Le Puy-en-Velay is visually stunning and a ‘must see’ on any tourist agenda. The red-roofed town is a major pilgrimage centre and both a ‘Ville d’Art et d’Histoire’ and a Unesco World Heritage Site covering a 35km2 conservation area. Held in the hollow of an ancient volcanic crater between mountains, the surrounding forest sprouts many stubs of cones and volcanic hills (puys). Le Puy itself crowds round some of the most spectacular, decorating them with churches and a statue to create a fantasy landscape.
Most amazing is the Rocher Corneille in the old town – a cone crowned with a massive red-painted statue of the Virgin and Child cast from cannon seized at Sebastopol in the Crimean War. Climb the rock’s 130m and then on inside the statue (open daily) and emerge to the bizarrely wonderful sight of a town overlooked by 2 further volcanic cones, each balancing a church.
Dominant is twelfth century Cathedral Notre-Dame-du-Puy, its strikingly patterned façade of yellow, black and reddish stone reached by 60 steps on rue des Tables. Romanesque architecture combines with Moorish in the geometric patterns and colours of stone and mosaic, 6 domes and lovely eleventh and twelfth century cloisters. The cathedral’s Black Madonna is paraded through the town in her finery on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August) though she’s a copy of the original brought back from the Crusades but destroyed during the Revolution.
Enjoy a stroll through the narrow cobbled streets of the old town to look for gifts and take some well earned refreshment before setting off for another breath-taking sight. The eleventh century Chapel of St-Michel Aiguilhe was built on top of an 82m high volcanic pillar by order of Bishop Godescale in 962 after his return from pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (see Activities, Hiking for more). The fittest can climb this rocky needle (aiguilhe) to the chapel via 268 almost vertical steps. It’s open daily from February to October and mass is said here in summer. Le Puy is thronged with hikers at this time of year eager to begin their own pilgrimages along the GR65 Via Podiensis trail which starts from place du Plot. There’s so much to see in Le Puy. Walking tours of the town include magical night-time excursions and take between 2 and 3 hours. Finally, be sure to visit Le Puy’s lace museum and Musee Crozatier (see Events and Culture for more).
The Gothic abbey church of La Chaise-Dieu (Seat of God) makes a trip to this remote hillside village in the Livradois-Forez Regional Natural Park worthwhile. Founded in 1043, the abbey was an important monastery during the Middle Ages and building continued into the fourteenth century with the cloisters. The monks choir stalls are exquisitely carved. Vividly coloured sixteenth century Flemish tapestries hang above depicting biblical scenes. A very special fifteenth century fresco measuring 26m, known as the ‘Danse Macabre’, shows Death inviting a series of figures to dance. Pope Clement VI studied here as a monk and La Chaise-Dieu is his final resting place.
The village is easy to explore, medieval buildings focus on the square in front of the church and there’s a museum telling of life as a monk in the twelfth century. Experiment with whispers in the ‘Salle de l’Echo’ on place de l’Echo. Acoustics in this seventeenth century room meant a monk could hear the confessions of a leper or contagiously sick person with backs to each other from opposite corners of the hall. Each summer the village hosts a classical music festival. (See Events and Culture and contact the local Tourist Office for details).
Set on a hillside beside the River Senoine, Lavaudieu grew up around an eleventh century women’s abbey attached to the Benedictine Monastery at La Chaise-Dieu. This pretty village of stone houses with wooden balconies is listed as ‘Un des plus beaux villages de France’. The abbey church of St-Andre has the only intact Romanesque cloisters in the Auvergne and is open every day but Tuesday mid June – mid September. Huge frescoes in the refectory show Christ with symbols of the 4 evangelists. Sadly, the church lost part of its bell tower after the French Revolution.Visit Lavaudieu’s museum of folk art and traditions in the village square which shows a typical Auvergne home and the stained glass window centre.
Brioude stands near a crossing of the River Allier at the gateway to its famous gorges, making it a great centre for all manner of green leisure pursuits like hiking, cycling, canoeing and fishing. For centuries, it has been a stopping place on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and home to the largest and one of the finest Romanesque churches of the Auvergne – Basilica of St-Julien de Brioude.
The Basilica was built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries on the site of an earlier fourth century church sheltering the tomb of St-Julien the Roman soldier martyr. The vaulted nave was added later. The church became a place of pilgrimage and contains some of the most beautiful Gothic-style furniture and statues in the region. The interior is a feast of colour, from the twelfth and thirteenth century frescoed chapel of St-Michel, carved and illuminated capitals, wonderful painted stone arches and columns and medieval pebble mosaic floor, to the contemporary stained glass windows of Kim en Joong (a Dominican priest who studied fine art in Seoul).
The town has a laid-back southern feel and is a delight to explore. Other fine buildings to view are the fifteenth century Gothic half-timbered Madarin’s House and a medieval Hotel du Doyenne (Dean’s residence) which has a wonderful thirteenth century painted ceiling. Don’t miss Brioude’s museums of lace, and salmon and the river.
The pretty village of Lavoute-Chilhac nestles in a loop of the River Allier at the end of the famous gorges, its eleventh century Clunaic Priory built on the site of an ancient fortress. Anchored in rocky banks, a magnificent medieval 4 arched bridge crosses the river to more nineteenth century houses appearing to grow out of wooded cliffs.
Children playing by the river in the fifteenth century found a pebble in the shape of the Virgin Mary which ensured the Priory and church of Saint-Croix became a pilgrimage site. Buildings seen today are a mixture of medieval fortifications and later eighteenth century additions and renovations. At the Priory, you’ll find the House of Birds ornithology centre, full of films and exhibitions about wildlife of the Upper Allier. Find information on their summer nature walks on tel: (00 33) 4 71 77 43 52.
Children will love Lavoute-Chilhac’s maze open in July and August. You can go round it at night. There’s also supervised swimming from the town beach in summer and sunbeds. The whole family should find a visit to the Ally Rodde Mine interesting. A geologist will take you on an hour-long visit underground to the world of nineteenth century antimony and silver lead miners. Open every day July and August and by appointment at other times May to October. Tel: (00 33) 4 71 76 78 71 or contact the local Tourist Office.
Above ground, on the windy Ally plateau, visit windmills old and new with a trip to restored mills like Pargeat, built in 1817, and the turbines of Ally-Mercoeur Wind Park. There are guided tours and Le Moulin du Calvaire has a viewing platform with panoramic views of windmills backed by mountains.