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A week in the Haute-Loire, September 2012

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
This trip report was originally published on Slow Travel. All the pictures can be found here.

BACKGROUND TO THE TRIP

We enjoyed Brittany so much the previous year that we decided we wanted to see more of France in 2012. We decided on a week in the Loire Valley followed by two weeks in the Auvergne. This is mountainous country with many narrow winding roads. I soon realised that this covered a large area and looking at the maps driving times would be slow. We decided to base ourselves in two different areas. We spent the first week in the Cantal before moving to the Haute-Loire.

We wanted to use Brittany Ferries to book ferry crossings and accommodation. We decided we wanted to be based near Le Puy-en-Velay, and there was only one suitable property, Le Betz de Verne near Lapte and about 40km north east of Le Puy-en-Velay.

Verne is a tiny hamlet on the D105 with a school and a bark processing plant. The Gite in Le Betz was down a side road which lead to a quarry. It was rather a scruffy entrance with parked cars and industrial machinery. The gîte was a typical old stone farm building with barn attached. It had very thick walls with small windows so was quite dark inside. Rooms which weren't used were cold and possibly a bit damp. It felt spartan. We wouldn’t chose to go back there and it seems as if it is no longer being let for self catering.


The nearest village to the Gite was Lapte which had a bakers, butchers and newsagent. It must have been quite an important settlement once as there were a lot of very large stone houses with three or four floors often with a teagle at the top.


The church built on top of the hill dates from 1889 but is thought to be built on an earlier Roman site. It was always locked.

The nearest supermarket was Yssingeaux which had a SuperU and an Intermarche.

As an area we found this less exciting than the Cantal.

As the report is long, I have broken it up into separate sections for the different places we visited.

#2 Impressions

#3 Cassaniouze to Lapte - Prieuré Bénédictin de Bredons

#4 Cassaniouze to Lapte - Blesle

#5 Cassaniouze to Lapte - Brioude

#6 Cassaniouze to Lapte - Basilique St-Julien, Brioude

#7 Le Puy-en-Velay and Cathédrale de Notre-Dame

#8 Le Puy-en-Velay, Chapelle St Clair and Rocher St Michel d’Aiguilhe

#9 To the east and south of Le Puy en-Velay - St-Pierre-Eynac

#10 To the east and south of Le Puy en-Velay - St-Julien-Chapteuil

#11 To the east and south of Le Puy en-Velay - Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille

#12 To the east and south of Le Puy en-Velay - Goudet and Arlempdes

#13 A day round Gerbier du Jonc - outward

#14 A day round Gerbier du Jonc - return

#15 To the west of Lapte - Grazac

#16 To the west of Lapte - Beaulieu

#17 To the west of Lapte - Polignac Fortress

#18 To the west of Lapte - Eglise Sainte-Anne et Saint-Martin-de-Polignac, Polignac 

#19 A day exploring the Loire Gorge to the west of Lapte - Retounac
#20 A day exploring the Loire Gorge to the west of Lapte - Château d’Artias

#21 A day exploring the Loire Gorge to the west of Lapte - Chamalières-sur-Loire

#22 A day exploring the Loire Gorge to the west of Lapte - Roche-en-Régnier

#23 A day to the north of Lapte - Rozier-Côtes-d’Aurec

#24 A day to the north of Lapte - St-Bonnet-le-Château

#25 A day to the north of Lapte - Montarchet

#26 A day to the north of Lapte - Marols

#27 A day to the north of Lapte - Saint-Jean-Soleymieux

#28 A day to the north of Lapte - Château d’Essalois and Chambles

#29 A day to the north of Lapte - Aurec-sur-Loire

#30 A day to the east of Lapte - Montfaucon-en-Velay

#31 A day to the east of Lapte - Chapelle Notre-Dame de Montfaucon and the Grimer paintings

#32 A day to the east of Lapte - Lalouvesc
#33 A day to the east of Lapte - Bozas
#34 A day to the east of Lapte - Boucieu-le-Roi
#35 A day to the east of Lapte - Désaignes
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
IMPRESSIONS

Everyone knows about the Loire Valley between Blois and Angiers, with its châteaux and vineyards. Few visit the upper reaches of the Loire Valley and the Haute-Loire Region is ignored by most of the guide books. It is an area of small towns and villages with some beautiful old churches and ruined castles.

This is on the eastern edge of the Massif Central, an area high plateau with wooded valleys and river gorges. Until the arrival of the railways it was a remote and isolated area.




It is an area of ancient volcanic activity with volcanic cones like Gerbier du Jonc. The hard lava plugs of old volcanoes rise up above the landscape. These are marvellous defensive sites as can be seen at Polignac where the fortress was built on top of vertical cliffs.


Others are the site of churches. The most famous is Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy en Velay, built on top of an 85m high plug. But there are many other examples like the tiny Église de la Chapellette on the D105 to the east of Yssingeaux.


There are also lava flows with hexagonal pillars at Ray Pic waterfall in the Lignon Valley and on the rocky cliff faces around Saint-Pierre-Eynac.


The headwaters of the Loire are found to the south around Gerbier du Jonc, in an area of rough moorland with poor grazing and commercially planted coniferous forests.


This is pastoral countryside with cows and some maize grown as animal fodder. By mid to late September most of the wild flowers had finished, but beautiful pale mauve crocuses were beginning to appear in the pastureland.


This is not wine country. To the east is the flat fertile valley of the Rhone with its vineyards, producing a lot of very serious wines.

Buildings from the local stone have low tiled roofs and there is often two or three decorative layers of tile beneath the roof.


We were disappointed by many of the larger towns like St-Bonnet-le-Chateau and, to a lesser extent, Le Puy-en-Velay, that featured in the guide books. There are many small villages and settlements scattered through the area, some with a long history based around an old ecclesiastic settlement as Rosier Côtes d’Aurec and Montarchet, with its fortified church, which are much more attractive and repay visiting.


Places like Boucieu-le-Roi and Désaignes are marketed as ‘Villages of Character’ and preserve a medieval feel with narrow cobbled streets and alleys lined with tall houses.


As always we headed to find the church. We are not particularly religious but enjoy the architecture as well as the statues and church furnishings. Many of the churches date from the C11th. We found something of interest in many of them, from the crypt in St Jean Soleymieux, to the frescoes at Brioude and the capitals of St Pierre in Montfaucon-en-Velay. There were also completely unexpected delights like the beautiful set of C16th paintings in Chapelle Notre-Dame de Montfaucon.

Belief in the power of the saints, especially the Virgin Mary, is still very strong. Many have candles lit in front of them and even electric lights. Walls are covered with small marble ‘merci’ plates giving thanks for wishes granted.


This is an area to explore using the map and following your nose. Most of the time we were the only foreign tourists. Many of the smaller places don’t have a web site and there is little information on the web, which is why I have written fairly detailed reports of them.
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
CASSANIOUZE TO LAPTE - PRIEURÉ BÉNÉDICTINE DE BREDONS

It was a lovely drive along the N122 from Aurillac in bright sunshine, along the wide valley bottom of the River Cère, with its wooded sides and bare rock. It was busy with a lot of traffic and places like Vic-sur-Céré are tourist honey pots. We were boring and drove through tunnel rather than along the old road over which loops up round the hillside to Super-Lioran and over the watershed. The weather on the other side was completely different, cloudy with no sun. Scenically it was different too with a lot of trees and not as interesting.

There is a superb view of the fortified church on top of the hill at Bredons, our first stop, as came into Murat.

Bredons is an attractive small hamlet of a few dark stone cottages. The church is at end of a lane away from the village. There is some parking here and splendid views.

Prieuré Bénédictin de Bredons is all that is left of a small C11th priory, built on the site of an ancient chapel of St Timothy. It was dedicated to Saint Peter and St Paul and fortified during the C14th and C15th. It never had more than six monks and a prior. The priory buildings are surrounded a square cloister. It was always poorly maintained and disbandoned during the Revolution. The buildings were plundered for building stone. The church was restored in the early C19th when there was a revival of religion.


It is a massive stone structure with very solid square tower with a small triangular top. There is a huge arch over the south doorway. This has three round pillars on each side supporting beautifully carved arches with a grotesque head carved above the central arch. Above are two small slit windows with what looks like a latrine between them; presumably from a priest’s room.


The inside has the wow factor with massive stone steps at the back leading to a gallery, a massive nave with huge pillars with carved tops supporting arches and many side chapels, each with elaborate retables.


Eyes are immediately drawn to the beautiful gilt painted retable above the high altar. Dated 1706 it is one of the largest and most beautiful in the Haute-Auvergne.


