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The 'Montagne bourbonnaise' or 'little Switzerland'
Between the Loire and the Allier rivers, the 'Bois Noirs' and the 'Monts de la Madeleine' form the 'Montagne bourbonnaise'. Its rounded hills, dotted with rocky outcrops, overlook green valleys filled with oak trees, chestnut trees, beeches, firs and birch trees. The 'Montagne bourbonnaise' is perfect for hiking, horse riding, mountain biking and more casual walks. 400 kilometres of marked footpaths give the hiker the chance to discover an environment of unexpected beauty. The 'Puy du Montoncel' stands out at a height of 1287 metres offering a spectacular panorama. In summertime, 'La Loge des Gardes', a small downhill ski resort in winter, welcomes fans of other, newer 'sliding sensation' sports.
The legendary Tronçais forest
In the northeast Tronçais forest is one of France's most superb expanses of forest. This huge forest of oak trees spreading over 11,000 hectares is also home to beeches and larches planted to force the oaks to grow even taller in search of the light. The 40-metre trunks mean that the leafy canopy is as high as a cathedral. This magnificent forest once crossed by Julius Cesar and restored under Colbert, conserves the traces of the passage of man. Springs rise up from the earth at several points and create streams that flow beneath the leaves: around forty fountains have been counted. Some of the oak trees, which began life 350 years ago, are still around today: it is thought that the 'Chêne Carré' (Square Oak) started out life in around 1630, and the 'Sentinelle' (Sentry), with a circumference of 6.55 metres, is undoubtedly one of the oldest listed oak trees. The nearby 'Jumeaux' (Twins), apparently grew up from the same stump 403 years ago! In total, 19 remarkable trees can be found in this forest. The oaks of Tronçais forest have been the perfered oak forFrench naval ships and are also prized in making barrels for Cognac and fine Wines in Bordeaux.
The Allier Valley nature reserve
In the Allier Valley the turbulent then doleful river has imprinted its bucolic charm upon the surroundings. To the south of Moulins, the Allier Valley nature reserve stretches over 21 kilometres. It is managed by France's National Forestry Office (ONF), assisted by the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO), and is open to visitors. Footpaths dotted with signs providing themed information allow visitors to really discover the site. Over 250 species of birds have been spotted here, which is as many as in France's other bird haven region, the Camargue. And some are rare and remarkable: the little tern, the longhaired, chamois-coloured Squacco heron, the Osprey and the European Bee-eater with its colourful plumage.
Here and there
The territory's other varied landscapes are also blessed with a charm that cannot be found elsewhere. There is the patchwork countryside of the 'bocage bourbonnais', which has remained unchanged for centuries, a mosaic of green meadows criss-crossed by wild hedgerows. There is the rocky Combraille landscape visited by the Sioule River as it descends towards the Allier and edged by the Cher River which flows into a valley that is ideal for outdoor sports. And to the east are the mild and humid areas of 'Sologne bourbonnaise' and the Besbre River Valley, with abundant semi-aquatic plant life and numerous bird havens.