It’s true. We visited Le Puy-en-Velay just as we visited Conques before because it was on the way to somewhere else. It is not the most knowledgeable of reasons for a visit but in this case it worked. Le Puy-en-Velay is worth planning to see.
Le Puy-en-Velay has an interesting combination of geology and religion. Volcanic activity and subsequent erosion have exposed hardened magma cores in the region. The result is a distinctive landscape of isolated hills or puys. In Le Puy-en-Velay three religious structures, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, the Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe Chapel, and the rust red Notre Dame de France statue, accent the tops of the geological formations.
The most iconic of Le Puy-en-Velay’s religious buildings is Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, the town’s oldest chapel. Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe occupies the top of a narrow volcanic spire 279 feet above the valley. Access to this small austere church comes with a price, three Euros per adult and the ascent of 268 steep stone steps.
Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe celebrates the pilgrim’s return from Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Perversely the long walk on the Way of Saint James is rewarded with additional effort, a hard climb to the chapel. I suspect that softer modern day pilgrims might opt to visit to the nearest spa instead.
Le Puy-en-Velay is indeed a pilgrimage town. Not that that is unusual. Seventy-eight places in France are included along with Le Puy’s main church, the grand Cathédrale Notre-Dame, as part of the “Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France” UNESCO World Heritage listing. The UNESCO designation recognizes the cultural importance of the pilgrimage both historically and today.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame is Le Puy’s most import religious structure. The 11th Century cathedral commands a site on a hill surrounded below by the meandering narrow streets of Le Puy-en-Velay’s old quarter. Together with its cloister the cathedral makes a sprawling hilltop religious complex.
The inside the Cathédrale Notre-Dame is darkly lit. Under lights at one end of the nave is a famous Black Madonna. Common to pilgrimage churches along St. James’ Way is a distinctive feel of power and importance. Indeed this is true here; Cathédrale Notre-Dame resonates with the feel of significance.
Once again we found ourselves at a stop along the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. This raises the question: Are tourists the modern day pilgrims? Many like us visit the places along the Way of Saint James without a clear-cut religious intention. Following the trail of the pilgrims has become an inadvertent travel itinerary.
Travelers find that pilgrimage towns come with deep history set in dramatic settings. After all, important religious structures tend to be built in interesting locations. Le Puy-en-Velay illustrates well the combination of religion and place.