I KNEW the Auvergne was very much the rustic heart of "real" France – France where speaking in English just won’t cut the moutarde, and the two-hour lunch is still as fundamental to life as buying only a French-manufactured car. And, yes, all of that was borne out within the first hour of arriving in Clermont-Ferrand, but there were many surprises too once I delved into this beautiful region.

With glacier-carved valleys and astonishing volcanic peaks, its remarkable landscape puts you more in mind of parts of Iceland than traditional Clochmerle. The Chaine des Puys – a 40km chain of craters and lava domes – makes for a dramatic backdrop, and equally striking are its dark, volcanic rock buildings, such as is found at the gargoyle-encrusted Notre Dame cathedral in Clermont.

Though initially heading for the spa town of Vichy, I took a route that dropped me first into two iconic symbols of Clermont: L’Aventure Michelin and the Clermont Auvergne rugby club.

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In a renovated former workshop, L’Aventure Michelin is a 2,000sq m interactive exhibition which tells the story of the city’s largest employer, the Michelin Group. Here you find everything from the first removable pneumatic tyre to the eponymous maps and guides, not to mention a superb visual, chronological and themed visit route tracing the life and work of the two brothers who founded the company in the late 19th century.

Just over the road stands the impressive Marcel-Michelin sports stadium where the ASM Clermont Auvergne rugby team has become an institution its own right. The newly opened ASM Experience is the very first cultural and interactive theme park devoted entirely to rugby.

I was shown around by Neil McIlroy, the former Jed-Forest front row who is now Clermont’s rugby manager (another Scot, Gloucester and Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw, will be arriving shortly for the 2017/18 season). Having been a rugby wife for decades I didn’t need to feign interest in the high-tech exhibits that explain how the club was founded and the rules of the oval ball. You can join the scrum, find out more about what goes on behind the scenes at a leading club and imagine what it’s like to play international rugby.

From the very new to the nostalgic and a feeling of going back in time …Vichy, famed for its spa water and its puppet government during the Second World War. This town has the same sort of faded grandeur you find in Biarritz. Vichy was the queen of the spa towns in the time of Napoleon III, and even today you can see the trappings of its high-status past: the wonderful spas, a prestigious Art Nouveau opera house, villas in diverse styles, good-quality hotels, casinos, a racecourse and more than 340 acres of parks and gardens on the shores of the Allier lake.

Vichy was capital of France for more than four years from 1940 due to the town's relative proximity to Paris, and because it was the city with the second largest hotel capacity at the time and had a modern telephone exchange.

I stayed in the modern Vichy Celestins Spa Hotel which is connected by a covered footbridge to a huge thermal spa. The hotel rooms are comfortable; the spa is great for water therapies (I was less fond of the heat ones), the food in the N3 restaurant is exceptionally good, and the wi-fi, in common with much of France, is plain awful.

The best restaurant in Vichy has got to be Maison Decoret, a Michelin-starred, Relais & Chateaux restaurant with rooms in a beautifully renovated Napoleon III house. The attention to detail of both the interiors and the food is exceptional. Chef Jacques Decoret combines unexpected flavours and uses the best Auvergne ingredients to make a meal here a highlight of any trip.

We only had time to take in two of the many beautiful villages of the region, but they were little gems. Charroux is arguably the best preserved of all Auvergne villages. An important trading crossroads in the Middle Ages, Charroux still has features of the period such as sculpted stone facades from the 15th century and a wonderful 14th-century corbelled, half-timbered house, and is famous today for its mustard, made from white Saint-Pourcain wine.

The other culinary highlight of the trip was at Restaurant La Ferme Saint Sebastien. This little Auvergne jewel, recommended by Michelin, is a bargain, with menus ranging from £22-35, jaunty rustic decor, super-cheery owners and one of the best cheese trolleys I’ve ever seen. The menu is small, but each course is a delight and it is with great pride that they promote their regional dishes. Chef Valerie always serves delightful seasonal dishes and local wines – don’t miss the speciality courgette fritters.

From Charroux it was off to what was the capital of the Auvergne until the French Revolution – Riom – listed as a "ville d’art et d’histoire". With 16 listed monuments including an impressive Renaissance clock tower, Consul’s House and various churches of note, it’s worth an afternoon or an overnight stay.

Having had the big hotel experience I wanted one night in a traditional chambre d’hote and that was exactly what I got when checked into Domaine de Cambrai. The delightful owners, Yvon and Suzy Bec, prepared truffade for the evening meal – the most typical dish of the Auvergne, made of sliced potatoes, garlic and fresh Cantal cheese, and delicious on a cold winter’s night. You’re a 10-minute drive from Clermont-Ferrand but the rustic setting feels a world away. Yvon and Suzy are keen Anglophiles – Scotophiles, in fact – and charming hosts, and their house is full of charm, comfortable and a huge bargain at £70 a night for two, including a hearty breakfast with homemade honey, jams and breads.

Clermont’s not a classically pretty city. It’s industrial and gritty, but it’s also friendly and quirky, and has a stunning mountainous backdrop. The 12th-century Notre-Dame du Port basilica, on rue du Port, is a beauty.

I didn’t find any culinary high spots, but for a city of 140,000 it’s got some surprisingly good pubs.

My favourite was the Long John Silver (10 rue Terrasse), a Breton bar just back from the place de la Victoire, where the owner pulls very fine pints and regales you with stories of the Celtic similarities between Brittany and Scotland. There's live music at weekends too, making it a good find.

I will return and explore more of this region, pottering along the backroads, stopping at country inns and stretching my French vocabulary. It’s a shame there’s no direct flight from Scotland, but the KLM connections via Amsterdam are well-timed, and another of my favourite places in France – Lyon – is not too far away, and Easy Jet fly there from Edinburgh, so that could be a good two-centre idea for spring.

TRAVEL NOTES

Getting there

EasyJet has return flights from Edinburgh to Lyon from £46 return. Visit easyjet.com.

Where to stay

Vichy Celestins Spa Hotel has rooms from £113. Visit vichy-spa-hotel.fr/en.

Domaine de Cambrai, Le Marais, Riom has B&B for two from £70. Visit domainedecambray.com.

Where to eat

Maison Decoret, 15 rue de Parc, Vichy. Visit jacquesdecoret.com.

Restaurant La Ferme Saint Sebastien, Chemin de Bourion, Charroux. Visit fermesaintsebastien.fr.