Wednesday 30 September 2015

Le Puy: to be a pèlerin

I only had five hours, nowhere near long enough, at leisure in this town unlike any other with its basalt outcrops surmounted by  religious buildings - and the odd hideous statue like the one of the Virgin and Child above right, cast in 1860 from the metal of 213 Russian cannons taken at Sebastopol. I was in the Haute Loire/Auvergne for two nights, two concerts and an interview during the Chaise-Dieu Festival, higher up (at 1082 metres) but not obviously so once you're there and with only an impressive but rather forbidding abbey-church to see. Down in Le-Puy-en-Velay, to give its full title, I was stuck out in a budget hotel a pleasant 20 minutes' walk into town, and as it was part of the B&B chain which had presented itself so well in its Dresden branch, it turned out to be clean, quiet and staffed by delightful people.

So that was OK. But a little longer and I'd have had the chance to climb up this to the Chapel of Saint-Michel-d'Aiguilhe, built in 961. This image shows only half the 82 metre hillside but you get the gist.

That I didn't leave myself enough time to climb and see inside the chapel before rushing back to the hotel at 3.30pm was mostly due to the intoxicating spell cast by the unique Cathedral of Notre-Dame and its precincts. I reached it by way of the very lovely Jardin Henri Vinay on a perfect late summer morning, with the Musee Crozatier housed in the mansion at the south end (no chance of seeing that this time, and in any case it seemed to be closed).

Hit the old town by the Place du Pot with its 15th century fountain

and ascended via a curious shop selling medieval costumes for the annual pageant to the Rue Saulnerie, quarter of the salt merchants who held a monopoly during the Ancien Regime. Two salt lofts remained in the early 19th century; one can still be seen.

Past massive walls and up steep streets like the Rue Roche Taillarde with climbing nuns giving a hint of the religious activity to come,

I found the Place du Greffe deserted, its mansions for the legal functionaries of the Court of Le Puy now occupied by families. Below the mascaron of the 15th-17th century Palais Milhat de Vachères is an entrance which takes you in to a very fine staircase (shades of the traboules of Lyon).

The magic continued with a walk up the short Rue des Pèlerins,

the wall surrounding the Archbishop's Palace and gardens on the right, the 16th century Maison des Jacquet Marchand de Chandelles (candlemakers) with its black basalt, pilastered window frames on the left.

I hadn't realised that I'd already stumbled on the side of the great covered staircase which leads up into the heart of the cathedral.

This is a unique building with a very special atmosphere. The 12th-13th century bulk was constructed over the Roman temple of Jupiter on what was then called the Podium Aniciense, now Mount Anis. Fragments of Gallo-Roman bas-reliefs remain, including this hunting scene in the courtyard between the sacristry and the bell tower.

In 950 Godescalc, Bishop of Le Puy, became the first known pilgrim on what is now the well-trodden Camino to the tomb of the apostle St James in Santiago de Compostela. Some 15,000 pilgrims a year are blessed before this statue

and their 7am approach to mass before starting off could hardly be more impressive. It actually starts at the foot of the Rue des Tables, which of course wasn't my route,

before arriving at the west front

and then proceeding up several flights

into the very centre of the cathedral through what the guide describes as 'a succession of porches which seem to reduce the access, as if one must become small and humble to follow Christ in his Incarnation'. It's certainly a bit like being born, I imagine, and there are decorative wonders on the way: the symbols of the evangelists carved above

with Virgin and Child at the centre of the vaulting,

a pair of handsome cedarwood doors with scenes from the Old and New Testaments

plenty of frescoing

and a porphyry pillar with an 18th century carving before the final set of stairs.

The interior is a bit of a mishmash, but the nave remains of a piece

and there are more fine 11th century frescoes in the side chapels.

On the Marian altar sits the object of supreme veneration.

It's a 17th century statue of the Black Virgin who gets a whole range of dresses throughout the year (all available in an unusually profuse series of postcards).

She's a replacement for the much more interesting original, burned during the Revolution in the Place du Martouret on 8 June 1784. A replica is on the altar of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, but a cleaner working in there wouldn't let me in - shame, as it also has a fresco of the Liberal Arts - so I snapped another replica in the museum above the cloisters.

Other approaches to the cathedral are almost as interesting.

The south transeptal porch and doorway feature interesting carved columns

and more not terribly sacred stone carving, like this mermaid displaying.

Only the lower levels of the bell tower are original 12th century; the rest was rebuilt in the 1880s, a necessary move, I think, for the ensemble.

The ground level is the Saint-Sauveur Chapel where the bodies of canons and bishops were guarded in the Middle Ages. The three 14th century tombs hold recumbent statues, just lit by what rays of the sun manage to get this far. And the west wall has more fragments of Gallo-Roman reliefs.

This is all for free; the cloister is under the protection of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, but I was more than happy to pay. Before that, though, I needed a short lunch break, and in the precincts so refreshingly free of snack bars and souvenir shops, there was one delightful alternative - the Cafe des Pèlerins well concealed within the Camino headquarters over the way from the south porch.

It was hardly more frequented than anywhere else in the vicinity, and though the menu was limited to a hot dog - surprisingly good, local saucisson in fresh baguette - or a croque monsieur, it was a pleasant refuge for half an hour, with the odd pilgrim fully loaded with rucksack on back setting off.

The cloister is a jewel in itself, worth at least another hour of one's time. The cathedral's secular canons met here in the chapter house which also doubled as a 'chapel of the dead' with tombstones vertical against the wall.

The crucifixion of c. 1200 on the south wall still retains bright colours and sharp Byzantine faces.

And beneath it to the right, in an especially haunting light, is an angel bearing a coat of arms for one of those aristocratic canons.

It's difficult to tell how much restoration was done on the Romanesque capitals of the cloister proper in the late 19th century, but there's some startling sculpture here, too, especially when set below a colour scheme which mixes brick, white sandstone and basalt.

The colonnades are cool and lovely

with statues of canons finely placed in the alcoves of the east side

There are exquisite objects both from the cathedral treasury and the Cougard-Fruman embroidery collection in the hall of the States of Velay.

I left reluctantly, popping in to the Chapelle des Pénitents of 1584 opposite

with its emphasis on the instruments of suffering on the cross and elaborate 18th century ceiling of painted panels

before being seduced on my way to at least glimpse the Rocher by the empty streets to the west of the cathedral, where the basalt seems to dominate

and by yet another detour to see the facade of the late Gothic Hotel de Ville.

Then I was down the hill looking up at the Rocher I'd viewed from so many angles, in a pretty square with the octagonal 12th century  Chapel of St-Clair

with its simple interior, very Arabic in feeling.

and only a gilded coquille-St-Jacques as well as a golden altar to stamp a religious identity on it.

At this point I got a panicky call from the PR trying to sort out the interviews with Laurence Equilbey, the schedule for which had been bent out of shape: could I be at the hotel at 3 rather than 3.30 ready to depart for Chaise-Dieu? I could be there, but I'd need to change. At this point I was passing some amazing secular wall-sculpture, my last hurried shots.

So it was all a rather unsatisfactory rush, including only 20 minutes for the interview, after the kind of morning exploring which I love above so much else. I'll have to return and spend longer in the area, bringing J with me. And if I've put up way too many pics, see it as therapy for the loss of my camera, which may yet be retrieved but is currently missing with ALL the pictures of the Norfolk Churches Walk undownloaded on it. Will have to do a difficult assembly job on that one.