The Most Secret Place in France
Le Puy-en-Velay—Picture the crater of an extinct volcano in the high country of the Haute-Loire. It’s nearing dawn, and the town—which you know is somewhere down below because, en route from the village of Espaly, you have just trudged past a sign that reads Le Puy-en-Velay 3—is for the moment completely hidden beneath a lather of mist. Church bells peal from invisible belfries, and all that can be seen are the tips of three volcanic pinnacles, like icebergs in the sea.
These “necks,” or rochers, poking out like chimneys, were formed several million years ago, when the infant Loire and its tributary the Borne gradually eroded the turmoil of lava and marl around them. The first rocher, the Corneille, is topped with a 70-foot-tall pinkish statue of Notre Dame de France that was built in 1860 from 213 melted-down Russian guns taken in the Crimean War. She is extremely ugly, though beloved of the Ponots, as the people here are called. The second is the Mont Anis, home to Notre Dame du Puy cathedral, whose clock tower protrudes like a solitary snaggletooth. The third projection, and the most interesting from every perspective, is a 300-foot-tall “needle” (aiguilhe, in the old French spelling) crowned by the tiny thousand-year-old Romanesque chapel of Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, patron saint of precipices and skewered demons. This is at once the grandest and the most modest shrine of European Christendom. Modest is the word, but seen in the early morning like this, the majesty of its modesty takes one’s breath away.
To my mind, Le Puy-en-Velay, located at the confluence of several rivers flowing down from neighboring plateaus, is the most secret place in France. I became curious about the region after noticing that a number of journal-writing itinerants, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Simone de Beauvoir, sensed that it was a place apart from the rest of the country, not at all fashionable to visit, yet with something about it: a certain danger, perhaps. Until about 1860 the country people here were uncounted, untamed, and virtually untaxed. Graham Robb points out in his Discovery of France that as late as the mid-19th century, a French geographer recommended viewing the Mézenc (the mountain district just south of Le Puy) from a hot-air balloon, but “only if the aeronaut can remain out of range of a rifle.” George Sand stayed longer than most—a month in the spring of 1859—and teased the plots of three novels out of her experiences there. In Jean de la Roche, written at the end of that year, she described the area: “This is not Switzerland, being more extreme; nor is it Italy, being more beautiful. No: This is central France, with its extinct Vesuvii.”
At first I thought it was yet another dripping chasm in my knowledge: that I had neither heard of nor visited this region in 30 years of living and traveling in France. But then I detected a similar ignorance among the French. Le Puy is a little-known cathedral town, a long way off, hard to reach; it gets few visitors except pilgrims. As I read more about the history and culture of the Haute-Loire and Le Puy in particular, my awareness became fascination. And so I decided to make the trip there myself.
What I found were some of the loveliest and freshest landscapes full of torrents, gorges, and steep deciduous forests; high pastures covered in soft grass; exquisite cowslips; many species of orchids, violets, yellow marigolds; and wild oeil du poète narcissus—fields of them—in spring. These lovely flowers once grew so thickly that they were harvested with rakes for their scent, but now the practice is illegal, as it was depleting their numbers. I also discovered exceptional food, including, of course, the best dark-green lentils in the world—la lentille verte du Puy, the first legume ever to receive AOC status, has been cultivated here for more than 2,000 years—as well as the one-star Restaurant François Gagnaire, on the Avenue Clément Charbonnier. The town, which is also a departure point for one of France’s four great pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, has a riveting political history: Le Puy produced Bishop Adhemar, a key figure in the first violent confrontation between Islam and Christendom (some karma, for a small cathedral town). I came face-to-face with Le Puy’s miniature statue of the Virgin, whose face and hands are painted black; she was once thought to be able to heal disease and answer prayers. Housed in the cathedral of Notre Dame du Puy (which became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1998), this exquisite lady is not, alas, the original miraculous Madonna, who was brought back from the Seventh Crusade by Saint Louis and given to the town. The original was trampled to bits and burned in 1794 in Le Puy’s main square by ultra-revolutionaries from Paris. The very thought of this act of sacrilege still horrifies people here. To their undying shame, the statue on the main altar of the cathedral is a substitute for the original, a glass-eyed copy of which is on view in the transept. Yet the lady has a smile of extraordinary peace and wistfulness and is revered because of it—though some say the miracle quota has dropped since 1794.
But it is to the chapel of Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, one of the most stupendous sights in Europe, that I return. The little chapel, situated atop a volcanic spike, is the heart of Le Puy; cradled in the volcanic basin and girdled by the Borne, it is from here that one can best survey this ancient town of convents and monasteries, shrines, cloisters, grand mansions, and hidden gardens, all inhabited by a population that is unusually devout, conservative, and discreet, but that also has a tradition of tolerance and hospitality to strangers that dates back a thousand years.
To reach Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, visitors pass through a maze of pedestrian alleys (cars are not permitted in the old town), raising their eyes from time to time to fixate on the parsnip-shaped rock looming above them. They pay a three-euro fee and begin a steep climb up stone steps to the spellbinding tenth-century chapel, with its ancient altar cross and lovely faded frescoes from the same time (including one of a duck, which is a challenge to find).
