Today was a travel day, as I moved from Le Mont Dore in the Puy-de-Dôme region to Aubrac in the Aveyron. I drove through both the Cantal and the Lozère to get here.
Aubrac, as you can see by the red dot, is right at the point where three départements meet: the Cantal, the Lozère and the Aveyron. And keen eyes will note that I’ve come nearly full-circle since the start of the trip in Saint-Geniez-d’Olt.
I didn’t drive directly here, and along the way I found myself on more than one very tiny country road (which I adore), and I also found myself waiting in traffic stops for road construction. Thus, there wasn’t much exploring being done, and there aren’t a lot of photographs.
My first stop was to visit the lovely Viaduc de Garabit, for which Gustav Eiffel was the construction engineer. This bridge came several years before its famous cousin, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This was not a straightforward construction project, and it involved some top-notch engineering by the Eiffel team.
The resulting span was used regularly until 2009, when an inspection showed some cracks. They were repaired, and the bridge reopened, with a 10-kilometer per hour speed limit.
It’s been several days of rain, clouds I could nearly touch, and no sign at all of the mountains I’d come to hike. All that changed when this morning dawned sunny and bright.
I drove to the Sancy téléphérique (cable car), joined around 20 masked people inside, and we all got whooshed up the mountain. Coming out, we were faced with a very long wooden stair path that climbed up and curved toward the summit, adding 110 meters (360 feet).
Puy de Sancy is the highest point in the Massif Central, at 1,885 meters, or 6,188 feet. The entire region is volcanic, with around 450 volcanoes dotting the landscape. The youngest of the volcanoes are those in the Chaîne de Puys, which encompasses 80 volcanoes in an area that is only 45 kilometers long by 5 kilometers wide. The highest point in that group is Puy de Dôme at 1,465 meters (4,806 feet).
Here’s an interesting tidbit for anyone who’s been to the Dordogne area: there are two creeks that start on the northern flank of Puy de Sancy. One is named the Dore and the other is named the Dogne. Somewhere a little further along, the two creeks join and become the Dordogne River.
I found a relatively comfortable rock and sat down to enjoy the moment in time. It was warmer up at the top than it was way down in the parking lot, and there was no wind. It was pretty much a perfect day in this little corner of paradise.
There were masses of swallows swooping around the rocks, and I saw a peregrine falcon suspended in mid-air as it searched for lunch. I could hear the bells of a large herd of cattle that was grazing far, far below me.
The dynamic movement of the volcanic rock was endlessly fascinating in its forms and obvious energy. Where I sat, the cracks in the rocks were filled with thick, spongy moss and flowering heather in several shades of pink.
The lovely weather today brought out a lot of smiles on the faces of people who were happy to be scampering about on steep mountains. I enjoyed conversations with several people, and nearly everyone gave me a smile and a “bonjour” as we passed each other. There were a lot of dogs, too, and I got in some good ear-scratching along with people talking.
I readily admit it: I can’t resist a medieval church. After visiting the basilica at Orcival, and learning that there are five related basilicas in the region, I decided I needed to go see another one. And then I tacked on another for the fun of it.
It’s been raining since I arrived here in Mont Dore, which means that I’ve yet to see the mountain, and I’ve yet to go for a nice high-elevation amble. With rain in the forecast again this morning, it was an easy choice to head down the mountain, going first to Issoire, and then to Brioude.
The Abbatiale Saint-Austremoine is one of the five major Romanesque churches of the Auvergne, and widely considered to be the largest.* A harmonious and beautiful structure, the exterior of Saint-Austremoine displays a geometric regularity that is made more lively through the use of different colors of basalt stone, plus tile and mosaic work.
The inside is a surprise. It is full of color and pattern (the columns and their capitals were restored and repainted by Anatole Dauvergne from 1857–1860), and they are rich and sumptuous. Everywhere you look, you see something new. There is no lack of drama in this sanctuary.
*The other four major Romanesque churches are the Basilica of Notre-Dame (Orcival), the Basilica of Notre-Dame du Port (Clermont-Ferrand), the church of Saint-Nectaire, and the church of Saint-Saturnin.
I enjoyed a nice light lunch at Empreintes Vegetales, the kind of shop I’d visit frequently if I lived in a town that had one. At its heart, it’s a tea shop. They also make pastries and a variety of different savory tartes. Et voilà—my lunch. Along the walls are greeting cards by a local artist, a few decorative knickknacks, two shelves full of meticulously-labeled tiny bottles of sand from the owner’s holidays, and about ten shelves bursting with canisters of loose-leaf tea. It was cozy, friendly, and the perfect place to park myself for a little while.
Then I hopped in the car and drove a half-hour south to Brioude, in search of the Basilique Saint-Julien, which is not counted among the major Romanesque churches, but wow, it is so lovely.
