Extraordinary things in an ordinary place
As I walked into the little village of Orcival on a bright autumn morning, I was momentarily distracted by a dog standing in the 2nd-story window of an old house. This alert little guardian interested me enough to stop to take his picture. As I started to put away my camera, though, I was startled by a loud voice in the upstairs window behind me.
“Hey, you – you that likes taking all those photos of my house.” Uh-oh, I thought; he must be offended that I might be invading his privacy. So I was surprised when he went on. “Why don’t you turn around and have a look at my door, too?”
What followed was one of those serendipity moments I’ve encountered so often in my travels through the deep heart of France. We talked for almost 20 minutes. “I’ll bet you just came here to see the church,” said my interlocutor, “but there’s a lot more here to see in Orcival. This house – my house – for example…it’s as old as the church [so almost 1,000 years old!].”
As we talked for a while, this most interesting villageois pointed out things I might never have noticed on my own. (I did, in fact, come here mostly to see the church!) “See the coat of arms there above my door? It’s the blason of Henri de Bourbon.”
“And above that window?” He pointed. “That’s the mark of Queen Marguerite herself.”
Photos and material for this post were gathered in the year before the current pandemic appeared. I know that not everyone can go to France right now. And with Covid-19 infections spiking again this winter, even people already in France may not be able to travel freely. This post, then, is for anyone already in France looking for someplace “off the beaten path” for a “local” vacation when that becomes possible – and for anyone else who holds out hope for travel like this when the world returns to a more normal situation. As always, though, it’s best to check before you go to be sure places mentioned here are open and welcoming visitors.
Notre Dame of Orcival - one of the most significant architectural achievements in the Auvergne
I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of these claims (for example, when I’ve searched for “Henri de Bourbon coat of arms” I haven’t found one that looks like the one above this door). But I did know from research before my visit that Orcival had some royal history; the land and communes in this region were part of the property claimed by the Counts (and later the Dauphins) of Auvergne for centuries, ending in 1243 C.E. These Counts were among the oldest and most powerful feudal lords in this area outside the limits of modern France, perhaps as far back as the 6th or 7th century C.E.
But it’s true today that most people come to see that magnificent church, the Basilica of Notre Dame of Orcival. There are five “major” Romanesque buildings in the Auvergne, and this is one of them (along with the deeply significant Notre-Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand, the churches in Saint-Saturnin and Saint-Nectaire, and the great abbey in Issoire)…
…and it is breathtaking! It has all the hallmarks of great Romanesque architecture – the thick walls, the rounded arches, tall columns capped by carved capitals, and barrel-vaulted ceilings. But Notre Dame d’Orcival feels different to me; it has a character that distinguishes it from other buildings like this – a feeling of having been lived in, well-used in the centuries since it was built beginning in 1148 C.E.
But the most famous “treasure” in Orcival survived all this. It’s the little statue sitting under a glass box on the altar of the basilica – a statue of the Madonna and Child brought here (to the original church that existed before this building) 1,000 years ago. It’s called “Notre Dame de Fers” – Our Lady of the Shackles. Legends say it was crafted by the Apostle Luke himself, and although it is not especially distinguished from hundreds of other similar statues we’ve seen, it gained a reputation through the centuries for being associated with miracles related to freeing of slaves and prisoners who had been unjustly convicted. That reputation was enough to assure Orcival’s place as a destination for religious pilgrims, and even now the statue is carried in formal procession up the hill behind the village every year on Ascension Day.
Making a day trip of a visit to Orcival
The little village of Orcival and the attractions that surround it make this a fine day trip from Clermont-Ferrand. The 40-minute drive out takes you through the Parc de Volcans (itself the only UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site in mainland France), so you won’t be surprised to find beautiful crater lakes like the one at the Lac de Guéry. (Formed two million years ago at the intersection of two lava flows, at an altitude of 1,244 meters / 4,081 feet, it’s shallower than some of the other lakes in the region. I haven’t tried it myself, but I’m told it’s the only place in France where ice on the lake in winter gets thick enough to support ice fishing!)
The other major attraction in this area is the comfortable little Chateau de Cordes, one of those medieval gems that appear so often in central France that you might think neighbors in the Middle Ages must have been constantly raising armies against their neighbors on the next hilltop. The castle sits in a forest just minutes outside the village of Orcival, so you could easily visit the great basilica in late morning, stay for lunch in one of the places around the village square, then make it back to the Chateau de Cordes on your way to Clermont-Ferrand for the evening.
Do you have a favorite place “off the beaten path” in the deep heart of France? Are there villages or natural sites you recommend to other travelers? Please share your experiences in the Comments section below – and while you’re here, please take a second to share this post with someone else who is interested in the people, places, culture, and history of central France.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are Copyright © 2020 by Richard L. Alexander