These days, we are almost completely staying at home, visiting with friends and family via FaceTime and Zoom, going for walks, and shopping for food and supplies. Ah, the pandemic life. 

But a recent one-night road trip brought us a dose of diversion. 

Our friends Val and Jef asked for a little architecture-related help in the town of Le Puy-en-Velay, in south-central France. Quite a few of their family members live in the region around Le Puy. (We visited the area with them in 2019: blog post En Auvergne.)  

Before we embarked, we focused on how to keep the outing safe. For the five-hour drive, Mike and I took our car, and Jef and Val took theirs. As part of our choice to go in separate cars, we had asked advice from our French retired-doctor friends, Georges and Michèle. Their approach to life in the pandemic is cautious like ours. Georges had the perfect summary of the situation: “Ne tentez pas le diable.” Don’t tempt the devil. We’ve gotten this far without getting sick; the pandemic is still raging, but the vaccine is on the horizon. We tempted the devil a little by going on this little trip, but we worked hard to frustrate him. Happily, a few weeks later, I report that we are still healthy.

OK, on to the diversion.

Le Puy sits in the middle of the Massif Central, or central highlands. Because of the elevation, the weather is colder and snowier than in the Carcassonne region. Fortunately, there is a splendid autoroute from Carcassonne to Narbonne to Montpellier, and turning north, up into the Massif Central.

One of our favorite parts of this route is crossing the Viaduc de Millau. This is the world-class, beautiful, surreal bridge that spans a large valley. It’s a recent bridge, completed in 2004. We understand that it is the tallest bridge in the world, with a structural height of over 330 meters or 1,100 feet. We’ve visited a few times over the years. Here’s a photo from 2017:

And here is the view of our crossing in January 2021. 

Soon after the Viaduc de Millau, the landscape grew whiter and more wintry.

A blanket of snow renders a highway rest-stop tranquil and beautiful.

The last hour of the drive leaves the big autoroute, continuing on a national road — which, fortunately, is well maintained even in snowy times. This road crosses a modest pass en route to Le Puy. The added elevation turned the countryside into scenery that reminded us of our time in northern Sweden a couple of winters ago.

The town of Le Puy is not very large, with only about 20,000 residents (less than half the size of Carcassonne). In normal times, Le Puy attracts quite a few visitors. Le Puy has been a center of pilgrimage since the time of Charlemagne (eighth century). It is one of the more important beginnings for the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, 1600 km away (from the 10th century). 

The oldest part of the town wraps itself around a volcanic promontory. Two notable monuments look down on the town: the Le Puy Cathedral (5th – 15th centuries) and the iron statue of Notre-Dame de France (1860). They are testaments to the importance in this place of the Virgin Mary. Many French kings and notables have come here, in reverence of the Virgin Mary, to begin their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, or to inaugurate Crusades to the Holy Land.

The snowy mid-winter streets and vistas were quiet and picturesque. But, in plain sight, they hid the stress of our era. The peace of our visit came from shuttered tourist and pilgrim shops, lace boutiques (for which Le Puy is famous), cafés, bars and restaurants. Normally, pilgrims from around Europe would enliven the streets of the old town. 

Nonetheless, the main shopping street of the modern town, at the base of the cathedral hill, was lively. For a town of half the size of Carcassonne, Le Puy seems to have more local and national shops, tidier old and new buildings, and a sense of pride. Around the corner from where we had parked our car, Jef and Val showed us a lovely allée of trees. As we stepped through the gates to this park, a local man with his dog stepped out the way so we could take our photos — OK, only the man stepped aside. He had heard us talking, so he said something friendly in partial English. He welcomed us to his town. There’s something fresh and warm about this nice place.

The route out of Le Puy and its valley was as snowy as the day before. Gorgeous white and silver against dark clouds.

At a rest-stop along the autoroute, we discovered a surprise bonus: the Garabit Viaduct. Gustave Eiffel and his engineering company designed the rail bridge to span the Truyère River. The 565 m or 1,854 ft bridge was opened in 1885. (The Eiffel Tower in Paris was built in 1887-89.) The Garabit Viaduct is still used today, although the maximum allowable speed is 10 km/h or 6 mph!

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