It is made of wood, but the altar base is painted to look like marble, and has a carving of the Lamb of God on the base surrounded by gilt garlands. On either side are red panels set in a turquoise surround, both painted to resemble marble. Above these are the massive gilded host box and retable. In the centre is a painting of the Ascension of Christ in an elaborate arch dated 1710. At the top is the figure of God the Father surrounded by scrolls and cherub heads. On the back wall above the retable are paintings of two trees, one with a serpent twinning round the trunk.


In a niche to the left of the high altar is a carving of Coeur de Jesus with an old painting of Mary and Jesus behind.

The SOUTH AISLE chapels have beautifully carved wooden screens across with flowers and heads.


The Retable de la Vierge has a bulbous wooden altar with a small statue of the Virgin on top. The blue and gilt retable has two angels in the centre holding a gilt crown with flower garlands below and scrolls and flowers on either side. Above is a carved nativity scene with a small cherub’s head above.

The Retable de St Joseph next to it has a stone altar with a small wooden retable above with a very old and dark painting. Red and yellow flowers and scrolls are painted on either side. At the top is a small blue niche with more flowers and decoration.

The NORTH AISLE has a series of altars along it. Next to the Chancel is the Retable of St Timothy on the east wall. Barley corn twist pillars with carved vines surround a blank frame. There are cherubs on top of the pillars and a cherub head on the top of the retable.

Next to it on north wall is Chapelle Funeraire, with a dark blue retable with a carving of Christ on the cross. There are skull and crossbones painted on the side panels along with tear drops. At the bottom is a small wooden carving of the Virgin carrying a small Jesus. Above is a bright blue canopy with a sun, moon and stars.


The next chapel contains the Retable de Rosarie. There is a wooden altar on the north wall painted green, yellow and brown to resemble marble. The shelves of the retable have green and gilt scrolls. Pillars have carved gilt grapes. The frame has gilt apples, pears, and grapes with green leaves. There is a carving of an angel holding a cross on the top with cherub heads.

The Retable du Couronnement de la Vierge is next. The altar is a stone pedestal with a big rough stone slab. The retable is painted wood with a white background and has barleycorn twist pillars with painted black and white grapes with green leaves. There are blue flowers with leaves and garlands of fruit on the sides. A decorative narrow frame has a picture of Mary surrounded by shepherds praying with sheep, oxen, dove and two figures above; one holding a cross.


In the nave next to this is Retable de l’ex voto. This has an C18th carved wood box altar, again painted to resemble marble, with painted flowers and leaves round the edges. In the centre is a picture of the Virgin with cherub heads . On each side is a niche with a pedestal, which should have housed a statue. Now they have a vase of flowers. There are cherub heads at the corners of the retable and a heart above the picture with more cherub heads and vases with carved wood flowers.


Retable de l’Assumption is on the north wall next to the Retable du Couronnement de la Vierge. The altar has a stone base with a stone slab above. The wood retable behind is painted to look like marble. It has blue barleycorn twist pillars with gilt grapes and gilt crowns on the top. A picture of Mary surrounded by cherubs is set in a gilt frame. There are cherubs above the picture and the figure of God the Father with two tiny figures above.

In the nave next to it is the Retable Deo Patri dated 1753. Again the altar base is painted to resemble marble. Above is an elaborately carved retable with 2 cherub heads supporting a niche which now holds a vase and flowers. There are gilt carvings of flowers and fruits, leaves and scrolls, with more scrolls on the top round the date which is on a blue background under a basket of flowers.

At the back of the church is a memorial to the dead of World War One, with eight names on it. There is a stone sarcophagus by the south door with stone slab next to it which has a carved cross and also an C18th large oak chest, Coffre des Marguilliers. There is a small stone font by the door and another on the side of the nave pillar at the back of church. The wooden pulpit has gilt stars and fleur de lis on the panels and more fleur de lis round the edge of the sounding board above it. By the side is a small wooden carving of Mary and child.


This is a fascinating place and a delightful setting above valley. It was specially open on the day we visited as part of the journees-du-patrimoine. Apart from that, there is some confusion as to when it is open. If you are wanting to visit, it is sensible to contact the Mairie d'Albepierre Bredons for information.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
CASSANIOUZE TO LAPTE - BLESLE

Blesle is a small town just north of Massiac and is described as one of the most beautiful villages in France. It has a long history, first as a Gallo-Roman settlement and later as a monastery for women, which was founded here in the C9th. This was very wealthy with numerous properties and churches. Gradually a town grew up round the Abbey. In the C11th the powerful de Mercoeur family settled here and built a château. The town was fortified during the Hundred Years War. The Abbey Church of St Pierre was used by the nuns, the town’s nobility and the officers of the justice. A second church, St Martin, served the rest of the town. During the Revolution, the Abbey was disbanded and the nuns dispersed.

It was lunchtime when we arrived and the place was deserted and felt rather spooky. The dull, slightly damp day didn’t help either. We parked in the large car park and set off to explore the narrow winding streets and alleys with the leaflet I had been sent by the tourism office. In the Middle Ages this had been an important and wealthy town and the large tower houses of the merchants and nobles still line the streets.




Several are in poor condition with plaster breaking off, revealing the timber frame or lathe construction beneath.




The huge C11th DONJON tower of the Barons de Mercoeur is in the centre of town and looks a bit like a big municipal water tower.


The C14thC bell tower is all that is left of ÉGLISE ST-MARTIN, which was demolished in the revolution. This only survived as it housed the town clock.


There are the remains of the fortifications and also the ditch (now a drain) which surrounded the town.


ABBATIALE ST-PIERRE is a long low building of plaster and stone, surrounded by housing. There is little left of the earlier building and most of the nave and chancel is C12th.


It has a massive south door with a series of round arches with carved flowers, which leads into the south transept. Above is a small bell cote. The tower was demolished in the Revolution.


The large round apse at the east end has smaller apses off. Carved heads on stone supports support the eaves.


A flight of steps leads down into the church. Just inside the south door is a large painting of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Directly opposite the south door is the small Chapelle du Rosaire on the north wall. This has a stone table altar and an old painted carving of Jesus on the cross, now minus arms. Next to it is the smaller Chapelle St-Catherine with a statue of Mary and Child above the altar and a carving of Mary holding the dead body of Christ on a wall plinth. The processional cross with a crucifix on the front is kept here.

The nave is narrow with tall slender columns with carved capitals.


It is dwarfed by the massive chancel.


On the north wall by the chancel arch is another carved marble altar with gilt inlay and a black and red design. It has a carving of Joseph and the young Jesus on the base. Above the host box is a wooden statue of Joseph and Jesus. The stained glass window above has a picture of the Holy Family and is set in a blue painted wall.

The brightly coloured decoration in the chancel and south apse are C19th.

Steps lead up to the altar rail in front of the high altar with host box and crucifix beneath a pillared canopy. Round the back walls of the apse are choir stalls. The blue ceiling dome has a painted roundel of Jesus blessing a kneeling figure. A niche protected by a glass door houses a reliquary box with cherub heads on the top which contains the bones of ‘National Saints’. Above the altar is a stained glass widow of God the Father.


South chancel chapel is also brightly painted and has bulbous marble altar with two gilt hearts in a red circle. The gilt host box has the Lamb of God on the door and a gilt statue above of Christ holding the Sacre Coeur. The stained glass window has a picture of Jesus appearing to Mary. The walls outside the south chancel have the remains of old frescoes on them.




On the south wall next to this is another smaller but equally brightly painted chapel. The altar has a monogram M and a statue of the Virgin and Child. Above the altar is a stained glass window of the Virgin. The bright blue ceiling has roundels with a picture of God and the Virgin.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
CASSANIOUZE TO LAPTE - BRIOUDE

Brioude is a very pleasant large town with wide streets and well kept buildings. There are clearly signed car parks around the edge of the town and there is little traffic or parked cars in town centre.

The town is built on a terrace overlooking the plain. The area around the Basilica is a network of narrow streets with old buildings.






The arcaded market hall is made of brick with decorative white stonework.


In the C4th, Julien, a Christian Roman soldier was martyred here. He was associated with performing miracles and a small church was built over his tomb. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb to pray. In the C9th a monastery was founded here. The present building is C11/12th. This monastery was disbanded after the revolution and the church became the parish church. It was granted the status of a basilica in 1957.

BASILIQUE ST-JULIEN is a colourful building of pink and yellow sandstone and red scoria. It has a long nave with side aisles. Above the transept is an octagonal tower with a bright yellow and red tiled pointed roof. There is a later square tower over the west door with louvered bell flaps.


