Our friends Jean-François and Valérie (Jef and Val in real life) have completed their move from La Cité de Carcassonne to Le Puy-en-Velay, about a five-hour drive north of Carcassonne. The four of us went up to Le Puy back in midwinter to check out the apartment that they were thinking of renting for themselves and their business; here’s the post from that trip. Now we have the opportunity to visit in summertime, when the weather is more welcoming, and the pandemic is relenting a little.
The best part of this visit was spending time with Jef and Val, seeing them in their new home, and witnessing the launch of their transplanted business. (You can see what they’re up to at their Facebook page. There’s also a great article about them in one of their local newspapers online, l’éveil de la Haute-Loire — in French.) Jef took us on one of his new tours around medieval Le Puy: super interesting! We’ve included some images and history from his tour in this post.
In our modern world, Le Puy seems like a little town in the middle of nowhere (as much as you can be in the middle of nowhere in the middle of France). It takes about an hour on windy rural, often one-lane roads to get from the autoroute to Le Puy. There is a train station but it is only served by local trains that make every single stop on their route; it is about 2.5 hours to Lyon by train. So, how is it that Le Puy has been such an important little city for the last 1000 years? It attracts something like 100,000 visitors and pilgrims each year; notable for a town with a resident population of only about 20,000.
Le Puy-en-Velay used to be called Puy-Sainte-Marie or Puy-Notre-Dame because of its intimate association with the Virgin Mary. The faithful have been making the pilgrimage to Le Puy for a millennium. But why? Here’s one explanation:
Le Puy-en-Velay is one of the first sanctuaries in the Western world dedicated to the Virgin. Mentioned since the 11th century, the statue of the Virgin of Puy was adored by pilgrims for centuries, before being destroyed during the Revolution. Legend has it that the Virgin is said to have healed a young woman on Mount Anis [the site of the current cathedral]. She reportedly asked him in return for a shrine to be built there. The current cathedral, built between the 11th and 13th centuries, is the result.
Marian worship reached its peak in the 13th century. The city is therefore called Puy-Sainte-Marie or Puy-Notre-Dame. Pilgrims flock from all walks of life. The popes and kings of France, from Louis le Débonnaire in the 9th century to François 1st in the 16th century, make the pilgrimage to Le Puy, considered one of the most important in the kingdom of France. As in Jerusalem, Rome or Compostela, the holy or jubilee years bring together thousands of believers in the cathedral. These great feasts take place whenever Good Friday, the day of Christ’s death, coincides with March 25, the day of the Annunciation. The popularity of the crowd is such that serious accidents occur, as during the jubilee of 1407, during which there are 200 victims suffocated by the crowd. Even today, on August 15, Assumption Day, the statue of the Virgin Mary is solemnly carried through the streets during processions.
Another celebrated attribute of Le Puy is its being the starting point of a major pilgrimage route to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, or the Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.
Again, why is Le Puy so important in relation to Santiago de Compostela, which is about 1,400 km away? We can thank the 10th-century bishop Godescalc of Le Puy. Here’s a colorful explanation:
Today, the pilgrim routes of the Chemin de Saint-Jacques pound with the feet of thousands of walkers on a path to self-discovery. Yet the first pilgrims set off for the shrine of St James in Santiago, Spain, more than a millennium ago. What started as a trickle in the ninth century swelled to a constant flow of pilgrims by the 12th, all clamoring to honor the burial place of Jesus’s apostle, James.
Back then, pilgrims from Britain or continental Europe wishing to reach the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia had to pass through France. Towns along the route to Santiago provided everything a weary traveller required – somewhere to sleep, something to eat and drink, and miracle-giving shrines to nourish the soul. Each pilgrim route through France had its own stellar stop-off sites. Of the four ‘ways’ through France, the Chemin du Puy, or via podiensis, which travels from Le Puy-en-Velay via Conques and Moissac, offered some of the most impressive.
In order to understand what drove medieval pilgrims across continents to visit the tomb of St James, we must revisit the pilgrimage’s origins in the early days of Christianity. St James was beheaded in Jerusalem in about 44 AD, so how did the martyr’s body come to be buried in Spain more than 800 years later? Early medieval sources say seven of James’ disciples, formerly pagans, took his body from Jerusalem and set off in a rudderless boat (what else?) to find a suitable burial place. Providence set them down in Galicia, where they fought off a dragon and wild bulls which, of course, they tamed. These bulls pulled the body on a wagon up a mountain, where it was laid to rest.
Fast-forward 800 years, when a celestial light guided a bishop to the long-forgotten tomb hidden under thick brambles. And so the cult of St James was born.
By the second half of the 12th century, men and women of all ages, nationalities and social classes were embarking on pilgrimage to the shrine where his tomb was rediscovered. The first French bishop to visit Santiago as a pilgrim was Godescalc of Le Puy in 950. His experience inspired him to make Le Puy a pilgrimage centre, by building a chapel to archangel Michael on the Aiguilhe Rock.
Over the centuries Le Puy drew increasing numbers of pilgrims, attracted by spiritual highlights such as the Dominican church of Saint-Laurent, whose chancel holds the entrails of Hundred Years War hero Bertrand du Guesclin, and the Black Virgin of Le Puy in Notre-Dame cathedral.
With some history under our belts, let’s explore.
A fabulous introduction to the monuments of Le Puy is the annual Puy de Lumières. Every night from 1 July to 12 September, nine of the town’s most famous monuments transform into dynamic light shows. (Like Carrières de Lumière, but outside.)
By day, the Romanesque cathedral looms over the medieval part of town:
Come dark, it lets its hair down, and parties — as much as a venerated cathedral can party:
By day, the Market building that faces La Place du Plot is reserved and calm. After dark, it boasts of all of Le Puy’s bounty: grains, lentils, fields of flowers, mushrooms, red fruits, verbena and more.
The Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) projects republican gravitas in the sunlight:
Glorious French history lessons after dark.
Le Théâtre on a weekday:
Kicking its legs up for the weekend:
Let’s pause for now; more history and stories in next week’s post.
In the meantime, here are some Winter / Summer views so you can get a sense of the seasons in Le Puy-en-Velay: