Road Trip, Day 9

The summit of Puy de Sancy, 1,885 meters (6,188 feet).

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).

I made this pano the old-fashioned way: by taking three different photos and superimposing them on top of each other (no digital stitching). I always liked the pre-digital look of this sort of work, and I hadn’t made one in a long time. The view from near the top seemed a good opportunity.

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.

The well-trod marker at the summit of Puy de Sancy.
Here’s a view from just below the summit, showing the dramatic uplift to the rock formations, high above a fertile valley below.
Above and below: more cool rock formations. The volcanic activity in this region covers a big range of time, from one million years ago to only 7,000 years ago.
After I spent some time at the top, I came back down the stairs you can see in the upper left (with little dots of people). In front of me is another path I followed to more cool rock formations.

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.

What a wonderful day!


I’ll close with a photograph that has nothing to do with the big mountain. It comes from my dinner this evening. It’s light passing through my water glass and the pitcher of water and onto the surface of the placemat.


Road Trip, Day 8

A column capital in Basilique Saint-Julien catches some purple light from a stained glass window.

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 in Issoire.

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.

Columns, their capitals, and other surfaces are completely covered with colorful imagery.
Looking along one aisle toward the choir.

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.

The roof above the nave in the Basilique Saint-Julien. The warm pink tones come from the colors of the stones used to build the church, as well as a full set of contemporary windows, done in the bright colors of a spring garden.
Some of the original polychrome frescos in Saint-Julien, dating from the 12th century.
Sunlight travels through a colorful stained glass window to arrive on the unique floor of Saint-Julien. The entire space is paved with black and white cobblestones, and the floor dates to the 9th and 16th centuries.

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.



Road Trip, Day 7

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.

Have fun!

Doors with curly braces.
Sunlight shines through an old clear paned window and onto the wall opposite.
A wide range of pastel tones in this antique painted wooden door.
The vivid hues of a stained glass window in the Rodez cathedral, on display in abstract patterns on the stone floor.
This sign is hilarious to me because I’ve never before seen one. French drivers plan on being able to get into—and out of—the tiniest of spaces with their cars, and this sign strikes me as a rare admission of defeat.
A towering and regal Sequoia (who knew?) stands next to the medieval Saint-Pierre-de-Bessuéjouls church.
This lovely scene was also at Saint-Pierre-de-Bessuéjouls.
Today: still rainy, still grey, but all that moisture makes this a lush and beautiful place. And very, very green.


Road Trip, Day 6

A soggy cow came over to say hello, and began using the barbed wire to scratch an itch on her throat. She was very curious about me.

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.

Today I drove to Mont Dore in the Puy-de-Dôme.

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.

The stately Basilique Notre Dame d’Orcival.
One of a pair of doors in the main entry, made of cedar and dating to before 1300. The iron ornamentation shown in detail below features human heads on the right-hand door and animals on the left. These doors are huge, and I had to make the photo above in two parts, so I apologize for the funky look.
Close-ups of the iron details on the doors: a snake on the left and a man on the right.
I’ve seen stone masons’ marks in many places, but never so prominently as in this basilica. Masons were paid according to how many stones they produced, so each mason had his own mark that he inscribed in each completed stone. The foreman would count the number of stones each day, and that total determined the mason’s pay.
One of many intriguing column capitals. I have no idea what this represents—if you do, please let me know!
My cow friend, when she first walked out of the mist toward me.


Road Trip, Day 5

Château de Val

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.

The painted ceiling and beams in one chamber of the castle.

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.


A stately beech tree near the Orgues de Bort.

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!

A beautifully-stacked wood pile.
A rudbeckia flower showing its autumn colors.
I’ve seen a lot of heather (bruyère in French) on hillsides and in gardens.

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.



Road Trip, Day 4

Earlier this summer, I posted a photograph of sparkling water bubbles on a lemon wedge. Here’s its cousin, a photograph of a teaspoon paved with diamonds, er, sparkling water bubbles.