The round apse at the east end has an ambulatory with five smaller apses off it. There are carved decorations below the eaves and a black and white stone design on the outside of the chancel apse.


Entry is either through the west door or the massive south porch which has pillars with carved capitals and round arches above the doorway. The arches were originally painted and there are remains of frescoes above the doorway. The door has huge decorative metal hinges and door knocker with an animal head which looks like a cross between hedgehog and pig.




The west end is heavily buttressed and has white stone pillars with red and white stripped arches above the doorway.


There is a smaller door into the north aisle which has a decorative pattern of black and white diamonds above the door.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
CASSANIOUZE TO LAPTE - BASILIQUE ST-JULIEN, BRIOUDE

basilique St-Julien is a beautiful building inside. The nave is very tall and narrow with side aisles with round arches supporting the ceiling. Red and white stone pillars support round arches. Some of the pillars have the remains of frescoes. Some are abstract designs, others are scenes with people. There are glimpses of frescoes in the south gallery above the west door.






The pillars have wonderful carved capitals with animals, heads and foliage. The pillars continue up to form the ribs of the vaulted ceiling.




The nave floor is covered with black and white pebbles arranged in decorative patterns.


Opposite the south door is Chapelle de la Croix. This has a black, white and grey tile floor arranged in geometric patterns. The carved wooden altar has a large retable with the crucifixion scene with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Martha and St John. On the north wall is a statue of the Virgin and Child and a modern icon of St Julian with scenes from his life round the edges.

There are three wooden doors on the north wall, one with a very elaborate carved portico round it. The huge organ is above the north aisle just before transept. The font is at the back of the north aisle. There is a medieval crucifix on the south wall of nave.


Near it, in a glass box, is a C14th gilt and silver statue of La Vierge Parturiente. This is very rare/unusual as it shows the Virgin about to give birth.


Next to her in a wall niche, is a C14th stone carving of Vierge a l’oiseau, holding the Christ Child. According to a legend, during the flight into Egypt, the baby Jesus made model birds out of clay and blew life into them.


Large iron railings preventing entry to the chancel. The massive C17th gilded altar has an open retable with barleycorn twist pillars with small statues of small statues of angels and Roman soldiers. The large host box has curved garlands above it supporting a small crown.


A semicircle of pillars with carved capitals and round arches separates the chancel from the ambulatory. Above are round topped stained glass windows with Biblical scenes.

The ambulatory round the back of the chancel has five chapels in the apses which are separated by round pillars with carved capitals and arches. The stained glass windows are a mix of pictures of saints and abstract patterns.

From the north side, the first apse has a bulbous wooden altar with a wooden retable with carved foliage and flowers. There are statues of Joan of Arc and St Bonite d’Alvier (with ducks) on either side of the apse.


The next apse has a wooden altar painted white with a gilt carving of the Sacre Coeur on the base. There is a low retable with gilt and blue panels and decoration. There is a statue of Joseph with the young Jesus standing beside him.


The central apse has a very decorative iron railing across it with M monograms on the gates. There is a beautifully carved wooden altar with gilt decoration and a gold cross in the centre of the base. Above is a low retable with a host box with more gilt decoration and a statue of the Virgin carrying the Christ Child.

Between the central and the next apse to the south is a very old dark wood statue , La Sanctuan de Notre-Dame de Laurie. This is a seated Virgin in blue with a sunburst on her chest and holding the Christ Child dressed in a red robe on her lap.

The next apse to the south has an iron altar rail with a M monogram. The marble altar has gilt carvings . The small retable has the host box with panels on either side, with gilt decoration. There is a statue of St Philomena above the host box and statues of St Foy and St Antony of Padua on either side. The vaulted ceiling is covered with frescoes.


The far right apse has a carved marble altar with two praying angels on either side of the Sacre Coeur. There is a cross on top of the host box and a large statue of Christ behind it. There are statues of St Theresa and St Jean Baptiste de la Salle (a cleric instructing a small boy) on the ambulatory wall next to this.

Steps lead down from the transept into the Crypt with the tomb of St Julian beneath the high altar. This has a vaulted ceiling with a metal grille protecting the sanctuary. This contains a metal relic box on a stone slab with St Julien carved on the side and a modern icon of St Julien on the wall above. In a niche on the wall opposite is a crucifix.


There is a massive gallery across the west end of the church with open arches looking down on the nave and side aisles. This is reached by a spiral staircase through a small wooden door in the wall at the back of the church. We think this was only open as
part of Journees-du-patrimoine, as there was a guided tour in the south gallery.

The Chapelle St-Michel above the south aisle is covered with C13th frescoes in shades of red, yellows and blues. These can be glimpsed from the nave below. The rest of the gallery is plaster and now bare and empty apart from an old altar under a polythene sheet.


There is a large fresco of Christ in Majesty on the ceiling with the symbols of the four Evangelists. It is surrounded by surrounded by dozens of angels.




The west window has two angels, with a dove between them, trampling on a dead body. There is a scene of Hell on the north wall with two griffin like figures breathing flames.




This is a wonderful building and the frescoes are amazing, particularly those in the Chapelle St-Michel.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
LE PUY-EN-VELAY AND CATHÉDRALE DE NOTRE-DAME

Le Puy-en-Velay is the administrative and service centre for the area and is about 25miles south east of Lapte. It is set in the heart of the Massif Central and surrounded by glorious scenery.


This was the starting point of the Pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and was first walked by Bishop Godescalc in 951. Ever since it has been a magnet for pilgrims and, later on, tourists. Pope Urban II announced the preparation for the First Crusade from here in 1095.

The town grew up round the base of two massive volcanic plugs. A small hermitage (Le Rocher Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe) was built on the smaller of these in 969 A cast iron statue of Notre-Dame de Puy was erected on top of the taller. in 1860. It was made using the metal obtained from hundreds of cannons that had been seized during the Crimean war and were given to the town by Napoleon III.


Tourist information have a leaflet with details of walks around Le Puy-en-Velay. Armed with this, we visited on a Sunday so parking was free. It was also the end of the Renaissance festival. This is an annual event based round the third Saturday in September and for four days everyone dresses up in costume. There are a series of music and drama events around the town including a stone carver and juggler, as well as tented camps serving food.

We parked in the large car park in the centre of the town opposite the Theatre and Palais of Justice. Narrow cobbled streets and alleyways and steps lead off the main street with a wide range of shops up to the Cathedral, built on the highest part of the town. These were lined with very tall stone buildings which were almost impossible to photograph.


At the foot of the hill, on a platform surrounded by the steep narrow streets of the Old Town, stands the 11th–12th-century Romanesque Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, which shows Byzantine influence in its octagonal cupolas and decoration. The adjacent cloister is mainly Romanesque but has Carolingian capitals.

CATHÉDRALE DE NOTRE-DAME is a World heritage Site. It was built on the site of a Roman pagan place of worship which was evangelised in the third century. There were reports of visions of the Virgin Mary and miraculous cures associated with a nearby ancient dolmen. The first building was begun about 415AD using some of the Roman masonry. Some of this carved masonry can still be seen round the back of the chancel.

Side aisles were added in the C6th and it was extended from 1000AD onwards. Most of the present building dates from the C12th, although there was a major restoration in the C19th. The capstone of the dolmen is now found in the floor of Saint Crucifix Chapel to the left of the altar. 

The cathedral was an important pilgrimage site and one of the starting points for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 



The Cathedral is almost impossible to photograph. It is a huge building of dark volcanic stone. The beautiful Romanesque west front with pillars and round arches is built from black and grey volcanic stone, with striped arches and mosaic decoration at top.

Lack of flat land for the C12th extension meant the last two bays of the nave and the west front were built above a sheer drop and supported by massive arcades.


Steep steps lead up to three open archways which lead into cavernous porch. (We made the mistake of approaching from the side so missed the glory of the full view of the west front.)


 The porch has two bays with vaulted ceilings. There are the remains of C13th frescoes on the walls, underside of the arches and pillars.




Facing are three huge doorways. The central door is known as the Golden Portal. On either side are the ‘Cedar’ Doors, which are actually carved pinewood. They date from the mid C12th and have a strong Arab influence, a result of contact with Muslim Spain and the Crusades. The left door is carved with reliefs of the Nativity. The right door depicts the Passion of Christ. The reliefs are surrounded by mock Kufic script and Latin inscriptions in a similar style.


The staircase from the porch comes out into the centre of the nave. On entering the cathedral the impression is of size. It has a huge nave of dark volcanic stone with massive pillars with carved capitals. The nave ceiling has six large cupolas resting on octagonal bases. The tops of the arches are built of alternating bands of dark and light stone. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling. 





