We awoke to cloudy skies and signs that it had rained during the night; the forecast called for heavy rains in the afternoon, so we wanted to get a good start for the day’s adventures. This was a day for visiting several of the picturesque villages near Saint-Geniez-d’Olt, where we’re staying. Our first stop of the morning was the lovely Sainte-Eulalie-d’Olt, a town of ancient stone buildings, flower baskets bursting with color, art galleries, and a church that dates to 920 AD.
By the time we left Sainte-Eulalie, the sun had come out, and we all felt the heat and humidity. We rolled down the car windows and took a curving, hilly road to our next stop, Saint-Côme-d’Olt. By the way, “Olt” is the more ancient spelling of the name for the lovely river that flows through this region, otherwise known as the Lot.
Saint-Côme sits on a hill above the river, and has a lovely cathedral that dates to the 15th century. It boasts some interesting features, including a rare twisting spire, which was built in the 16th century, and a gorgeous double wooden door that dates to 1532. It’s not often we get to see 600-year-old wooden doors!
We explored the town and its cathedral, then found a café for lunch. By the time we finished and began thinking about driving to our next stop, there were rumbles of thunder in the distance.
We decided we had time—and a lot of interest—for visiting the town of Espalion and its medieval church, l’Église Saint-Hilarian-Sainte-Foy de Perse. This is a church we’d all read of and wanted to see, and even with high anticipation, it did not disappoint.
Built from the late 11th century into the early 12th, and constructed entirely from the local deep-red sandstone, this church has been an important stop for pilgrims on the Chemin de Compostelle for over 800 years. Its primary entrance has a tympanum that depicts Pentecost. I cannot interpret the lintel, but several references I’ve found say that it actually presents some mixed messages. There are quite a few carvings on the outside walls of the church, as well as 40 carved figures (modillons in French) mounted to a parade of evenly-spaced corbels just below the roof.
Inside, the church remains fairly plain, aside from beautiful column capitals and some stunning decoration that dates to 1471. At that time, several side chapels were added to the church; these include the flamboyant and colorful painted decoration that was popular at that time.
While we were inside admiring this beautiful church, the heavens opened up and gave us a real deluge. It was the perfect opportunity to sit still and admire what was before us. When the rain eased a little, Claude and I tried to walk around the church for some more photographs, but we found that there is actually no path along the very steep hillside on one side of the building. Perhaps there are no carved figures on that side, either; we couldn’t see.
So we drove back into the old center of Espalion, and had brief excursion to see the pedestrian bridge, which—while heavily modified—dates to 1060.
The rain had eased enough to let us explore the bridge and the ancient center of Espalion, and then suddenly it was pouring again. We had all had a full day, so we dashed to the car to make the drive back to Saint-Geniez.
Along the way, Claude took a little detour to show me the Clapas de Thubiès, an entire hillside that is filled with lichen-covered basalt stones that are uniformly around 20 inches across. The stones came from a volcanic eruption (this is a volcanic region of France) from no more than 11,000 years ago. Interesting to me is that this field has remained exposed like this because it covers a vast area of moving water that constantly clears out any potential accumulation of soil or plants.
“Clapas” is an Occitan word that appears to mean “scree,” although I think of scree as being stones of a much smaller size, that move easily, more like gravel. These rocks are bigger and don’t move.