Certain places in the world have a strange superabundant energy that makes people feel intensely alive. I have no idea why, but that is the effect Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe has on me, though the building itself is scarcely big enough to stable an ox. To walk the circuit of the dizzying platform running round it is to feel an exhilaration similar to riding downhill fast on a bike on a summer’s day.
The stones and columns here have been worn smooth by a thousand years of pilgrimage, which began when Bishop Gothescalk of Le Puy, the first French pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela, contemplated the crowds assembled there and grasped the rich potential of his own diocese. Upon his return from Spain, he built a shrine on the “needle” of Saint-Michel, which he believed was a sacred pagan site long before it was ever Christian, thus establishing a permanent connection between Le Puy and Santiago de Compostela. It is a link kept alive to this day by the special Santiago de Compostela passport issued to pilgrims by the bishopric, and above all by the famous path—the GR (Grande Randonnée) 65—that threads its way from here to the Pyrénées and beyond. Unlike other pilgrim tracks to Santiago de Compostela that are now covered with tarmac and filled with traffic, this is a quiet and true footpath for much of the way, winding through the beautiful wilderness of the Massif Central to Gascony on the pilgrims’ long journey to the Field of the Star.
Le Puy’s Local Cuisine
The undisputed top joint in town is the Restaurant François Gagnaire (dinner, $80; in the Hôtel du Parc, 4 Av. Clément Charbonnier; 33-4/71-02-75-55; francois-gagnaire-restaurant.com), named for its brilliant young chef, who must be fed up with reviews that begin by saying “no relation to Pierre of the same name, of Paris, London, and Tokyo.” But one has to say it. This Gagnaire operates out of the newer, 19th-century quarter at the foot of old Le Puy, next to the Henri Vinay public gardens and the Musée Crozatier; he runs a tight, modern, comfortable ship, and his artful cooking revolves around local products, notably lamb and green lentils, of which he is the absolute inventive master.
Just outside town, nearly two miles up the road that climbs out of Le Puy toward Clermont-Ferrand, is L’Ermitage (rooms $80–$110; dinner, $45; 75 Av. de l’Ermitage, Espaly; 33-4/71-07-05-05; hotelermitage.com), the hotel whose splendid farmhouse restaurant would have the best views of Le Puy and its odd pinnacles if the management would only bother to trim the hedges. But they are apparently too busy serving excellent food in a room permanently full of people eating and drinking with a roaring gusto that is peculiarly local. One of the masterly winter dishes served here is a subtle quince-garnished filet de lièvre (hare) in a dark, faintly chocolaty sauce. Plus, with hotel rooms upstairs, one has the option of not taking the wheel again after dining.
La Parenthèse (dinner, $35; 8 Av. de la Cathédrale; 33-4/71-02-83-00; laparenthese43.free.fr) is my pick of the more modest steam-billowing-from-the-kitchen restaurants in the old town, run by people who are seriously good at hearty regional dishes like aligot (melted tomme de Cantal cheese mixed into garlicky mashed potatoes), which everyone should try. Sample the delicious Vourzac salmon trout fillets if they’re in. Also in the running are Tournayre (dinner, $85; 12 Rue Chênebouterie; 33-4/71-09-58-94; restaurant-tournayre.com), where the different cuts of lamb, served with lentils, are all delicious; and the contemporary Le Poivrier (dinner, $25; 69 Rue Pannessac; 33-4/71-02-41-30; lepoivrier.fr), which serves excellent local beef (the grilled pavé with morels is out of this world). It is a good place to go for lunch after the Saturday market on the nearby Place du Plot, home to an incredible variety of cheeses. There is sweet, unpasteurized Salers and Laguiole, made in summer from the milk of cattle grazing in high pastures; Bleu d’Auvergne, which spreads on bread like soft butter; elastic, succulent Saint-Nectaire, the best soft cheese in France (the more expensive, farm-produced kind is the best); and finally, if one is lucky enough to find someone selling it, Bleu de Laqueuille, the original Auvergne blue invented in the mid-19th century by Antoine Roussel, a farmer who found blue mold growing on rye bread and decided to sprinkle it onto cheese curds.
Serious eaters may also want to travel about 40 miles from Le Puy to the small village of Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, a bastion of gastronomy with no fewer than four excellent restaurants, by far the grandest of which is the fabulous three-star Restaurant Régis et Jacques Marcon (dinner, $190; Larsiallas, St.-Bonnet-le-Froid; 33-4/71-59-93-72; regismarcon.fr). I would single out the glorious lobster cassoulet, the poulet au verveine en cocotte, and a ragout of lentils that was a miracle of lightness and complex tastes. The menu changes seasonally, so the same dishes are not always on offer, but anything they turn out is a delight and it’s best to book well in advance. The Marcons also run two hotels, an informal bistro, and a bakery in the area.
Also in the region, in areas lying below about 1,600 feet, are small-scale vineyards that produce mostly for local and individual consumption. One producer in particular, Jean Maupertuis, operates near Clermont-Ferrand and is something of a cult figure: From grapes grown in volcanic soil at an altitude of roughly 1,500 feet, he manages to create unfiltered organic red wines (La Guillaume and Les Pierres Noires are his two current cuvées) of extraordinary delicacy.