France is a Catholic country with strong links to its past. I love coming across little shrines dotted around medieval walled towns and roadsides – some quaint stone carvings, some amusingly tacky. But in Puy-en-Velay this lovely French tradition is taken to a whole new level. Huge statues and even a church perch precariously on top of volcanic pillars that jut out of the otherwise flat earth like stalagmites. Their looming presence gives the overall effect of being constantly watched over. I wouldn’t like to be a pickpocket here.
The reason for these massive, imposing religious reminders is that the town is also the start of one of the famous pilgrimage routes to the Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James is buried, in Spain. Although a religious pilgrimage doesn’t sound too hip, it’s in fact becoming trendy to do at least part of the route and I know 3 people that have been recently or are planning to do it – not because they’re Catholic but for personal spiritual or life-goal reasons. Last year almost 280,000 people made the journey – 20 years ago in 1997 it was just 25,000 – so it will soon be almost as popular a holiday destination as Ibiza (well not quite). But it’s another demonstration of the move from lazy ‘beachin-n-eatin’ breaks to more wholesome cultural experience trips like the yoga surf camps I wrote about recently.
Puy-en-Velay’s cathedral is one of the 78 structures along the route that’s designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Perched high on the Corneille rock is the statue of the Notre Dame de France (the town’s protective Virgin Mary), and you can’t miss the Chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe towering 82m (269 ft) high atop “Le Rocher” rock. How they get up to the chapel I’m not sure, but come out of the wrong door without looking where you’re going and it looks like you’re in danger of dropping off a cliff. You can get inside the Virgin (if you laughed at that you’d better pray for forgiveness) and climb up for a small fee of about €4. The walk up the hill, then up the statue, offers amazing views of the town. The story behind the statue is quite interesting – it was fashioned from 213 cannons captured during the Crimean War.
We’ve passed by this spectacular-looking town several times as it’s right in the middle of our journey from the Alps to SW France, and I’m so glad we decided to stop and spend the night to explore this time. We stayed with a lovely family in their spare room, booked through Air BnB, who even looked after our dog while we went out for dinner. The local delicacy is green lentils, which the town is famous for, and their unique flavour comes from the rich volcanic soil – definitely worth a try.