The city of Le Puy-en-Velay may not the first place you think of in France, but if you were a pilgrim in the Middle Ages, you would immediately recognize it as the place to start your journey to Santiago de Campostela. In fact, today you would do the same thing, beginning your first morning with a blessing in the amazing cathedral here, on the oldest route of the pilgrimage, established in 951.
Pilgrims came early to Le Puy, and no French pilgrimage was more frequented in the Middle Ages. Charlemagne came twice, in 772 and 800. Louis IX met James I of Aragon here in 1245. Louis XI made the pilgrimage in 1436, 1475, and 1476. Charles VIII visited it in 1495, François I in 1533.
Le Puy-en-Velay’s most striking attraction is the Cathedral of Notre Dame du Puy, dating from the first half of the 12th century and reached by a flight of 268 steps. It is built on top of a megalithic dolmen and has been a religious site for centuries, and a Christian site since at least the ninth century. The other amazing landmark is the huge statue of Notre-Dame de France, made from 213 Russian cannons taken in the siege of Sevastopol in 1854 and was completed in 1860. While we didn’t climb the steps to either, the view of the towering church and statue from various points around the city is stunning.
The city was also a major lace center – which went hand-in-hand with its religious focus. There is still a lace culture active today, in this modern city with its past just around each corner.
The early part of the day we visited the town of Brioude, where we had lunch and admired the Basilica of St. Julien, the largest Christian church in Auvergne. Built in the 11th-14th centuries, it has wonderful polychrome frescoes that now faint reflections of what must have been amazing colors and designs. Lovely. Lots of memorials to Lafayette in this area, as he was born nearby. He is not forgotten!