During our second family camping road trip with kids across Europe we had an unplanned stop at an off-the-beaten path destination in the south of France, between Lyon and Toulousse, known for its green lentils and and one of the main roads to the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in France. Here it is in pictures.
Each place has its history. Even those out of the beaten track, with no apparent significance, may reveal themselves to be holding some true beauties to be discovered only when your foot steps on their ground. It really is the best experience when you run into something special unplanned and unexpected that no guidebook talks about, like our detour in Bergerac to see about a man with a long nose, the well-preserved medieval village of Perouges, and a stone boat of the Virgin Mary at the end of the known world in Galicia.
The places we visit stamp on our memory not by the number of monuments or museums their offer, or Michelin stars of their restaurants, but rather by the quality time we have there as a traveling family with two young and energetic kids in tow. We create those memories ourselves, stimulated by what we see and experience. This way any given site is special to us.
For more info, read the text at the end of the pictures. Enjoy the trip!
One of those places we chanced upon in France (southwest of Lyon) is Le Puy en Velay, located in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.
Even though this area is popular among tourists (and guidebooks do talk about it extensively), we were very pleasantly surprised by its charming and peaceful nature.
It might have something to do with the fact that those who come there are looking for some spiritual cleansing or reconciliation. Le Puy is a site of religious significance, with its wonderful Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy reigning over the town.
Pagan Origins of Le Puy en Velay
It all started a very long time ago, well before the spread of Christianity, in 2000 B.C. or thereabouts!!!
Magically, Mount Anis, where the cathedral stands today, was a pagan site of Celtic worship, converted into a place of cult by the Romans between year 1 and 3 A.D. It was finally consecrated by a Christian bishop, (???) later turn saint, George in 6th century.
On the Road to Santiago de Compostela
Interestingly enough, one of the successors of the latter, initiated here the first ever pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, some 1600 km away.
This is how, up until today, Le Puy became one of the four main starting points of the “Camino del Santiago de Compostela” and some 15,000 followers (pre-Covid 19 times) of the “walking bishop” are blessed here before their departure.
In fact, inside the cathedral there is a box where you can deposit your intension to be carried by a pilgrim to Santiago for you. It is a little bit of a slacker approach to getting your prayers carried on the pilgrimage road. However, it is wonderful to know that there still are strangers who are ready to grant you this favor just for the love of it.
A Charming and Untainted Old Town
It is therefore well worth a climb, to visit the cathedral, whether YOU are religious or not as it does leave a mark. The cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason.
Throughout its long and rich history, the town’s intimate atmosphere and charm has not faded. In the small stores alongside the narrow streets you can buy homemade jams and handmade traditional lace articles, in addition to religious memorabilia of course.
There is no excess and overpowering “catholic marketing”, however, that is so notable for example in Lourdes, France. It’s a hometown feel with cobblestone streets and quaint houses with pretty colors.
There are a few places you can grab a snack or just sit for coffee and ice-cream (a lifeline for tired kids who have climbed up and down the steep hill).
Other Things to See or Do in Le Puy
Stopping by Le Puy was just enough to see the Cathedral and have some coffee and ice cream at the main square. We wished we had more than a day to appreciate all the other sites the town has to offer, such as the following:
1. Statue of the Notre Dame de France – for 4 euros you can climb a spiral staircase 23 meters up inside the Statue and enjoy the 360 degrees view from its Head;
2. Musee Crozatier – a number of interesting expositions about art (including a broad collection of ages old lace traditional artifacts), history, nature, engineering, including animations for the little visitors.
3. Shrine of St. Joseph – yet another religious site that also offers impressive views of the city.
4. Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe – a uniquely located chapel built in 10th century on top of a volcanic rock overlooking the city. The 268-step climb is worth it for the experience and the views.
5. Henri Vinay Garden – a beautiful and well maintained garden with swans in the pond at the center, old trees and monuments, and a playground at the southeast corner. It’s about a 10-minute walk south of the cathedral.
That’s it for now. There’s always something fascinating, interesting (even if not outright jaw-dropping) to discover anywhere you are. Sometimes you’ve just gotta make an unplanned stop, like what we did here. or like the curious little story of the artist of the red countryside castle in the next post.
Helpful PARKING info: SAVE YOURSELF the trouble of looking for parking in the historic center, with its tight winding cobblestone streets. Side street parking on a main street about 7 minutes walk from the cathedral only cost us €1.00 euro for 1 hour and 40 minutes. There should be a stand or a meter where you can auto-pay for parking.
NEXT STOP: A French Chateau
Onwards, southwards. . . to the land of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers and 2,300-something kilometers to go!
; ) But first, we’ve got to land this gypsy caravan to pitch our tent, somewhere in the middle of nowhere a little farther south, at a campground called Flower Camping near a French countryside castle.
Thanks for checking us out!
Thanks for checking us out!