Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Le Puy-en-Velay

2 days, 485 kilometers (300 miles), Michelin driving tour # 10, the Vallée des Merveilles, check! Not even one hour south of Clermont-Ferrand is Lempdes sur-Allagnon, where we left the highway and entered the loop of the driving tour for day one of our adventure. The plan was to follow the tour as we saw fit, stop to walk in the places that interested us, and quit when we ran out of daylight. We had a bed and breakfast booked at the south end of the loop.
 
The first stretch followed l’Allagnon river south. The towns were small and the scenery fantastic. Soon after leaving Léotoing, the first town mentioned in the Michelin guide (tMg), we arrived in Massiac. Roberts especially loved the main thoroughfare; we found that many times the road led straight through a town, seemingly with only a car’s width between buildings. From Massiac we left the valley headed east for Brioude, a town situated on a terrace overlooking the Allier plain. Here we found Basilique St-Julien, the largest Romanesque church in the area. As Lauris was soundly sleeping, we left the tour for another time and headed south along l’Allier river, to Vielle-Brioude, or old Brioude. The town is perched on a rocky spur jutting out towards the river, and as we zigzagged our way down and out we could see an impressive winepress which according to tMg dates back to 1873.

Lavoût-Chilhac
Our next destination was Lavoût-Chilhac where I had hoped we could lunch. Although the restaurants were closed we found other motivation to walk around; the village is on the banks of the river, and the water washes up right to the base of the houses. We took advantage of the gorgeous backdrop to take a few pictures before continuing on to Chanteuges. Before Prades, another town that made Roberts’s list of favorites on this trip, we caught a glimpse of Ste-Marie-des-Chazes Chapel across the river, a beautiful chapel at the base of a basalt rock. In Prades we crossed the river yet again, and hiked in along the river a very short ways in order to better see the basalt cliffs. When we drove up to the top of the gorge we could see many columns of smoke; locals were using the weather (which was warm, sunny with little wind) to do some prescribed burning. In some places they were burning brambles off of fence rows, in other places it seemed that the grass fires would enrich the soil and prompt fresh growth.

We crossed the Allier again in Monistrol-d’Alier, a very beautiful little town and heading west rounded a curve to suddenly have Sauges appear laid out in the valley below us. At the spot was a nice little picnic area complete with a giant wolf chain-saw work of art overlooking the town. We stopped to pick up a baguette, cheese, sausage and chocolate at the local grocery before heading out back east to the Allier (Sauges is in la Seuge river valley, a tributary to Allier). On our way we passed through St-Préjet-d’Allier which has two dams spanning l’Ance, and kept on west to the Lac du Bouchat. The circular lake lies at the bottom of an old crater, and although no river or stream is known to flow into it, the waters are super-clear, suggesting they are constantly being renewed. And with that we turned back east, having already pressed our luck with daylight to see the lake. Soon we entered my favorite village on the trip, Chapeauroux, which was nestled right on the Allier. The old buildings once again bordered the road through, and train tracks stretched off into the distance following the gorge and passing through long tunnels and over tall bridges. I remembered visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and staring at the model train exhibit, wishing I could enter the tiny world; the architect must have been to Chapeauroux to take his inspiration!

Chateauroux
With the day’s last light our Nissan climbed the gorge opposite, higher and higher, finally passing through St-Cristophe-d’Allier and then reaching our inn, the Gite la Source. It seems that we were the only guests for the night, and we were shown to our comfy (if a bit chilly at first) room. Dinner was served in the dining room with two long tables; the three of us were at one, and the owner with her extended family at the other. With a giant fireplace that now contained a busy wood burning stove along one side we settled in for the traditional French dinner. First we had delicious country bread along with charcuterie and salad. This was followed by the main course, the best mashed potatoes with homemade sausage, and finally the cheese course, all local, all delicious, all served with a decanter of red wine. By this point we were so stuffed we had to decline the apple pie and only have ice cream…

The next morning was a simple breakfast, toast and jam, yogurt, coffee with milk which she specially warmed for us (and bowls to drink from). We said thank you and au revoir to the host and then off! through Chapeauroux departing the Allier gorge for that of the Loire. Our first stop was Arlempdes, where a medieval castle is perched on a spur of volcanic rock. With Lauris in arms we were ready to explore the ruins, but it turns out entry is seasonal, and so we settled ourselves with a drive down to the river to take in the view from below.

At last we arrived at the main attraction, le Puy-en-Velay, located in a plain set in a depression out of which rise enormous volcanic peaks. We parked and set out for the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in the center of the city. Now a World Heritage Site, it was expanded in the 12th century, restored in the 19th, houses the Black Virgin and is at the base of the largest of the volcanic peaks, Corneille rock (or Mont d’Anis) crowned by a giant sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. We climbed it after quickly exploring the cathedral (we discovered that despite the numerous signs appealing for complete quiet, Lauris insisted on singing his praise of the beautiful interior). At the top it was very windy, and after climbing up inside the statue (which was made from 213 Russian cannons captured at Sebastobol nearly 200 years ago) we descended and wound our way back through the old town to our parking spot. We drove a very short distance to St-Michel rock which is crowned by St-Michel chapel, and although we decided to climb it another time, we circled the base on foot to gain a full appreciation for the steep cliffs stretching to the sky.


Cathédrale Notre-Dame


St-Michel
As we headed northwest we made a small detour past Polignac, whose fortress is situated on a basalt plateau. Next, Château de St-Vidal, a castle which was the fief of Baron Antoine de la Tour, governor of Velay in the 16th century. Then, Château de Rochelambert and finally Château de Chavaniac-Lafayette, the residence where Marie-Joseph-Gilbert, Marquis de La Fayette was born in 1757. Although all three chateaus were open for tours, we were content taking a look from a distance, from where one can see the château and its surroundings better. At some point we will have to explore a few of these castles, many have been turned into hotels and are themselves destinations.

Now we turned north to follow la Senouire. Surrounded by Parc Naturel Régional du Livradois-Forez, there were ample signs of timber harvests the whole way. We passed a comfortable looking inn north of Mazerat-Aurouze, and stopped in a woodworker’s shop to buy a little wooden pull-toy for Lauris. And finally another turn in the road and we could see Église Abbatiale St-Robert, the famous abbey of La Chaise-Deau. Rebuilt as it is today in the 1300s, it was restored after WWII and repairs on the great organ were only finished in 1995. Once again daylight began to fade and so we headed towards home, crossing the Allier in Auzon.
 

As we unwound from the many hours spent in the car, we agreed that we would return. The preferred valley was l’Allier valley, even though the Loire seems to be a more popular destination. With nicer weather and a less ambitious itinerary there would be plenty of time to explore a section of the gorge, once again staying at a small bed and breakfast somewhere along the way. Roberts remarked that he never had imagined France to have such topography outside of the Alps, and I was still remembering the beautiful churches and views along the way, but we both look forward to more trips to the region.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome; Forss.
    Allen from Troy Michigan

    ReplyDelete

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