I first visited Le Puy en Velay nearly 30 years ago, with Alf, as we traced the steps of pilgrims on the route from this starting point to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain – one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. What a special place to begin a pilgrimage.
This area of the former county of Velay, in the south western Massif Central, is volcanic. As well as numerous dead volcanoes, it contains various strange landscape features, notably several isolated plugs of rock pointing skywards. On one of these is the chapel of St Michel d’Aiguilhe. The well-formed stairway up this rock brings you to wonderful views over Le Puy and the tiny Romanesque chapel at the top. Linger a while in here and it provides an experience of perfect peace before the start of the journey.
The conventional starting point, and major architectural feature, is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy (Church of our Lady of the Annunciation, ie Mary) dating chiefly from the first half of the 12th century. The striking Romanesque exterior and the splendid cloisters are to me evocative of some of the architecture of northern and even southern Spain.
The interior is dominated by a spotlighted statue of a ‘black virgin’ Mary and child (below). Strangely, the child Jesus emerges up through the virgin’s dress. But this is some invention of recent Catholicism – there is also on display a 1943 ‘copy’ of the much more harmonious original that was destroyed at the time of the French Revolution.
Just near to the cathedral is yet another Virgin and Child, the huge and dominating iron statue of Notre-Dame de France, made from 213 Russian cannons taken in the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855). You can walk up the hill to this Red Mary as well, but for me it is nothing compared to those fine medieval buildings.
There is much more to see in Le Puy, an attractive but hilly town to walk around. Nowadays, on summer evenings, the main historic buildings are floodlit or have images projected onto them, so it is well worth staying for an evening stroll.
A visit to Le Puy is a chance to plug into a great stream of European consciousness extending over millennia. So much aspiration and devotion is imprinted here.