Climbing to a chapel in the sky
The broad stone steps are still slippery from the rain as I start up the side of the rocky needle toward the Chapel of St. Michel d’Aighuile. I pick my way carefully as I climb…97…98…99….100.
The building up at the top is tiny, meant for dozens of people, not a crowd. It’s 269 feet in the air, overlooking the city of Le Puy en Velay and the valley of the Haute-Loire. The Romans probably came up here to worship at an altar dedicated to Mercury, and the original Christian shrine was likely much smaller than what we see today – a graceful little 12th-century chapel with a claustrophobic Romanesque vault and several ancient frescoes still visible on the wall.
But I’m not even halfway there yet. When I look up there are still 168 more steps to come, and when I move aside to let other, younger climbers pass, I let my mind slip back over the centuries…
It’s 962 A.D. in the deep heart of France
Of course, my first thoughts are about engineering. (What did you expect from an old I.T. guy?) How did it happen that this remarkably sharp needle of volcanic lava came to exist? And given that it does exist, how did builders in 962 A.D. manage to get materials and workers to the point of the needle to build this perfect little chapel?
The answer to the first question is straightforward, if not exactly obvious. This whole valley, near the origins of the Loire River, was once covered in earth and sedimentary rock. When one of the region’s hundreds of volcanoes erupted, lava spilled down into a fissure in the earth. Over a period of eons, the earth and rock were worn away, exposing the “needle” in the middle of the valley.
Sadly, we just don’t know much about the second question – how was it built? Even so, my thoughts turn to the motivation of those builders – why would they endure the tortures of working in such an impossible place? The answer is simple enough to say: it was their devotion and deep faith that drove them. And while I’m neither Catholic nor conventionally religious, I can’t help but be moved – profoundly moved – by their devotion as it is represented in this powerful site in the deep heart of France. A thick lump arises in my throat as I turn and resume the climb to the top.
A history focused on a distant destination
We’re in Le Puy en Velay, a small but incredibly historic city in the southern reaches of the Auvergne in central France. It’s also a city with a unique skyline, one of the most iconic profiles in all of Europe (Michelin gives it a full 3 stars, and polls in France rank it among the country’s top 5 sites to visit). Its lasting legacy is a collection of religious sites tied to Le Puy’s presence on the Chemin de Saint Jacques – the famous El Camino, the “Way of Saint James”.
You may already know that it’s hard to move in any direction in the deep heart of France without encountering a stop along one of the medieval routes that led pilgrims to Compostella in northern Spain. Le Puy, though, is the starting point for one of the four traditional pilgrimage routes to Compostella. This one, though, is considered by historians to be “the original and most authentic”.
It’s a thousand-mile journey from the front steps of Le Puy’s great cathedral to Santiago de Compostella. Pilgrims have been going there since at least 812 A.D., when the purported remains of Saint James (one of Jesus’s Apostles) were discovered and placed in a golden reliquary at the Spanish cathedral.
(Of course, Compostella is itself a magnificent destination. When Karen and I finally went there in 2016 [by car!], we were overwhelmed by the numbers of people thronging the city’s squares and assembling for Mass in the enormous church. Clearly, though, the journey is as important as the destination for most of these pilgrims; even in a cool, off-season month, we were impressed by the thousands of small groups and hearty individuals we encountered for hours along the highway leading in the direction of Compostella.)
The origin of the Via Podiensis
Some of the earliest Christian communities in France took root in Le Puy en Velay; historians believe missionaries were coming here to convert the Gauls as early as 250 A.D. That’s when Saint George, known in legends as one of the “70 original apostles” from the Gospel of Luke, became Le Puy’s first bishop and performed the healing miracles associated with his name.
Centuries later (in 951 A.D.) the Bishop Godescalc made the 2,000-mile roundtrip to Compostella, and when he came home to Le Puy en Velay he decided to celebrate the occasion by commissioning that chapel in the sky, the Chapel of St. Michel d’Aighuile. According to some sources, Godescalc was exceedingly influential on future generations of pilgrims because he was the first non-Hispanic person to make the trip to Santiago.
In any case, this became the point of origin for the part of “El Camino” known as the Via Podiensis, and pilgrims have been coming here for the symbolic launch of their journey for centuries. In fact, every morning – 1,067 years later – people still gather today at the cathedral in downtown Le Puy to have their walking sticks blessed and to hear a special Mass as they undertake the long walk to Spain.