Above the west end is a large highly carved wooden Baroque organ with cherubs. Below is a C17th gilded carved wood bas relief of St Andrew on a cross with two angels bringing him the crown of martyrdom.


The beautifully carved C17th pulpit has a scene of Jesus pardoning the adulterous woman on the back wall and a splendid God the father on the canopy.


The high altar is a beautiful stone and gilt structure with a low retable with integral host box with a gilded door with a pelican plucking its breast to feed its young. On either side are gilded angels. Above is a small cupola with an C18th copy of the famous Black Virgin statue beneath. Pilgrims placed offerings at the foot of the statue and it was one of most precious in France until the Revolution, when it was destroyed. The copy is made from cedar wood and shows the Virgin dressed in white seated on a throne with the Christ Child on her lap. The back wall of the chancel is painted black with white fleur de lys.




There are two altars in the north transept. The left hand altar has reliquary boxes with a fresco of the women at the empty tomb. The right hand altar has statues of Zaccharine and Joseph in wall niches above it. Above is a fresco depicting the martyrdom of St Catherine, tied to a wheel with sharp blades on the sides of the spokes.


To the north of this is the Saint Crucifix Chapel with a carved statue of the Virgin holding the dead body of Christ. 




The altars in the south transept are surrounded by brightly coloured modern murals. The left altar has a painting of St St Jean de Francois on left and the right has a gilded statue of St Joseph.





A passageway off the south aisle with a bishop’s tomb, leads to the sacristy which has a small treasury as well as a bookshop.

 A door just before the sacristy gives access to the outside of the chancel. Old stone carvings along bottom of walls are thought to be Roman and include a lion and hunting scenes. 





The bell tower is C11/12th although top was rebuilt in the C19th. It was designed to be free standing and is a massive square stepped structure.


In the base is the old Saint-Sauveur Chapel which has more carved Roman masonry in the walls and houses C14th tombs of two canons and a bishop. 







The CLOISTERS are on the outside of the north wall of the cathedral. We visited on Journees-du-patrimoine, so entry to the cloisters was free although the treasury was shut. The cloisters were probably built in the C11th. 


The arcades have striped arches made of alternating black and white stones. The upper walls have a mosaic pattern of black, red and white geometric shapes.


Running along the top of the entire cloister is a carved frieze with battling animals, mythical beasts, monsters and a few humans.


There are rows of pillars on either side of the cloisters which support the vaulted ceiling. All have carved capitals. Most are carved with a foliage designs. They are worth close examination as there are some delightful capitals with doves drinking from a chalice, an angel snatching a soul from two devils, a male centaur pursuing a female and catching her by the tail and a battle between a monk and an abbess over a crozier (symbol of authority).


There is a 12th-century Romanesque metal gate with beautiful Moorish-style ironwork across the west gallery.

The Chapter House is on the east gallery and was the burial place for canons until the Revolution. There are old tombstones displayed along the walls. The end wall is covered with a fresco from around 1200 depicting the Crucifixion. The Virgin, St. John, sun and moon are flanked by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Philo Judaeus (a.k.a. Philo of Alexandria; d.50 AD). Each prophet holds a scroll with the text of their prophecy about Christ. An inscription above the fresco proclaims that it was executed in "a hundred days minus one."


Above the cloisters was the Clergeons house which provided high standard living accommodation for young clergymen or choirboys from the Cathedral school. Above the west gallery is the library building.


Exit is by a small bookstall which has model of cathedral and cloisters.

The cathedral is a large and impressive building, but didn’t inspire. It was a dull day, there was little light in the cathedral and the dark stone may account for this. The cloisters with their carved capitals were much more fun.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
LE PUY-EN-VELAY - CHAPELLE ST CLAIR AND ROCHER ST MICHEL D'AIGUIHLE

The image of Rocher St Michel d’Aiguilhe is probably the most well known and photographed in Le Puy-en-Velay.

We dropped down through the steep narrow streets to CHAPELLE ST-CLAIR. This is a C12th octagonal chapel with small east apse thought to have been the funerary chapel of l’Hôpital Saint-Nicholas d’Aiguilhe which looked after pilgrims.


The lintel above the west door has a carving showing the phases of the moon.


The inside of the chapel is very simple with tall wall mounted round pillars with round arches above. In the apse is a small free standing altar with a carved and gilded front. A cross is suspended from the ceiling. 




The chapel is surrounded by a small garden with a C19th gothic fountain on the wall. This has a decoratively carved portico above it with pinnacles and carvings of shells around the arch. On the pedestal above the fountain is a small statue of St Michael killing the dragon. 

Also in the gardens is a ‘magic square’. This is made up of 25 stones each with a letter, making a palindrome formed by five words of five letters that can be read in the same way from four directions of the side of the square itself. This formula (ROTAS OPERA TENET AREPO SATOR) was very widespread in the places of the Roman Empire, and was a sign of recognition between Christians during the persecutions.


 


ROCHER ST-MICHEL D’AIGUILHE is on top of a volcanic plug which rises steeply 82m above the surrounding area. It is reached by 265 steps. It’s not as bad as we feared as there is a handrail to help pull yourself up and seats along the way. Stick to the steps and ignore the two wooden ladders near the top!




In 961AD, Bishop Godescalc built a small square oratory on the top of the rock. This had three apses and a small square tower with a red tile roof. As pilgrim numbers grew, this was enlarged in the C12th to cover all of the top of the rock. A new entrance was added with steps into the ambulatory. At one end is an elegant tall pointed bell tower which was built in the C14th to replace the earlier one which was struck by lightning. The narrow walkway round the outside which gives good views of Le Puy en Velay and the surrounding area.

The chapel has a very ornately carved doorway with patterns of black, red and white stones. Along the top in recessed arches are small statues of St John, the Virgin, God, Archangel Michael and St Peter. The centre lobe of the tympanum has a carving of a lamb carrying a cross and the inscription Anges Dei. On either side is an eagle and an angel (two of signs of Apocalypse). The left lobe has a carving of a bull and the right carvings of men holding cups. Above is an arch of carved foliage coming out of the mouth of two green men. The lintel is C19th and has a carving of two sirens; one with a fish’s tail, the other with a serpent’s tail.





Inside, the ambulatory takes up much of the space. This has stone benches round the outer walls and round pillars with carved capitals supporting round arches and the ceiling.




At the heart of the chapel is a simple stone altar with a crucifix and candles.


In the main chapel is a modern copper statue of St Michael covered in verdegris There is a smaller statue of him killing the dragon representing Satan, in the ambulatory. 




There are the remains of C10th frescoes on the walls and ceiling. These were covered with whitewash in the C19th but this has now been removed and the frescoes restored.


The highlight is that of Christ in Majesty on the roof.






A display of relics includes an C11th polychrome reliquary of Christ, a C13th Byzantine ivory box with gilded copper brackets thought to have been a reliquary and a pectoral cross with Virgin and Child.

This is a delightful small chapel and well worth the climb. It does, however, get busy and there isn’t a lot of space inside.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
TO THE EAST AND SOUTH OF LE PUY-EN-VELAY - ST-PIERRE-EYNAC

St Pierre-Eynac, is a small village ten miles west of Le Puy-en-Velay, in typical Central Massif countryside of wooded hills and steep river valleys.


The huge white statue of the Virgin Mary on the hillside above the village dates from 1864.

It is an attractive small settlement of substantial old stone houses and farmhouses which is ignored by the guide books and there is little information on the web.




It was a friendly welcoming place, with locals going about their business. Everyone wanted to know if we had visited the church and it was obvious they were very proud of it. This was locked so we got the massive iron key from the restaurant opposite, which had geraniums in window boxes.

There is a large information board outside the church. It is a long low building with no tower but a small four bell bell cote at the west end and an angular apse at the east end.




The church was built on the site of a pre-Romanesque priory and has a C12th nave with later additions. These include the C19th chimney on the roof, which is still used by the heating system inside the church. The church had been larger and there are the remains of an old wall at the corner of the west and north walls. It is unusual as the doorway is on the north side of the church.

On the north wall are painted Litres Seigneuriales. These were painted on the church in honour of the dead and were usually a band of black painted on the inside or the outside of the church. Often they had the coat of arms of the deceased painted on them. They were intended to be temporary in nature and few have survived. These have a yellow circle with a crown above outlined in red.


The doorway is set back inside a large porch with a vaulted ceiling. The round pillars on either side of the door have carved capitals and support carved round arches over the doorway. There is a small carving of the Virgin and Child in a small niche above the door.


The centres of the steps leading down inside the door into the nave have been worn down over the ages. It felt dark inside the church as the windows were small. Across the west end is a large balcony.

