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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today was a transition day. We made a couple of visits in the area near Saint Geniez, and then drove three hours to get to our home for the next three days. To arrive in the town of Égletons, we drove through the Aveyron, then through the Cantal, and then into the Corrèze. As you’ll see, the landscape became even greener as we made our way north.
We drove to the picturesque village of Bozouls, which clings to the cliffs on either side of a remarkable circular canyon that’s about 330 feet deep. After a stop in the visitor center, we walked down, down, down, across the Dourdou River, and then up, up, up to visit the medieval church that’s placed on the spit of land “inside” the circle.
We ate lunch on the very edge of the cliffs, then drove on to the hamlet of Bessuéjouls to visit another 12th century church built of the gorgeous red sandstone of the region. This church is l’Église Saint-Pierre in the hamlet of Bessuéjouls, and it’s a popular stop with people who are walking the Chemin de Compostelle. Interesting to all three of us was the magnificent giant sequoia tree that stands next to the church and completely dwarfs it.
And then it was time to hit the road. Our three-hour journey took us north, passing out of the Aveyron, through the Cantal, and into the Corrèze. We drove through the Lot River basin and some lovely villages, and then found a little rain as we made our way north through some forested canyons. The Cantal, famous for its namesake cheese, is rolling hills of velvety green, plus a lot of cows. As we crossed into the Corrèze, we were suddenly pelted with extremely heavy rain—the kind it’s hard to drive in—and there were a few thin washes of mud across the road. Thankfully, it ended just as quickly as it had arrived, and we continued to make our way through more intriguing towns and rolling green countryside. We passed a restaurant named Colorado, and an exquisite castle on the edge of a lake. Whole hillsides were covered with heather in full pink bloom, and we had a double rainbow to color our world as we drove into Égletons. There was definitely magic in the air today!
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.
We left Bize this morning just as the sun was starting its day, found pockets of rain and traffic, and arrived in Rodez shortly after 10:00. Maryse and Claude wanted to see an exhibit at the Musée Fenaille, and we thought we’d also explore the town a bit and have lunch before heading to our hotel in Saint-Geniez-d’Olt.
The exhibit was fantastic, but the wonders didn’t stop there. The museum is located in a set of houses that are connected around a central courtyard, which is now roofed in glass and used as part of the museum’s permanent exhibit. The houses were constructed between the 13th and 17th centuries, and have a wealth of architectural details spanning that time period, most of them in remarkable condition.
The Auvergne is famous for its Lauze roofs. I had to do some digging to understand the difference between Lauze and Ardoise, which we see more of near where I live. It turns out that they’re both slate; Ardoise is finer and thinner, while Lauze pieces are thicker and a little irregular.
We enjoyed exploring the old center of Rodez, which has a rich mélange of architectural history. Then we returned to our cars and made the beautiful drive past ruined castles and grazing cattle, to our stay for two nights, Saint-Geniez-d’Olt.