Monday, February 22, 2010

June 15, 2009 - Le Puy en Velay, a church on a stick

From Salers, our route headed east into the Parc Naturel R├ęgional des Volcans d’Auvergne, a near one million acre park established in 1977. At its highest point, the park is a little over 6000 feet and claims to offer glaciers(?), lakes, peatlands and, obviously, volcanoes in its interior. The roads across the area are desolate, narrow, and often steep and winding - steep enough that in one area we were constrained to first gear for a three mile stretch. The terrain that we passed through ranged from green sloping areas, pockmarked with rocky craters, to lunar looking regions with spires of volcanic rock jutting hundreds of feet in the air. These needles, we learned, are called puys. Our destination was Le Puy-en-Velay, a city of around 21,000 folk, east of the park in the Haute-Loire department of the Auvergne region. There is a huge puy in the center of town called Mons Anicius on which the Cath├ędrale Notre-Dame du Puy is built. Sundry mumbo-jumboists espouse fanciful fairy tales of the early Christianization of the site but, what does appear to be true, is that the striking church was first built in the early 12th century. Right outside of the campground was another astonishing sight - the Chapel Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe (at left) poised atop a rocky needle of volcanic lava - all that remains of a long extinct volcanoes following eons of erosion. The chapel was built in 962 CE by Bishop Godescalc and a deacon named Trianus and is reached by climbing 268 steps carved in a spiral around the rock. The top of the rocky tower is 270 feet above the surrounding countryside with the chapel itself adding to that. Le Puy had become a pilgrim destination as early as 500 CE and boasts a lengthy list of celebrated pilgrims over the the last 1500 years. It also developed into a major start point for the 1000 mile walk to Santiago de Compostela, a tradition that continues, supported by a daily blessing in the cathedral each morning to launch the day's participants on their way. The cathedral has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. More pictures of this unusual city here.

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