The church has a typical Roman nave with barrel ceiling and round chancel arch.


Wall pillars have carved capitals.


The gilt and white altar has a white cloth with a border of painted flowers. The east window contains modern stained glass with an image of of Christ. On either side are abstract designs in red, blue, purple and brown glass, adding a bright splash of colour to the church.


There are small chapels off the nave. That opposite the door has a model of the church as well as a gilt statue of St Peter.

In the north transept is the massive old stone font with a small carved face on the side. The south transept has a marble altar with a M monogram and a gilt statue of the Virgin.


This is an attractive small village with an interesting church and was worth visiting.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
TO THE EAST AND SOUTH OF LE PUY-EN-VELAY - ST-JULIEN-CHAPTEUIL

St-Julien-Chapteuil doesn’t feature in the guide books. There is a some basic information on the French Wikipedia site. The town website is aimed at residents and not tourists. I had seen a google image of the Romanesque church and decided it would be worth a visit. It was.

The town is a couple of miles from St Pierre -Eynac and together make a good visit.

The town grew up round an C11th Benedictine Priory built on top of the hill.


This is a huge building and still dominates the town below. There are good views from the D28 driving south. The old town is clustered round the church with the newer town sprawling across the plain below. It is a large settlement with a large square with a lot of shops and was busy. Signing is not good and there is a one way system through the town.


We managed to find somewhere to park and headed up to the church through narrow cobbled streets and steps.




The church is all that remains of the priory. It is a massive building with different roof lines.


There are side chapels off the nave, a rounded apse at the east end, a large square tower with a later spire and a massive west end. This is built out over arches with a vaulted ceiling, which support it as the ground drops away steeply below. Two steep flights of stairs on either side join as a single flight to the big west door. It is a typical Romanesque frontage with round pillars supporting round arches above the doors and windows. This is topped with a portico with open round arches.


At the south east corner of the church is a small calvary with the crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene on either side.


Inside it is a large and impressive building Romanesque building with big pillars in the nave with carved capitals supporting round arches and a vaulted stone roof.




Above the west door is a wooden balcony with the organ and a sign on the steps saying no access apart from the organist.

There is a wonderful old carved stone font in front of a modern lectern




The small Romanesque apse at the east end contains a lovely altar with gilt crosses and the Lamb of God. The host box was covered with an embroidered cloth and has an open cupola above with a cross beneath. On either side are blue enamel panels with pink roundels which have angels painted on them and a gilded crown above. The altar has a beautifully embroidered cloth with flowers embroidered around insets of gold material which have embroidered images of God, Abbé, angels…each with delicately painted faces.


The altar in the north chapel has IHS on the base with a cross above. Above is a statue of the Virgin holding the dead body of Christ. There are large religious paintings on the walls. Statues of St Cecile and the Virgin are in niches on the side walls and a confessional on the back wall.

The north transept has a simple stone table with a statue of Joseph with the young Jesus. On the wall opposite is a statue of St Roch, but without his dog.

The south transept has a granite font dated 1639 but of a remarkably modern design. There is a a statue of the Virgin and Child on the wall and there is a statue of St François Regis 1597-1640 on the chancel pillar.

The base of the altar in the south chapel has the Sacre Coeur on a red background with a gilt surround. Above is a statue of Jesus pointing to the Sacre Coeur on his chest.

Above the south transept is a small treasury (no access) with ostensoirs, hand reliquaries and staffs of office.

This was a well worthwhile visit.
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
TO THE EAST AND SOUTH OF LE PUY-EN-VELAY - MONASTIER-SUR-GAZEILLE

Monastiere-sur-Gazeille is a large town on top of the plateau, about ten miles south east of Le Puy en-Velay. The town has seen better days and many areas are beginning to look run down. It feels as if there is a lack of money in the town. There were a lot of closed shops in 2012 and it was not a particularly attractive town. We parked in the huge square at the top of the town which is now a car park, with the Abbey, château, Marie and houses round the sides.

Originally Monastier was a walled town built at the top of the hill around the Abbey of St Théofrède du Monastier and the château, a square dark basalt building with corner towers. This is C16th, as the original château was burnt down during the Wars of Religion.

Monastier was an important lace making centre in the C16th and the town grew rapidly. The new town drops away down the hill to St John the Baptist Church at the bottom of the town. This is a long low rather insignificant building built in the C15th as the parish church, as the villagers were not allowed to worship in the Abbey Church. It had a major restoration in the 1980s and is now used for concerts.


In the C17th, the local population was more educated than elsewhere due to an initiative started by Anne-Marie Martel. She arranged for a single woman, "Demoiselle de l'instruction" or béates to live in each of the villages of the area, and she was responsible for teaching the catechism, reading and writing and lacemaking to the girls. They usually lived in special house (called an Assembly) with small bell above the door and had an important role as an intermediary between employers and lacemakers.

The town declined at the beginning of the C20th. A planned railway line from Le Puy en-Velay was never completed and the town became a backwater. Recoumène Viaduct just south of the D535 was never used and is now popular with walkers.

The château is now the Municipal Museum with exhibits on prehistory of the area, local history and lacemaking. There is also a room about RL Stevenson who lived in the area and his travels with a donkey.

the ABBEY OF ST THEOFREDE (CHAFFRE) DU MONASTIER was the largest Benedictine Monastery in the Velay area and is described as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture.

There was a small monastic community in the area from the C6th. St Théofrède (St Chaffre) founded the monastery in the C7th. Several churches were built here but all collapsed due to the instability of the site. Parts of the apse near the choir date from the C10th. Most of the present building dates from the C11th but there was a major restoration in the C15th when part of the choir collapsed. The monastery was closed during the Revolution.

It is a huge building built from purple brown basalt. The top of the apse at the east end is newer and built from a much paler stone and has big flying buttresses.


There are huge buttresses on the south side. The north side used to have the cloisters off it. These were destroyed during the Revolution and newer houses have been built along the north wall. The Marie was built along the line of the east side of the cloisters and maintains an architectural style with an arcade and round arches outside.


Steep steps lead up to the west end of the church. This has a central doorway set inside a huge carved archway with small round pillars. On either side are large blank round topped arches. Above is a large central round window set in an elaborately carved portico, with small slit windows on either side. All are decorated with different coloured stones.




Entry is through the south door set under a carved round arch.


On the north wall, immediately opposite the south door, is the massive wooden organ with inlays of different coloured wood. This dates from 1518 and is one of the oldest organs in Europe. On the top are badges of St Théofrède and Gaspard de Tournon who was Abbot when the organ was installed.

The nave is built from purple basalt and has massive pillars between the nave and side aisles. Above is a ribbed vaulted ceiling. The north wall has multiple round arches on the walls but no windows, as they were filled in with stone when the houses were built along the outside of the wall. This does make the abbey feel quite dark inside. There are two small green and brown reliquary boxes on the chancel transept pillars.




There is a big wooden pulpit with the four evangelists carved round the sides and Christ teaching on the back wall. Above is a carved spire supported by angels.


There is a massive baroque altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in the south transept. There is a statue of the Virgin surrounded by metal flowers which now have light bulbs in them. The two big candlesticks have more metal flowers and light bulbs. On either side are white barleycorn twist pillars with carved gilt grapes winding up them. Above is a modern stained glass window above with a picture of the Virgin.


The east apse is a paler stone than the rest of the church. The simple high altar is made of white marble inlaid with different coloured marble. The host box has an image of the Good Shepherd on the door with a cross above in an open cupola. On either side are gilt angels. There are old wooden choir stalls round the walls of the chancel.


There is a narrow ambulatory round the back of the high altar with apses off containing altars or statues. From the south, there is a plain wooden altar and retable with a painting of St Ann teaching the young Mary with a cherub above.

The next apse has a carved retable and an elaborately carved ceiling with panels with carved heads, animals, flowers and badges.


The next apse has a Statue of St Fortuna, with a Statue of St Francis of Assisi in the next one. In the next apse is a Statue of Jesus with a Sacre Coeur on his chest. On the wall between this and the next niche is a memorial to the dead of World War One.

The apse on the far north side has a very unloved wooden altar with a very dark painting of St Martin above it.

The north transept has a baroque altar painted in pale beige. The retable has barleycorn twist pillars with gilt grapes with a statue of Joseph on the host box. On either side are angels holding candlesticks but, unlike the altar to the Virgin in the south transept, no light bulbs. The stained glass window has an image of Joseph with the boy Jesus.