It was a very full day, with a lot of driving along narrow, winding mountain roads that curved through too many shades of green to count. Tomorrow, I’m hoping for sunshine and some mountain walking.
Today marks the midpoint of my road trip, and it was a day unlike the others of the past week. I woke up a little tired and groggy, which I chalked up to the weather: continued rain, clouds down to the street, the barometer even lower. Grey, grey, grey.
One necessary chore was to find a laundromat. I could easily hand wash a few things, but they’d take a week to dry in this weather. After a couple of false starts, I got that chore taken care of, along with a visit to the Mont Dore visitors center. I scrounged up some lunch, had a nap, and then got myself out the door again for a return trip to Orceval. I’d noticed yesterday that they would be offering a guided tour today, and that sounded like a good idea.
This is a long way of saying that I don’t have a full day’s worth of photographs and stories to sort through for this blog post. Instead, I decided to look through the past week’s haul, and I chose at least one previously-unpublished photo for each day, including one for today. I grouped them by subject more than by time.
This morning we awoke to a grey and drizzly day. After breakfast, we checked out of our chambres-d’hotes (B&B), and bid each other goodbye. Maryse and Claude were headed west to visit friends, and I was headed east to higher—and it turns out, even wetter—ground. An hour later I arrived in Mont Dore, in the Puy-de-Dôme. With the wet weather and low clouds, I really have no idea what the surrounding country looks like. Except that it’s green.
I decided that since I was early to check into my hotel, and I wasn’t especially hungry for lunch, that I’d make the drive to nearby Orcival to see Notre Dame d’Orcival, a stunning example of medieval church architecture. It’s one of five basilicas built in this region at about the same time, early in the 12th century, and all five of the huge structures were completed very quickly; Notre Dame d’Orcival took only 32 years to build, a remarkable accomplishment (1146-1178). It was big enough that it never needed to be enlarged, so the church remains largely as it was nearly 900 years ago (aside from some 15th-century earthquake damage).
I’m hoping to join a tour of the basilica tomorrow, so I’ll only include here a few photos of interesting things I noticed as I walked around on my own.
This weekend is Heritage Days in Europe (Journées du Patrimoine in French), when an astounding list of places are either open when they usually are not, or are free of charge, or include guided tours. It’s a great time to visit Europe, because it’s a time to see things you otherwise might not be able to visit.
The Château de Val is generally open, so I don’t think much was different. But the Patrimoine people were there, handing out all kinds of information, and the local fishermen were doing some kind of event on the lake.
There’s a myth that Dieudonné d’Estaing saved the life of the French king, Philippe Auguste, in the Holy Land in 1214. In return, the king gave him land and some extensive rights. That story has been disproved, but it’s still a pretty good story. Meanwhile, the castle we see today was probably begun in the 13th century, and then heavily modified in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
And while what we see today is a picturesque fairy-tale setting on a lake, there was no lake when the arrows were flying here. Shortly after World War II, the French electrical giant, EDF, pushed out the last owners of the castle, the d’Arcy family, in order to build a dam and flood the valley. The castle was to be fully submerged. After a protracted battle with the d’Arcy family, EDF backed down and agreed to a lower water level in order to preserve the castle, but the family had already left, taking all of their furniture with them (including nearly everything original to the castle’s construction).
In 1953, EDF sold the castle for one French franc, to the nearby town of Bort-les-Orgues, which continues to maintain the castle.
From the castle, we drove up to les Orgues de Bort, just outside the town of Bort-des-Orgues. The French “les Orgues” refers to a rock formation that has the vertical look of the pipes on a pipe organ. The rock cliffs themselves were lovely, although not out of this world. However, the setting is quite wonderful: perched on what feels like the edge of the world, there is a little café with tables and chairs, and a view that spans 180 degrees, from Puy-de-Dôme and its volcanic mountains to the northeast, then south into the valleys of the Dordogne River, to the mountains of the Cantal, and finally to the hills of the northern part of the Aveyron. It’s a pretty darn sensational place to sit and gaze, maybe sip on a beer, chat with friends, breathe… and be happy that it’s not raining on this particular day!
After our refreshing lunch break, we drove different directions for the remainder of the afternoon. I had a few tasks on my plate, including finding a gas station, and I really wanted a break. Back in our chambres-d’hôtes (bed and breakfast), I got started re-packing my stuff, took a nap, and generally didn’t do much before dinner. Tomorrow we’re parting ways, as Maryse and Claude will head southwest, to visit friends, and I’ll be turning my car toward volcano country in Puy-de-Dôme.
Note: I apologize for this arriving late: it was almost ready to post when the WiFi failed, and stayed down for quite a long time.