See? I told you it was a bit spooky – imagine how it looked in the dark. Fortunately the stealthy footsteps we heard were only the local moggy looking for scraps.
We left Laguiole and the Cevènne mountains on Tuesday in wet and misty conditions. It’s the first time we’ve had to use Vince’s fog lights since we went away but fortunately as we dropped in height, visibility improved and the roads dried out.
We stopped for coffees in the town of Chaudes-Aigues, which turned out to be a great decision. Chaudes-Aigues was the first town in known history to use geothermal heating in its houses. Over 30 hot springs flow out of the ground here, and the hot water has been used for heating houses since the 14th Century. We visited the hottest of them all, the source of the Par river which emerges from the ground at 82°F – too hot to dip your fingers in! Whilst at the source we spotted a webcam so we immediately sent a link to the family to give them a wave.
Walking back to Vince we spotted a cottage with its back door open. A lady spotted us from within and popped out for a chat. She was a classic little-old-lady – floral print dress, saggy stockings, no teeth in but an absolute hoot! She was a little unsteady on her pins so she held on to my arm whilst we chatted about her family, her garden and how long she’d lived in her cottage. The language barrier didn’t seem to bother her; I think she was probably a little lonely and just enjoyed having somebody to talk to – we weren’t in any hurry so we stayed a while. At one point she dragged us over to a fir tree outside the house and pointed out a single silver Christmas bauble hanging high up in the branches. At first I thought she was asking me to reach up and take it down for her, but when I heard her wheezy laugh and saw the tears in her eyes I replayed the conversation and realised she was making a very rude joke about one ball being much better than no balls at all! I have to tell you readers, I was shocked. But I think it made her day – it certainly made ours! 🙂
At lunchtime we decided to stop in St Flour, the administrative town for the region. It was a busy, modern town for the most part, with a fairly uninspiring (to us) cathedral and square. There were two things though, which caused us to pause – the first was a street with ravens perched high up on the buildings, silhouetted against the sky. As we walked along, we noticed that they were on windowsills too, and telegraph poles – but none were moving.
It sunk in that they were an art installation and every single one was actually painted silver – we just hadn’t noticed against the light. Very clever. The second reason for a stop is pictured below. Just a random street, full of residential houses but one had a stone plaque commemorating the life of the doctor who lived there looking after the poor, and his two sons. All three were dragged out of the house and shot by the Nazis during the German occupation. It was a reminder of the hard times and the tragic loss of life endured by the French in World War II.
Our final destination for the day, and where we’ve been for a couple of days now, was le Puy-en-Velay. This town (it says here) is one of the most remarkable in France – mainly because of the spectacular Puys, or conical hills rising almost vertically from the ground. The most spectacular of all had St Michael’s Church built on its peak in 961AD. I have no idea how they built such a magnificent edifice at such a height but it would have been rude not to climb the 265 steps to the top to admire their work.
Inside we were inspired to see so many elderly and infirm people who had braved the steep climb to pray at the church’s altar, I hope I have that amount of energy and determination if and when I reach those advanced years. We sat for a while in the patches of coloured light thrown down from the stained glass, and admired the faded murals on the ceilings of the tiny chapel which were unrestored and fully original.
Le Puy-en-Velay, like many of the towns we’ve visited, has a medieval quarter which consists of narrow streets crowded with buildings of all ages – some over 800 years old, standing shoulder to shoulder with relative youngsters of a mere 200 years. We paused at St George’s Gate on the way up to the cathedral, reflecting on all the souls who must have passed through it during the 800 years it has been protecting the clergy beyond its arch.
Today we have joined the French in their celebrations of Bastille Day, although they simply refer to it as le quatorze Juillet – the 14th of July. It’s a national holiday, celebrating the beginning of the French revolution in 1789 and the unity of the people at the Fête de la Féderation on the same day in 1790. There’s an annual military parade in Paris and most French families get together for a big lunch and a lazy afternoon, before enjoying the late-evening firework displays.
We’re looking forward to seeing the fireworks tonight against the backdrop of the puys, statues and dramatic skyline of le Puy-en-Velay. I’ll be taking a few pics so if they’re worth looking at I’ll put them in a mini-post like the Portuguese sunsets I did a while back.
Meantime – Happy Bastille day to you all! 🙂