des Moulins au Puy

Le Puy-en-Velay is fantastic. Fantastic! But first we have to leave Moulins.

As he’d promised, F. had prepared for us a personalised itinerary, not the dense action-packed one he’d threatened, but a number of what are called bonnes addresses, sticky-noted onto a Moulins tourist guide. The Grand Cafe came first, for breakfast, once we were checked-out, Q. pulled from a mere inch or so of water in the bath, because the water had been turned off, for the work of refurbishment to continue, for which he was compensated by a most concerned proprietress with a jam doughnut from the breakfast spread; once we’d walked up and down the now transformed streets, from eerily empty and spookily silent to, in the daytime, a seemingly thriving commercial town, small and burgherish, but jolly. Once we’d walked up and down the town trying to find it. Once there, it was too late for breakfast. The owner suggested buying croissants and eating them there. So we did. From the nearby supermarket. Putting crumbs all over the place. Established in 1900, the Grand has been running continuously. Classic turn-of-century interior.

We visited the church at the bottom of town before finally buying Q. his obsessed-over La Poste satchel at the la grande Poste, the big one, as advised by the little bureau de Poste. Where the woman had given me that special disgusted-to-serve-you expression, reserved for time-wasting foreigners. On the way back to Hotel de Paris, we also visited the cathedral, situated behind a thirteenth century castle keep, called by the King, the ‘mal-coiffed,’ a name which had apparently stuck. The tower had been used by the Nazi occupiers as a prison. The cathedral rose to a great height and had a few good paintings and very fine renaissance wooden sculptures. The outside had recently been worked on. Pristine historic monument.

The road out was easily found and soon we were in fields of dry maize crops, and turned over dark brown earth in fields without fences: gradations of sand and straw tones through to browns varying light to dark in the hazy sunlight. A85 took us gradually up and up. Until we were in cloud. And although being told by our France book to stop and check the view, did not. There wouldn’t have been any.

The temperature sat at around 20 degrees throughout the journey, and, leaving Clemont-Ferrand, the sun came out. Stayed out. For our descent past the fantasy of these volcanic spires, the first with a picture-book castle keep on it, white and crenellated at the top, a town, it seemed, nestled around the base of the rocky outcrop. Again, the awe of scale. Just as, coming into Le Puy proper, the eye-blinking fantasy of seeing what really is unbelievable: a church sitting on a massive finger of rock, Saint Michel; a Madonna, above the town, Notre Dame de France, visible from everywhere on her pinnacle; another white statue of Saint Joseph, similarly on a pedestal jutting metres above the surrounding buildings. The Hotel Bristol garage gave us a clearance of perhaps two inches either side of our wing mirrors, but we got in. J. driving. And the room sunlit with big windows out onto a courtyard garden. A bathroom with the best pressure we’ve had since Paris.

Sleepy after our evening drinking everything F. could throw at us – except the Framboise, which had been in the frigo a little too long, and tasted like anti-freeze anyway, and the Old Prune, a cognac made from prunes, both of which were poured like lemonades, both of which we had to ditch, either of which would have had us out cold – we lay around for a while before our exploration of the town. The Cathedral has that element essential to the aesthetic appreciation of religious buildings: it is mysterious. Some of it dates back to the twelfth century. Reminiscent of San Marco’s Basilica, for its six domes and Byzantine styling. But austere inside, shadowy, redolent of incense, religious personages, nuns and priests busy all around, praying, lighting candles, making up altars like extra beds, and the great mystery, the black Madonna, Notre Dame du Puy. She is a replica of the one that was destroyed during the Revolution. But she is extraordinarily, mysteriously powerful, in her dresses of real lace, a speciality of the area. While large oils depict her in procession in the Renaissance. And a second such figure is found in the side chapel.

We got as far as the gate to the rocky spire where the terracotta giant Madonna stands – made from melted down guns from Sebastapol – at sunset, too late to climb up. Tomorrow.

A frustrating trawl through the town looking for food. Succombed to pizza at a plain pub-like brasserie where at least they had booth seating. It was in fact very tasty. With a big salad of iceberg, green lentils, corn, potatoes, egg, fresh dried herbs, and lardons – fatty chunks of bacon. Lentil country, this.