Welcome back! If you missed part one of this pair of posts, please check out last week’s.

Here’s one more example of the light show of Puy de Lumières:

This is the Rocher St. Michel D’Aiguilhe. This is where Godescalc of Le Puy erected a chapel to archangel Michael.

But at night, it erupts in oozing color. 

Flame and lava seem a curious theme for a Catholic pilgrimage site. Well, the light show on this impressive rock tells the entire history of Le Puy, like the entire 35-million-year history of Le Puy. Here it is, including why this valley contains quite a few tall sharp peaks of rock, the tops of which turn out to be irresistible for building shrines and chapels.

The basin of Le Puy-en-Velay was formed approximately 35 million years ago following the collapse of the ancient Hercynian bedrock and the collision of two tectonic plates which led to the creation of the Alps. Twenty million years later, the thinning of the earth’s crust ushered in a period of intense volcanic activity. Then, 3 million years ago the ascension of magma to the surface resulted in an encounter with the vast lake covering the basin of Le Puy-en-Velay. The subsequent massive explosions left an accumulation of volcanic matter around the craters. Gradually erosion shaped the landscape giving rise to extremely characteristic environment comprising basin, table and neck [the word for the basalt pillars].

Time for an irreverent aside. We couldn’t help by notice interestingly named institutions:

It turns out that the local French word for the towering rock formations is le dyke. Not what we thought at first. 

A few more monuments in historic Le Puy-en-Velay:

The Baptistry of Saint John sits right next to the cathedral. Jef said that most of the time it is shut tight. But on this day, the big arched doorway was open, and an enthusiastic docent welcomed us in. Yet another example of layers of history, all the way back to Roman times. While archeologists aren’t certain, it is possible that the baptistry sits on the site of a temple to the Roman goddess Diana. Much of the structure in the apse may date back at least to the seventh century, probably earlier. There was a notable earthquake at one point and most of the temple collapsed. But not this apse. You can see that the columns and arches lean in various directions: remnants of earthquake motion? 

In the 12th century, a cloister was added to the cathedral complex.

The cathedral had been enlarged in the 11th and 12th centuries to accommodate more and more pilgrims. The cloister was built for use by the secular canons of the cathedral who met there and constituted the bishop’s council.

We’ve read that this cloister is one of the oldest of its type in all of Europe. The polychromy and patterns of the stone are notable characteristics of local Romanesque (pre-gothic) architecture. The column capitals and carved details beneath the eaves overflow with lively iconography – religious, folkloric, celebrations of nature and everyday life.

The Velay State room is located just off the arcade of the cloister. It used to be the bishop and canons’ room, where the Velay seigneurs, the Bishop of Puy’s vassals, met. It now houses the cathedral’s religious art treasures, added to in 2011 by a collection of richly embroidered liturgical ornaments and devotional tableaux. Generally, we find these kinds of collections off-putting: showy extravagance by the elite of the church, always in a context of very difficult lives of their parishioners. But, we can’t deny the beauty and craftsmanship of the designs.

A few more images from our walks around the medieval part of town:

One of the most notable features of the Le Puy skyline is the immense terra-cotta-color sculpture of Mary and Baby Jesus atop the town.

Jef insisted that we go visit Mary and Jesus, intimately in fact, since we were going to climb up inside Mary. As you know by now, the association of Mary with Le Puy goes way back. This statue, however, is recent — from 1860.

In the middle of the 19th century, when Marian worship underwent a revival, His Lordship of Morlhon decided to use Cornielle rock as a pedestal bast for a monumental statue of the Virgin. On 8th September 1855, the day of Virgin Mary nativity, France was victorious at the siege of Sebastopol (war of Crimea) and a part of the cast iron cannons captured from the enemy were used to build it. The work of Jean-Marie Bonnassieux, born in the Loire department, it was unveiled on 12th September 1860 in front of 120,000 pilgrims. A few years later, a statue showing His Lordship of Morlhon praying was erected at her feet.

The ascent of the Corneille rock was actually very pleasant. It was a lovely fresh summer morning.

The view over the town and valley:

We entered the base of the statue…

…and climbed the spiral stair all the way up to the skull of Mary. Within her golden crown is a plexi dome out of which you can peak, which turns out not to be much fun; all the heat of the day rises to the top, and the plexi is scratched and dusty. But it was interesting to look at all the bolts and iron panels that comprise the statue — presumably the same construction technology that you can see in the much larger Statue of Liberty in New York.

Well, that’s quite a lot of history and monuments and sculptures. In truth, Le Puy-en-Velay is a charming picturesque lively town. It’s a pleasure to wander in the medieval and modern streets. Shops and commerce seem active, even in the shadow of the pandemic. Outdoor cafés fill the town squares. 

But beware: the medieval quarter sits atop Mount Anis. Be ready to work those calves, hamstrings and glutes.

Jef and Val were excited to take us to Restaurant Comme à la Maison (which means, Like at Home), down the street from their new base. The dining spaces — we sat on a covered terrace — gave off a casual vibe. The young person who took our order seemed unsure of herself. We all selected the four-course chef’s choice menu. Another server hesitated when it came time to offer some bread. Not really a problem; we were just happy to be out with our friends.

Then the dishes started coming, beginning with the entrée (starter). Even though we had all ordered the same menu, our plates weren’t the same. It was the chef’s choice after all, and he had decided to prepare three different entrées for our table. Each entrée was elaborate, colorful, complicated. We all enjoyed tasting each other’s dish.

It was the same for the main course. 

But the dessert was the best: each elaborate dessert was unique. As you can see, the chef’s style is to compose a huge array of ingredients. A couple times during the meal, the chef — a young man of about 30 — stopped by our table. He even brought us a few of our dishes. His face was flushed, his forehead glistening. We could tell that he was fired up by creating all these beautiful elaborate dishes. He exuded a feeling of there not being enough time to prepare all he wanted to make.

In some hands, this approach could be just chaos or indecision. But here, it was uninhibited fun. Each bite was an discovery of combinations. The ebullience of his style made this dinner a party.

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