A door on the north wall leads into the Sacristy which houses the treasury, but it was shut when we visited.
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
TO THE EAST OF LE PUY-EN-VELAY - GOUDET AND ARLEMPDES

The small settlements of Goudet and Arlempdes are set in wooded countryside, about 16 miles south of Le Puy en-Velay.

GOUDET is a small hamlet of neat, well cared for granite houses with low pitch red tile roofs, clustered round the church.


This was originally a Roman settlement at an important crossing point on the river Loire. It was affected by bad flooding in June 2017 which washed away roads and destroyed bridges.

It has an attractive church with a round tower with bands of glazed red, yellow and green tiles on the roof. Unfortunately it was locked and didn’t look as if it was opened often.


There are good views across the valley to the ruins of C13/16th Château de Beaufort built on a rocky outcrop high above the river.


ARLEMPDES, set in the gorge of the Loire, is surrounded by basalt cliffs and dominated by the ruins of the château built above the river.


This is the first of the Loire châteaux, sited only about 30km from the source of the river. It is surrounded by the remains of the C12th curtain wall with towers.


Inside are a few walls from the C15/16th buildings, with the tiny Chapelle St-Jacques, the red sandstone building, at the far end of the site.


The château was abandoned before the Revolution and has been used for building material. In 2012, the building was being restored. It is reached by steep steps which lead to a gateway through the walls. Entry was €5 and tickets have to be bought from Hôtel du Manoir at the edge of the village. (There was a big sign on the doorway saying no admission without a ticket.)


Arlempdes was originally a small fortified town and is still entered through the C11th fortified gateway, with a small room above. This was originally part of the outer enclosure of the château.




The old settlement is around Église St-Pierre, at the base of the path up to the château. The building dates from the C12th although the peigne cloche bell tower is C16th. It is an unattractive building from the outside with its later additions and heavily buttressed south wall. There was a large sign on the door saying “Closed to the public”.




The village is one of the most beautiful villages in France and is well cared for but is a tourist honey pot. There is no parking in the village but there is a large car park across the river which was busy. There is a lot of new development appearing round the edges of the village. There isn’t a lot to see and do - a hotel, a house selling Le Puy lentils and a sign to an eco-museum which we couldn’t find, although we didn’t try very hard.

The village gets 1* in Michelin. The scenery is superb but I’m not sure that it deserves the star rating compared with other places. The village did feel dead and soulless. We are not really sure why people come here; maybe it is a nice day out from Le Puy en Velay.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
A DAY AROUND GERBIER DU JONC - OUTWARD

Gerbier du Jonc is a volcanic cone to the south of Lapte and the source of the River Loire. We decided to do a loop round the area.

From Lapte, we drove south along the D434 which took us across the Barrage de Lavalette. The dammed lake is a popular place for all water sports and there is a huge car park. We then headed cross country towards Les Estables, a nice small town but very much a tourist honey pot. As we climbed we began to loose the fertile agricultural land. There were fewer settlements and it was beginning to feel like upland scenery with more rough grazing.




From here it is a superb run to Gerbier du Jonc, and the cone suddenly appears as a bare mass of volcanic rock. In the C19th, farmers gave up grazing animals and many of the valley sides were planted with Norway Spruce, which was able to withstand the climate and soil conditions. A lot of trees were lost in a major storm in 1982 and then got attacked by the Dendoctunus beetle which arrived from Siberia and spread across France, arriving here in the 1970s. Foresters tried felling the diseased trees and using Rhizophagus as a biological control. This didn’t work so all the Norway spruce is being felled out and replaced by a mixture of sycamore, beech, rowan, larch, pines and firs. This is a lot more attractive. Above the trees, there is a lot of rough grazing with broom and rosebay willow herb. We saw some cows and a few sheep, but there is little settlement.


GERBIER DU JONC is a very prominent volcanic cone rising sharply above the surrounding countryside. There are trees around the base but the sides are bare rock and some grass. There is a restaurant with a very large car park. There is a large sign by the gateway with information about access to Gerbier du Jonc. There is a charge during the summer months with a caravan collecting money at start of walk. It wasn’t clear from the sign if this was just access to Gerbier du Jonc (which we didn’t want to do) or whether the Sources of the Loire Footpath (which we did want to do) also started from here. I had been sent a leaflet by Tourist Information but the access points weren’t clear. Requests for further information and details weren’t helpful either. We drove on.

A bit further along the road are a series of wooden stalls selling bread, smoked preserved sausages, jams etc which were doing a roaring trade. We missed the sign for Salles de Source off the road and didn’t see any signs for the Sources of the Loire Footpath. There were some good views of Gerbier du Jonc from the road but nowhere to pull off for photographs. Where there were lay bys, the views were obscured by trees.

COL DU PRANET, a short distance beyond the stalls, has a sign off the road to a belvedere and orientation table. There is a small parking area off the main road and superb views of the Massif Central and down into the valley. The orientation table is long gone. This is now real upland, with billberry, heather, alpine ladies mantle, wild pansy, dianthus, yellow bedstraw, yarrow…


We picked up the D122 east and took the D215 south down the Lignon Valley. This is a very steep, tree lined gorge. There is a small signed parking area for a belvedere with view of RAY PIC WATERFALL. This is a double waterfall falling 50m down through hexagonal columns of lava. After a dry summer there was little water coming down.


A bit further on is another small lay by with an orientation table with good views down the valley to the tiny hamlet of Le Chabron and Péreyres.




I had read on the web that there was off road parking and a short walk to the waterfall along a forest road to a lookout platform. Lower down was a huge car park but there was no track off it for Ray Pic. Below, off the road, was a forest road which I assumed was the track giving close up views of Ray Pic. However, in 2012, a new cafe was being built at the start of the forest road and the area was fenced off. We didn’t investigate.

The road drops steeply down to a bridge before the tiny settlement of Le Chabron. We stopped to take pictures of the gorge and a side valley. There is an old foot bridge across the river with a made stone trackway (similar to miners trackways) up the side of the main gorge.




We stopped in PÉREYRES and parked by the church, in the space reserved for the Curé. This is a small hamlet of stone buildings with tiled roofs which climbs up the hillside above the church.


There are steep steps and narrow paved paths between the houses. Newer houses at the top of the village are reached along a narrow steep road off the D215 and signed ‘no access’. It is a neat, well cared for place with a lot of flowers.




The small rectangular stone church was built 1845 and has a small bell cot at the west end. Unfortunately it was locked and there was no indication where we could get a key.


There were large signs saying the D215 was closed further down the valley so we drove back to the top to pick up the D122 again and head towards Mezilhac.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
A DAY ROUND GERBIER DU JONC - RETURN




From Mezilhac we picked up the D578 north which contours round the round the tops of the valleys with superb views before beginning to descend through a series of steep bends. There are good views down into the gorge with small hamlets with a few pale stone buildings with flat tiled roofs.


Further down the Dorne Valley there is more settlement and this seems to have been an important weaving centre with the remains of old mills. The road runs along the bottom of a very steep gorge with wooded sides and bare rock. There were long distance views of Gerbier du Jonc and Mont Mezenc.

We had a short stop in LE-PONT-DE-FROMENTIÉRES, just upstream of the older settlement of Mariac. It gets its name from the bridge across the river. The C12th church at Mariac is built on top of the hill above the settlement and was not very accessible. Gradually a new settlement grew up along the river Dorne, which became large enough to justify the building of a new church. The river powered tanneries, sawmills and factories, particularly the manufacture of silk thread. Later this diversified into different types of textiles and fibreglass.

Le-Pont-de-Fromemtiéres is a beautifully maintained village with school, bakers, epicerie, bar, two children’s playgrounds, tennis and boules area with men playing. It is a typical gorge village of the area with pale stone houses with low red tile roofs and shutters clustered round the church. It is completely ignored by the guide books and there is very little on the web.


There are several interesting older houses at the top of the village opposite the remains of a closed mill.


These include one dated 1763 referred to as Le Clocheton du Pont-de-Fromentières which has a small bell cote. This was rung to call people to mass at Mariac before the new church was built in the village.


The church was built in 1859 to a Romanesque design with a round chancel apse and has a very tall bell tower at the south west corner.


The nave has huge buttresses on the outside walls. Under the eaves are two decorative rows of tiles, typical of the area.


The inside of the church is very plain, with a large wooden gallery across the west end. The large memorial to the dead of World War One has 25 names, with just enough space at the bottom to squash in the three names from World War Two. Underneath is a small plate for the one name from the Algerian War.

The walls are plastered and painted pale cream. The only decoration is painted carvings of the Stations of the Cross. The windows have a modern abstract design in coloured glass.

Flat stone wall pillars support the vaulted ceiling. Under the round chancel arch is a free standing mass altar with a large millstone base with a flat stone slab above. There are green drapes round the back of the chancel apse with a gilt statue of the Virgin and Child and a gilt crucifix.


The small side chapel on the north wall has a white stone font with with a large flat round basin and an integral host box above. This has a metal door with John the Baptist holding a crucifix. The south chapel has a marble altar with M monogram on the base and a statue of the Virgin praying on the host box.

We had intended to stop in Le Cheylard, but it was very busy with road works and cars parked everywhere. There was no space in only car park we could find, so we decided to cut our losses and head to St Martin de Valemas which again looked interesting but was also very busy with a lot of cars parked.

We took the narrow winding road up to CHÂTEAU DE ROCHEBONNE. This runs through the trees and is cut out on a narrow ledge high above the gorge. Visibility isn’t good and for much of the way the road is narrow with little space for cars to pass. Michael was not very happy. There is little settlement although one house with large car park sells local produce.

Apart from a few pictures on the web there is virtually no information about the château, although it gets a star on the Michelin map. It is thought there was a small village with a church but that this, as well as the château, was destroyed during the Wars of Religion in the C16th.

There is a small parking area along the road and there are good views of ruined C11th château perched on top of a rocky outcrop. Paths drop down to the col and then climb up to the remains of a keep with other buildings lower down the slope.


On a clear day there are superb views of the Massif Central with Gerbier du Jonc and Mont Mézenc and down to St Martin de Valemas. This would be a delightful place to drop out on a sunny afternoon.


We returned through Saint-Agrève and Tence. TENCE is a busy market town for the area, with a lot of small shops. The town grew up round an C11th Benedictine priory which is now the site of the Hôtel de Ville. It still retains it’s medieval street pattern with a lot of narrow one way streets lined with old houses around the church which was built on the highest part of the town.

ÉGLISE ST-MARTIN is in a square surrounded by old houses. The choir and the south part of the nave are all that remains of the C16th church which was burnt down and rebuilt in the C17th. It is a long low building with massive buttresses on either side of the transept. Above is a square tower which holds 5 bells and has a smaller spire on top. The south door has an elaborate portico with carved flowers, hearts and pillars. Above is a carving of a sun with a triangle inside it. Entry is now through the west door.


In the 1970s there was a major restoration of the church. The six pillars in the nave were removed to create a huge open space and were replaced by two enormous wood covered reinforced concrete beams. There is a large organ over the west door with a gallery and seats on either side.

There are four massive pillars in the transept with round arches which support the tower. The modern altar in the transept crossing is beaten copper with a design of grapes and sheaves of wheat. The small floor standing pulpit and lectern are also beaten copper.


There are beautifully carved pillar capitals in the chancel with the symbols of the four evangelists, animals and a head with a very long twisted tongue. The carved wooden choir stalls have high backs and there is a small wooden altar in the apse at the east end.

The central stained glass window in the chancel is St Martin, a C4th Roman soldier who shared his coat with a beggar and had a vision of Christ wearing this half of his coat. To the left is St Jean-François Regis who is buried at Lalouvesc (#32) and there is an picture of the Basilica at Lalouvesc at the top of the window. To the right is St Jean-Marie Vianney, Curé d’Ars with a picture of Ars church at the top of the window.
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
TO THE WEST OF LAPTE - GRAZAC

Grazac is about three miles west of Lapte. We had noticed road signs for a fortified Priory and went to investigate. You won’t find it in the guide books and there is virtually nothing on the web. Parents were dropping children off for school and there was no parking on the main street. We followed car park signs and ended up in a car park on Place de la Château, opposite the remains of Château de Verchères. It is a typical C15th building with a large corps de logis and a circular staircase tower at one corner. It is now derelict and a farmhouse was built in 1859 adjacent to it.

Doing a google search the building became a school in 1821 with classrooms and dormitories. It was a girls school until 1929 when it was used as the parish hall until 1962. Since then it has been left to gently moulder.




All that is left of the fortified priory is a massive wall along the side of the main road with machicolations, corner tower and gateway.






The gateway leads into what was the cloister and is now a pleasant green area with the church on one side and later buildings on the other walls. In the centre is the remains of a well.


The present church is in the neo-gothic style and is dated 1878. Entry is though the south door and not the west door.

Inside we were struck by the use of pale Blavoy stone for the carved capitals and roof bosses, which contrasted with the darker local building stone. There is wood panelling round the walls of the nave and chancel.


There is a simple stone altar in the chancel. This has a lovely painted ceiling with geometric patterns in dark brown, beige and blue between the ribs. There is a small dove painted in the arch above the east window.


The font is in the south aisle and has a modern tapestry above it.

The beautiful stained glass west window is dedicated to prisoners of War from the 1939-45 war. The scene is a German prisoner of war camp with a barred window and watchtower outside. On the left is part of a crucifix. On the right is Christ standing by a prison bed with his hands in chains.


Grazac is a well kept village typical of so many which don’t get a mention in the guide books and don’t have a web site. The main street is lined with large houses and it must have been an important settlement in the Middle Ages around the château and priory. The butcher’s shop has gone but it still has a bakers, large and splendid Marie, school and a new, modern sports hall.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
TO THE WEST OF LAPTE - BEAULIEU

Beaulieu is nearly twenty miles south of Lapte and is a typical small French town, clustered round the church. We were attracted by the sign for a Roman church. There is virtually no information about the town on the web.

The church is C12th and has a fortified apse at the east end.


The west front was restored in 1885. The bell tower and sacristy were rebuilt in 1908.


The inside of the church has a massive aisleless nave, with a gallery across the west end. Two big wall pillars with carved capitals support round arches on the nave wall and continue to form the ribs of the barrel ceiling. However the rib at the west end was destroyed when this was altered.


On the north wall are statues of Joan of Arc, St Theresa and St Roch with his dog. The south wall has statues of Notre-Dame de Lourdes and St Anthony of Padua holding the Christ child.


On either side of the chancel arch are wall altars. The north altar has a dressed Black Madonna and Child on the host box. The south wall altar has the Sacre Coeur on the base and a statue of Joseph and the young Jesus.

There is a small modern wooden mass altar beneath the chancel arch. The white marble high altar has a carving of Jesus and two angels on the base with coloured marble pillars and gilt enamelled panels on either side. The retable has a band of gilt and turquoise enamel inlay on either side of the host box. Above is a gilded crucifix with pillars supporting a canopy with pinnacles and a spire.


There are small apses on either side of the high altar which have carved wooden benches around the walls. The window above the north apse has a scene of the Annunciation. The south apse window shows the crowing of the Virgin in Heaven.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
TO THE WEST OF LAPTE - POLIGNAC FORTRESS

Polignac is a marvellous defensive site just north west of Le Puy-en-Velay and about 25 miles from Lapte. There are superb views of the fortress built on top of a volcanic hill surrounded by 100m cliffs from the D102.


Round the base of the cliffs nestles the small settlement of stone houses with red tile roofs surrounded by very fertile farmland with pasture for grazing, hay fields and some already ploughed fields. To the north are the tree covered slopes of the mountains. 



There is a large car park just below the church, by the school. The local tourist office has a leaflet (in French) with details of a 2km walk through the settlement round the base of the rock, with C16th houses, dovecot and fountain.



There is a very steep climb up narrow cobbled streets to the fortress. The top of the rock has been settled since the C10th and was home to the powerful Polignac family. As Vicomtes de Velay they were in a continuous power struggle with the bishop of Le Puy-en-Velay. Their fortress reflects this. It could accommodate 1000 people and the Vicomtes had permission to mint money.



The remains of the C11th chapel are the oldest part of the site. It was protected by a defensive wall with six fortified gateways. The donjon dates from the C14th and was built during the Hundred Years War. By the end of the C15th more comfortable accommodation was needed and a new block was added for the Vicomte and his family. By the C17th the need for a defensive residence had passed and the family abandoned Polignac to live in the much more comfortable and luxurious Château de Lavoûte-Polignac. 





Only two of the original six gateways survive, reached by a long climb up a path between tall banks.


The fifth gate is an archway through the curtain wall. It would originally had a drawbridge over a dry pit and the slits in the wall for the drawbridge axles are still visible. Above is a murder hole.





It leads into what is described as the ‘Mousehole’ between the fifth and sixth gateways. Visitors to the castle could be held here and, if decided they were a danger, were subjected to fire from surrounding soldiers. They meant business as there are are two canon loopholes by the sixth gateway. The small ticket office is here which has a free guide in English. 



