The fare of central France is far from middling.
I've been wandering the barren landscape for some time when an unexpected sight stops me in my tracks. Beside a row of vines at the base of a steep hill, a winemaker has laid out a dozen bottles on an old wooden table. His name is Benoit Montel.
Dressed in blue jeans, T-shirt and a worn pair of Converse trainers, his laidback air is a far cry from the ruddy-nosed wine snobs you might expect to meet in these parts. Uncorking a bottle, Montel hands me a glass to sample.
"Growing wine in our region can be difficult sometimes," he says. "We're exposed to all kinds of weather and the soil is volcanic, but that's what gives it such unique character."
Taking a sip, I'm immediately struck by the spicy, peppery flavours. It's clear people around here like to do things a little differently. I'm in the Auvergne region of central France, a vast, wild territory that's the least-populated in the country. Sitting on a chain of 80 dormant volcanoes, it's a haven for outdoor types where miles of forests, rivers and gorges give way to the mighty Masif Central mountain ranges.
This is not a place known for thriving, cosmopolitan cities or prestigious art galleries. The Auvergne's capital, Clermont-Ferrand, is the only major metropolis, and while it may have a lively student population and remains the headquarters of the Michelin empire, it's no Paris.
Culturally, there are some surprises, though. In Moulins, a scenic ninth-century town on the banks of the Allier River, I drop in on the National Centre for Stage Costume and Design, the world's only museum dedicated to costume and set.
Nearby, the 19th-century Maison Mantin mansion has remained shrouded in secrecy for more than 100 years. Once owned by a wealthy bachelor merchant, Louis Mantin, he bestowed the house and its contents to the town on the condition it remained closed for a century to preserve a feel of the era for future generations.
"It's essentially a time capsule," curator Maud Leyoudec says as we wander through rooms filled with stuffed animal heads, leather sofas and antique furniture.
Continuing the historic theme, Le Grand Cafe is the only place in town to go for a unique dining experience. With sweeping mirror-panelled walls, an intricate stained-glass skylight and beneath crystal chandeliers, waiters dressed in black waistcoats and bowties navigate the lunchtime rush, hoisting fully laden trays the size of small satellite dishes high above their heads. Few places in the Auvergne world serve a better steak.
Wine and history aside, the Auvergne region is famed for its cheese. Five of the AOC cheeses (Appellation d'Origine Controlee status) in France originate here, and produce is widely considered among the best in the world.
In the quiet mountain town of Farges near Saint-Nectaire, I swing by the eighth-generation family-run Bellonte Farm to see how its cheese is made.
Inside a basic stone cottage, a team of workers scoops glistening raw cheese from vats into circular moulds on a steel workbench.
The Saint Nectaire cheese manufactured here is the soft, gooey, milder-tasting variety similar to camembert. It's among the most-loved in France and the Bellonte family sells about 90 per cent of its production off the premises.
I take in the surrounds while cruising the countryside over the next few days. Vast yellow fields of canola sprawl for miles, punctuated only by a lone scarecrow or tumbledown farm sheds. In quiet villages squares, old men play boules in the shadow of ancient churches.
To cap off my trip in style, I opt for a traditional chateau, and Chateau la Caniere is considered the best. Last year it was awarded the Auvergne's only five-star status. It's surrounded by eight hectares of manicured lawns. It's the kind of place where a pipe and cravat feel almost mandatory.
Inside, natural light pours through an elaborate domed roof into a central atrium beneath two mezzanine floors. There's a plush, low-lit library upstairs, as well as 20 rooms and six suites, all individually decorated.
Guests can even opt to be "king for a day", hiring out the entire chateau to host up to 170 guests. I'm picturing myself holding court in a cream tuxedo on the front lawn when it occurs to me that many of the experiences I've enjoyed here would simply not be possible in other parts of France.
The writer was a guest of Auvergne Tourism, Rail Europe, Chateau La Caniere and Vichy Spa Hotel.
FIVE MORE MUST-TRY AUVERGNE DISHES
A heart-attack-inducing blend of melted tomme cheese blended with pureed or mashed potato and garlic. Often served with roast pork or gourmet sausages.
LENTILLE VERTE DE PUY
Rich dark green lentils served with salads, stews and sometimes as a garnish with gourmet dishes. Cultivated in the volcanic soils of Le Puy region.
Stuffed sheep stomach (tripe) filled with bacon, herbs, and spices, onions, slow-cooked in a stew and served with vegetables.
LA POTEE AUVERGNATE
A delightfully comforting stew made from pork knuckle, bacon, sausages, cabbage and potatoes. Served with crusty bread and red wine.
And for dessert ...
TARTE AUX MYRTILLES
A tangy blueberry pie on shortcrust pastry made with fresh cream and served with creme fraiche or a blob of vanilla ice-cream to soften the taste.
Etihad Airways flies twice daily from Sydney to Paris via Abu Dhabi, daily from Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Fares from $1572. See etihad.com. Rail Europe has a range of rail tickets across 26 countries and 25,000 destinations, 11,000 train routes. Passes are available for one, two, four countries or all Europe. Trains include high-speed trains, night trains and scenic routes. Travellers can also choose single or multiple journeys over a few days to a few months. France Rail Passes start from $233 per person and $116 for children. Bookings made by Decembere 12 will receive a gourmet meal voucher in the TGV bar car. See raileurope.com.au.
Chateau la Caniere has 26 rooms and suites. Rooms range from €105 per night for one person to €600 per night for two people in a suite. See Chateau-la-caniere.com *Please note Chateau la Caniere is currently undergoing new ownership.
Vichy Spa Hotel, Les Celestins, 111 boulevard des Etats-Unis. Rooms cost from €140 per night (without breakfast), breakfast is €22. To access the spa (Jacuzzi; sauna hamman, fitness room) it's €20 per room. See vichy-spa-hotel.com
Le Château de Codignat: Rooms cost from €180 per night. Château de Codignat Bort l’Etang, Lezoux, see codignat.com/uk/index.php
Château de Savennes: Rooms costs from €85 per night. Lieu-dit La Vialle, Savennes, see savennes.com/english