The mountainous region of Auvergne has long been one of the most overlooked destinations in France. Located between Dordogne and Lyon, it boasts some of the world’s most magnificent natural attractions, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites teanot des Puys volcanoes, the ancient thermal springs of Mont-Dore and bucolic Limagne — a rolling expanse of fields and pastures that has been compared to Tuscany.
Probably Auvergne’s least known treasure is Lake Pavin – a crater lake located just a few minutes west of Besse, a medieval town in the highlands of the Puy-de-Dôme department. Formed thousands of years ago from fierce conflicts between underground water and lava, Pavin is the deepest and most attractive lake in the region. Its sparkling crystal waters – calm and inviting – are reminiscent of the Mediterranean along the coast streams from Marseille. Surrounded by spruce, pine and beech trees, Pavin also offers extensive hiking trails and numerous picnic areas.
But the looks can be disappointing. Pavin is not an ordinary lake. Its strange history – full of hairy legends of infernal creatures and biblical-style cataclysms – reads like a Lovecraftian mythos. Some have claimed that water demons swim beneath its surface, boiling water when irritated. Others said that Pavin’s silent waves hid the ruins of a city – sunk for its sins. Above all, the local consensus was that the lake was guarded by none other than the Devil himself. Incredibly beautiful, it was also terribly haunted.
Some of these stories — which have been circulating for centuries — date back to the Middle Ages. Back then, it was said that whoever threw a stone into Pavin’s “immeasurable” depths would immediately start a fight. Louis Batissier, a 19th-century Auvergne historian and archaeologist, summarized this belief as follows:
It is said that if you throw a stone into a lake during calm, clear weather, the water will be agitated and a dense, electrically charged vapor will rise to its surface; it would thicken into dark clouds and soon you would witness a terrible storm. The sky is burning; thunder rumbles furiously, and rain and hail ravage the area.
Fascinatingly, recent studies have shown that the origin of this legend may lie in Pavin’s unique biochemistry. For example, in the 1980s, localized earthquakes or landslides caused Cameroon’s carbon dioxide-rich Lakes Nyos and Monoun to “explode.” Nyos not only released a poisonous cloud that killed more than 1,500 people, but also generated a series of bizarre phenomena, such as lightning, thunder, and a tall geyser-like column of water.
Like both of Africa’s “killer lakes” (as they are popularly called), Pavin also contains an overabundance of carbon dioxide and methane, chemicals that – when disturbed – can cause gas explosions above the surface. Is it possible that Pavin also flared up in the past? Could the memory of this disaster (or disasters) have influenced regional folklore? The answer, as strange as it sounds, is a resounding yes, according to Michel Meybeck, professor emeritus of the University of Paris.
“Pavin is a lake of exceptional nature, and this is related to its location in a volcanic region that always emits gases of magmatic origin,” Meybeck told me. “Its deep waters store these gases, but they occasionally escape.” Meybeck claims that the most recent of these very rare “limnic eruptions” (unknown to science until 1986) occurred at Pavino in August 1785. “It was when a column of swirling gaseous water rose for two hours amid lightning and thunder,” he added. . “However, if you take into account both the geographical data and the many legendary stories about the lake, this kind of event has happened several times in the last 2,000 years.”
For the most part, Pavin’s exciting history is like a legendary sunken city sleeping at the bottom of a lake: invisible to all but those curious deep-sea divers. Those who do find themselves in Auvergne should not make the mistake of skipping this mysterious lake – especially if they have a taste for, as the American writer Washington Irving said: “haunted places and dark superstitions”.
Andrew Manns (Ph.D.) is a historian and director of Visit Auvergne (visitauvergne.org), a project that seeks to promote the diverse cultural heritage of the Auvergne to an international audience. He also runs Hidden Clermont-Ferrand Tours – an English walking tour that explores the little-known legends and history of the Auvergne capital.