The sixth gateway leads into the site. The level inside was raised artificially when soil was brought up in the C19th, as the site guardians had a small farm here. Ahead is the former guardhouse which has an exhibition about Polignac and an exhibition about food in the Middle Ages in the adjacent building when we visited. These buildings are in reasonable condition as they were used as a barn and stable in the C19th. Beyond are the remains of workshops and the probably site of the mint as well as the kitchens with a bread oven.

From here, steps lead up to the rampart walk where there are excellent view. This goes past the round Géhenne Tower, which had a prison in the basement to the tower.


The square donjon originally had five floors reached by spiral staircase. The ground floor was used for storage with living quarters above. On the first floor there is an exhibition about the Polignac Foundation. It is possible to climb the 141 stairs to the roof terrace, but it was a very hot day, so we didn’t bother.





On the ground floor is a display of carved stones collected from round the site. The most famous is the ‘Apollo Mask’. There is a legend that the site had been a place of worship dedicated to Apollo, the god of oracles, and members of the family were priests. The story is told that the priests would greet pilgrims at the base of the rock and ask some general questions. The pilgrims would make their way to the top of the rock while the priests entered underground passageways which brought them to the bottom of the well. Here they prepared answer to the questions and lit a fire to boil water in a cauldron. The smoke and steam floated up the well to fill the temple with a satisfying mist. When the the pilgrims arrived in the temple the ‘oracle’ mask would answer their questions with the well amplifying their voices…



This makes a good story but is a bit of a con as the mask is actually of Neptune and was probably a fountain mask and water flowed out of a lead pipe from the mouth.



Beyond the donjon are the fenced off remains of the original C12th residence and the later Vicomte building. The oracle well is between the two.




Beyond these are the scant remains of the chapel with an early cemetery. Beyond, the curtain wall is now just a tall wall of a single layer of stone.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
TO THE WEST OF LAPTE - ÉGLISE SAINTE-ANNE et SAINT-MARTIN-DE POLIGNAC

Église Sainte-Anne et Saint-Martin-de-Polignac is a Romanesque building with a C10/11th choir and C12th nave, although the upper parts of the nave were rebuilt in the C17th. It was extended in the C19th when the Romanesque facade was removed and the massive open porch over south door (locked) built. Over the transept is a short square tower with deep maroon and yellow roof tiles.





Entry is through west door, which has arches of black and white stone with a black and white diamond tympanum. The church is built using dark volcanic rock. This is too hard to carve easily, so the carved capitals of the pillars are made of a softer white rock from Blavozy.



The inside is typical of a Romanesque building with tall multi-angular pillars with round arches between the nave and side aisles. The white Blavozy stone stands out against the darker volcanic stone. The carved capitals are a mixture of acanthus leaves, animals and human heads.




There are statues of St Roch, Jean of Arc, and St Anthony of Padua on north wall. There is a crucifix on the south wall and statues of Joseph with the boy Jesus and St Theresa. The coats of arms of the Polignac family are on the north wall of the chancel. Scattered round the church are five processional crosses with crucifixes. 






Chapelle St Anne in the north transept has a host box with beautifully embroidered cover with images of God and the Virgin in bright scarlet robes, surrounded by scrolls and leaves. Above is a small crucifix and a modern painting of the Holy Family on the wall above the altar.





In niche in the west wall is a C14th polychrome statue described as a Trinitarian Sainte Anne because it has St. Anne, the Virgin and the Child Jesus all sitting on each other. Below is a small treasury with an ostensoir.


The white and gilt high altar is set in the small apse at the east end. This has a small retable with gilded host box. Above it is a crucifix surrounded by five fluted pillars arranged in a semi-circle support with an arched canopy with a cross.


Stained glass windows in the wall above the apse have God the Father in the centre with Mary and Jesus on the north and Joseph the carpenter with the boy Jesus to the south.



Behind the high altar are three smaller apses. The apse behind the high altar has a triangular wooden book stand with a large hymn book. There are beautiful C12th Frescoes on the walls showing the Last Judgement with Heaven and the angels on the south side and Hell on the north wall with a picture of demons carrying off dead bodies. There is a small wall niche with a statue of the Virgin and child and a silver decorative plate with a crucifix. On the opposite wall is a niche with an ostensoire and candlesticks. 





The marble altar in the north apse has an inlaid pattern with outlines of red and gilt diamonds. Above is a statue of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, framed by the light of the window behind. There is a fresco of an angel holding a book and playing a lute.

The south apse has a stone altar with a gilt carving of the Virgin Mary and C15th frescoes of the Annunciation, the Nativity, the shepherds and the three kings bringing gifts with an eagle and gryphon on the ceiling. 





Guide books give details of the fortress but there is only a fleeting mention of the church. There is little information on the web, yet the frescoes are beautiful and it is well worth a visit.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
A DAY EXPLORING THE LOIRE GORGE TO THE WEST OF LAPTE - RETOURNAC

We spent a day exploring the small villages along the River Loire between Retournac and Lavoûte-sur-Loire. This is only a distance of 25 miles but took us all day as there was so much to stop and see. The Loire has cut down and runs in a deep tree lined valley.




Our first stop was the small town of Retournac, about 15 miles west of Lapte and reached across a tree lined bridge. The railway station with a huge car park is on the edge of the town. Alternatively, there is some parking in the small square by the church.

The area has been settled since prehistoric times. By the C11th there was a church and château, although the château is now long gone. In the C19th this was a thriving town with a lace making factory. It is still a large town with quite a few shops although in September 2012, many were empty and it was beginning to feel as if it had seen better days. There is a large, very new and modern Marie in town centre.

ÉGLISE ST-JEAN-BAPTISTE DE RETOURNAC is late C12thC. It is a Romanesque building of volcanic stone with a round apse at east end with two smaller apses off it. Above the transept is a squat, square tower. with two sets of bell windows. The south chapel and aisles were added later. The external walls are heavily buttressed.


The inside of the church feels dark with a nave with round wall pillars with carved capitals supporting round wall arches and the ribs on the ceiling.


There is a wooden gallery above the west door which extends round the top of the north and south aisles. The gallery on the south wall contains a small chapel with a statue of the Virgin. The dark wood pulpit has three carved panels with apostles


A dome above the transept crossing supports the tower and has a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling. There is a round chancel arch leading to the apse which has marble wall pillars on either side with carved acanthus leaf capitals and round arches above. More marble pillars frame the windows.


On a wooden dais is a modern free standing altar with a beaten metal design on the front and a similar style cross above. On either side are smaller apses containing altars. The south apse has beautiful white marble altar with red and gold inlay forming a diamond pattern. The retable is carved to resemble a church with windows and a spire. In the centre is a painted statue of the Virgin and Child. In a wall niche to the left of the altar is a C16th wooden statue of the Virgin.


The altar in the north apse is similar but has a statue of John the Baptist.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
A DAY EXPLORING THE LOIRE GORGE TO THE WEST OF LAPTE - CHÂTEAU D’ARTIAS

Château d’Artias is about three miles from Retournac and the drive was much better than it looked on the map, possibly because there is a large quarry site off the road. The road climbs up the side of a wooded gorge onto the plateau, with a super view of the château on top of a volcanic plug silhouetted against the sky.


There is an obligatory car park in the small settlement below the château of well maintained houses with red tile roofs. This is surrounded by natural hay meadows with wild flowers especially red clover and wild carrot. A steep track leads up to the château with hazel, hawthorn, maple, marjoram, wild thyme and honeysuckle. There is a small information centre in a restored farmhouse which was shut in mid September. This is set in a nicely maintained area with grass and flower beds. There are some information signs.

A steep footpath with rough stone steps leads up to the ruins of Château d’Artias. Traces of the original ramparts can still be seen. This a superb site on top of craggy peak looking down onto the River Loire.

This was one of the oldest châteaux in the area dating from the C11th. Building began in 1085 and took 70 years. Originally it was under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Le Puy en Velay but was later sold and belonged to noble families close to the French throne. In 1402 Charles VI granted the right to hold two fairs annually. It was abandoned in the C18th after the Revolution and was later bought by a carrier for use as building stone. Not much is left.

The C12th Chapelle St Denis stood just inside castle wall and may well have had a defensive function as well as a religious one. All that is left is the west end and remains of the north wall with window and capitals. The bell tower was added later.


The Corps de Logis is C11th with C15th additions. All that is left are a few standing walls from the courtyard and the three towers. The area is unsafe and fenced off.


There is an orientation panel at the end of the site. There are excellent views of the Loire Valley with Retournec and Chamaliers-sur-Loire with the Sucs (Puys) to the north. We were the only visitors and the only sounds were bird song and crickets.


 

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