened, four-star Couvent Vagnas Hotel boasts 29 bedrooms, swimming pool, courtyard and delicious food prepared with local produce and garden vegetables by a resident chef.

For our tour of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, in the south east of France, we stay, initially, in Clermont Ferrand. Auvergne’s historic capital, famed for its central Gothic cathedral of black, anthracite, lava stone and the Romanesque Notre Dame du Port, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The old quarter is a maze of old alleys and winding back streets. The city holds an annual short film festival and other cultural/music events.

The corporate headquarters of global tyre company, Michelin, is in Clermont Ferrand. The museum traces their 19th century introduction of rubber tyres. Steel casings were added in 1930. Around that time, Michelin produced the oldest European hotel/reference guide, travel guides and in 1931, launched their three-star restaurant rating system.

Late French chef, Paul Bocuse, a pioneer of nouvelle cuisine in the 1960s, declared: ‘Michelin is the only guide that counts’.

From Clermont Ferrand, we explore the Chaine des Puys, a chain of 80 dormant volcanoes, known as slumbering green giants, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. A cog wheel train leaves us part way up the Puy de Dôme, highest point 1465 metres and labelled dormant at 7,000 years without a murmur.

Towards the summit, steep, winding pathways afford spectacular, panoramic views. On a grassed knife-edge, our group press photographer balances a tripod while focusing her camera over the chasm. The excavated Volcan de Lemptégy enables an insight into a volcano interior.

A mind-blowing adventure awaits at Vulcania’s educational theme park - great for families.  Attractions include a metaphorical volcano and a GPS (global positioning system) driven robot takes visitors around the park. In the cinema screening of a 4D film, our seats shake and tip. Waving trunks of hairy mammoths curl out from the screen, slithering snakes emit tingling ‘stings’, light showers fall and travelling, red hot lava threatens.

Each year, l’Ardèchoise, one of France’s biggest road cycling events, takes place in the Ardèche.. Sweet chestnuts, bottled, puréed made into liqueurs or candied in sugar syrup as marrons glacé, are the region’s speciality.

In Europe’s largest canyon, Les Gorges de l’Ardèche, via gondola-shaped canoes, Bateliers de l’Ardèche steer a tranquil route along a 20-mile, deep gorge, which includes 25 rapids. Walkers complete a similar journey in around 12 hours. At 60 metres over the river, and formed by the elements is the Pont d’Arc. Beaches alongside are popular picnic spots.

La Grotte Chauvet, dates back 36,000 years. It was named after one of three amateur cavers who discovered it in 1994. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014, the cave comprises chambers and corridors of around 8,500 square metres, containing some 1,000 details drawings, mainly of animals.

The original cave, mid-way up a cliff-side, is now safeguarded, locked and inaccessible. At a cost of £55m, a stunning replica in Vallon Pont d’Arc opened to the public in 2015, reproducing the formation, size, humidity, drawings, stalactites and stalagmites. Lovely Lyons , situated at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, boasts its own love affair with art.

The historic centre has UNESCO World Heritage status and 100 outdoor murals take the art of modern, urban wall-painting to new heights. The detail and perspective reflected on a flat wall is a trompe l’oeil.

The cobbled streets of the ancient Medieval quarter house Les Traboules, around 300 corridors, hidden behind front doors, which provided silk workers and merchants a short cut to transport textiles to the river in bad weather.

The dark passageways were used as escape routes during the Second World War by the French Resistance.  Restored in the 1980s, today corridors lead to courtyards and private apartments with mullioned windows, fresco-decorated galleries, terracotta-painted stone and Italian-influenced architecture.

As always, food in France is superb. In Labeaume, at the family-run Le Bec Figue bistro, in the Ardèche, we sit at a long table in the charming old village square. Platters of fresh salad, charcuterie, pâté, cheeses and crusty bread keep coming, along with bottles of good local wine. Delectable desserts follow.

For me, this is the real taste of France. C’est si bon!