We could tell that night was becoming day because the grey was a slightly lighter tone. There was little drama: the rain that fell was soft, barely making a sound; the dampness seemed to wash out colors before our eyes; all was quiet.

We got our raincoats and umbrellas, and drove into Égletons to see if the visitors center had any suggestions for rainy-day things to do in the area. Not much, it turns out, so three somewhat soggier souls piled back into the car for the one-hour drive toward Collonges-la-Rouge. We drove through low, thick fog and occasional rain, but by the time we arrived, the grey was lighter and the rain had stopped.

Collonges is well-known to visitors, a town with few inhabitants but an abundance of shops. There is a slight Disney-esque air about the place. But the thing is, this town, while it may now be its own theme park, does have some history behind it.

Collonges was founded in the 8th century by some enterprising monks and a group of artisans. Since this beginning, the town has been built entirely of the deep-red sandstone of the region. That’s where the theme park comes in. Everything is red; we even passed a house with a red car parked in front. But it’s fascinating to walk through the tiny, meandering streets, and to see the variety of architectural styles That are represented here. Most of the buildings in the town’s center are several hundred years old, but new structures are all red, too.

Collonges-la-Rouge is an ancient town that is built entirely of deep-red sandstone.

After exploring the town a bit, we found a place for lunch, eating outside on a covered terrace. The café also sells local organic walnuts and walnut oil, so we all walked away with full bellies and bags of walnuts. We stepped into a few shops, including one that sells one of my favorite treats, pain d’épices (spice bread), a regional specialty. By this time, the clouds had evaporated away to reveal a deep blue sky and warm sunshine; it had become a beautiful day.

Turenne

Next we drove to Turenne, an impressive and heavily-fortified hill town. We burned off some of our lunch with a steep hike to the top of the town, to visit what’s left of the castle. The views are wonderful, and on a clear day, it’s possible to see four départements. There’s a pretty garden on the grounds, and then at the other end from the castle, there is an 11th-century tower called the Tour de César, which has 64 steps to be climbed to reach the top. 64 steps doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was already a steep climb to get here, so we were all feeling it.

Looking down the thousand-year-old spiral stairs in the Tour de César in Turenne.

From Turenne, we took a meandering set of tiny local roads to find our way to Curemonte, a picturesque hilltop town that is quite long. Most of what can be seen in this pretty stone town is relatively new, dating to roughly the 15th century, although there were definitely people living in this region long before that.

One of the evocative streets of picturesque Curemonte.

We read of a church just outside of town, built in the 11th century, using paving stones from an earlier building that was perhaps Merovingian and dating from the 8th century. The church is Église de la Combe, and we thought we’d like to see it, if only we could figure out where it was. At last we found it on a map, and Claude turned the car in that direction.

The day was melting into evening, the soft and quiet evening that often comes in autumn. The day remained warm and clear, but with the tiniest bite of cold and that sniff of sweetness in the air that speaks of harvest and falling leaves. We suddenly spotted the church and walked toward the building just as someone was locking up for the day. She was happy to let us in to see her treasure.

A building that is a thousand years old is likely to need some repairs now and then, and our hostess pointed out that it was lucky there had been a repair drive in 2018, because it may have saved the church from being torn down. She also pointed out the new roof, saying that without a roof, a building can’t hope to survive long. I’m not sure, but I think she said that the wall paintings that we could see today were only recently discovered during this latest repair work.

I was feeling grateful for the people who saw fit to make these repairs and save this little gem of a church. Along with the wall paintings, there are a few fine column capitals, and some further painting that is somewhat newer (perhaps from a 15th-century reconstruction). I know I’ve said rather a lot about one little country church, but it was a delightful surprise that we found at the end of a pretty day, through the help of a gracious and generous local who clearly loves her church.

One of the many paintings on the walls of l’Église de la Combe.