An All-Star Cast of Pilgrims
It’s not surprising, then, that Le Puy has always been important in the history of French Christianity – and not surprising, either, that it has always attracted visitors of the highest rank. When you’re in Le Puy, you’re walking in the footsteps of Charlemagne (two visits, 772 and 800 A.D.) and Isabelle Romée (the mother of Joan of Arc, in 1492). The early Kings of the Frankish tribes came here, to be followed by at least 8 Kings of France; Louis IX came twice (leaving behind a gift of a statue of the “Black Virgin”) and Louis XI came here 3 times in the late 1400s, reputedly stopping 10 miles away from town to walk the last leg of the trip to the cathedral in his bare feet.
A UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral at Le Puy
Their objective: the massive Cathedral of Our Lady of the Annunciation in the center of the city. The size of an aircraft hangar, this remarkable 12th-century building is part of a network designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites along the French routes leading to Santiago de Compostellla.
Like the other great churches in the Auvergne (Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand, the Cathedral at Brioude, and many others), the architecture of Le Puy’s Cathedral is Romanesque – lots of rounded arches in perfect mathematical symmetry and columns topped by spectacular, sometimes grotesque carvings. Frescoes were painted directly onto the walls, and some of the arches are done in polychromatic stones, alternating light sandstone and dark lava.
It’s a sharp climb from the lower part of town up to the Cathedral – then 60 steps more up to the main floor itself. You can take a quiet walk around the cloisters attached to the main building, one of the best-preserved examples I’ve seen in the deep heart of France. A small museum displays cloaks, mitres, and the implements of office associated with some of the very long line of Catholic Bishops who have served the church here.
A Virgin cast from Russian cannons
I mentioned that Le Puy en Velay has one of France’s most iconic, instantly-recognizable skylines, thanks especially to the Chapel of St. Michel d’Aighuile and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Annunciation. But there’s a third massive element to that skyline profile: an enormous red iron statue of the Virgin Mary perched on the highest volcanic bluff overlooking all the rest.
It’s called Notre Dame de France, and it was given to the town in 1860 with a crowd of 120,000 looking on. The sculptor was Jean-Marie Bonnassieux (you can see his work in Notre Dame in Paris as well as on a couple of the gravesites at the Pere LaChaise cemetery) – and it has this unusual characteristic: to cast it, Bonnassieux melted down 213 Russian cannons captured during the 2-year Siege of Sebastapool in the Crimean War!
Le Puy has other claims to fame
Of course, a town this rich in ancient and medieval history must have other, more commercial concerns to stay viable over the centuries. In the case of Le Puy en Velay, two particular products have come to be associated with the city:
The green lentils of Le Puy (Lentilles vertes du Puy – it’s an officially protected Appelation d’Origine in France). These tiny peas are a staple of traditional cuisine in the deep heart of France, one of the region’s most enduring “comfort foods”.
The dentelle du Puy – fine lace produced in several ateliers around town. Most of it is produced these days by machine, although there are still a few places where it’s done by hand. (You can see a demonstration in this video and understand why production has shifted to more “automated” means!)
A late summer evening in Le Puy
I’m sitting outside in a café just off the Plaza of the Fountain, enjoying the late-August vacation culture of France. There are hundreds of people around me; a raucous accordion band at the next restaurant over has everyone clapping rhythmically and hooting. Pre-teen girls are dancing with their fathers; 20-year-old dogs lie under the tables, happy to be out of their city apartments for more than just a quick walk. While Paris is empty, everyone is here in Le Puy, celebrating summer.
And Le Puy is a great base for an extended vacation. In addition to the extraordinary medieval sites right here in town, you’re only a few miles from the powerful Chateau de Polignac, sailing like a great battleship on its own volcanic plateau just to the north of town. Three of France’s “most beautiful villages” – Arlempdes, Pradelles and La Garde Guerin – are near here, and there are hundreds of opportunities for camping, canoeing, hiking, and trail riding within easy driving distance.
This, for me, is everything I love about traveling in the deep heart of France. A fine meal surrounded by centuries of history, access to the natural beauty of the French wilderness, stories to be told by almost every building and public square I pass…and all of it conveniently concentrated here in Le Puy en Velay!
Have you ever visited Le Puy? What did you find most interesting there? Are there other places like this you’ve discovered in your travels around France? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second, please, to share this post with someone else who’s interested in France by clicking on the button(s) for your preferred social-media platform(s).
Except as otherwise noted, all photographs in this post are copyright © 2017 by Richard Alexander