inside Our Lady & up Saint Michel: the view from the top du Puy en Velay

Le Puy is still fantastic, despite today’s dull weather, dull light, chilliness. Sucked in again by the offer of breakfast at Hotel Bristol. It was a buffet, as the receptionist had said, but one comprising nothing hot, and nothing cooked, apart from boiled eggs. Which, when cracked out of their shells, were stinky. J. saved me from eating them. Pointing to the distinct green to grey tinge around the outside of the yolk. Cereals, choco and cornflake. Crusty bread. Brioche loaf, which looked like sponge-cake. Croissants, tiny ones. Noisettes, sealed in plastic. Mini pains-au-chocolat. Ham, six slices on the whole buffet, under a perspex cover, with butters and cheeses in foiled pottles, and yoghurt and puree of some kind of fruit, one hoped. Coffee, tea, hot chocos, came out of a machine. The redeeming item of degustation, grapefruit and orange juice in glass dispensers.

Out into the morning no earlier than usual, we determined to climb the needle rock to the chapel of Saint Michel. When we got there it was already ten before midday. The ticket lady helpfully warned us we had only ten minutes before it closed for lunch. It? Closed?

Which reminds me that I have left out the sight of young adults lying down in the road in extravagant protest at the raising of the retirement age by two years. In other words, the young and bored showing off and being silly, fellow-travelling on the excuse of the protests by the unions. Yes. The road was closed, the one ringing the old town, and police sirens were ringing, traffic was being diverted. What fun! Almost joined them for a lie down.

Being a tourist, however, without union representation, you don’t have strikes. Tourists, however, ought to go out on strike at some of the major touristic sites we’ve visited, or tried to visit. Notre Dame de Paris being a prime candidate.

Down the hill we went, determining instead to climb first to Notre Dame de France, the metal terracotta-coloured Virgin with her miraculous metal boy on her arm who looks out – in actually a very specific direction, into the cloister of the Cathedral, as we discovered – over the town. The cloister was also shut for lunch.

We ended up circumnavigating the Virgin on her needle, meeting secondary school students leaving for – what else? but – lunch, many of them no sooner out the gate than they were busting out the fags. Finally found our way up. Her back entrance. Lest her virginity ever be in doubt.

Inside her cast metal skin – the melted-down cannons of Sebastapol – a tightly spiralling staircase took us up three landings, where, on each, there were small windows, cut out, hinged, so you might open your little door, peer out and close it again. J. said it was like being inside an Advent Calendar. Who needs the Statue of Liberty? Same construction method, sections of thick cast iron bolted together on the inside.

Descending, we ran into an Australian family, taking a course similar to ours but in reverse: Spain, Barcelona, overland through France, to Paris. We had lunch together and the children ran madly around the square where once the guillotine had stood, playing tag.

On the way we discovered another pilgrimage site we’d missed before, a small chapel dedicated to St. Clair, with a square beside it, magic, or a Magic Square, tiled into the square, this very clever acrostic:


It was translated into French as, Les roues, les travaux, il tient. I don’t know how to translate this. Because I’m not sure what it means.

St. Michel, when we’d made it up the over 200 steps, was another, like the Cathedral, of those religious sites warmed – literally – by its own mystery. Much of the chapel dates to the tenth century. It was built on to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims. The kind guide offered to show us the treasures uncovered during restoration work after the depredations of particularly the nineteenth century, when, allegedly, it was painted over in yellow, and chipped away at without regard for the wall-paintings; add to this, of course, or subtract from it, since it was probably the stratum that the paint was intended to cover, the chipping intended to remove, layers of soot from candles over a thousand years, and the grease of hands, and whatever else might accumulate over such a long period. It had been quite black, our guide said.

She showed us a crucifix made of olive wood. Beautifully simple. Christ as the wood itself, arms out-stretched. A thousand years old. A piece of stone from the first apparition of Saint Michel in Italy. An ivory box. A round box the crucifix had been inside, with a Spanish name. A silver cruciform box, nothing in it. Fabric, woven in patterns, fine fabric, Byzantine in provenance. She pointed all this out with her torch. Then moved on to the images in the arched vault. In which the sabots the people wore and the excellence of the horses are worth mentioning.

She showed us the stone that had come from fifteen kilometres away to make the pillars. The stone of the dolmen, a wall beside the unique side nave. The floor as it had been a thousand years ago and as it had been a mere nine hundred years ago. And the capitals of the pillars, ornamented with animals, including rabbits, bears, or dogs – there was some confusion – leaves, and some of a celtic design, using interlace. The deliberate quotation of styles that were native to distant lands made me think that that also went towards the idea of their preciousness, that distance for people who didn’t easily travel equalled wealth, as did the very height of the pinnacle on which the chapel sits, for people who didn’t fly. The formula: distance = wealth. Conquering distance, whether vertically or horizontally, being a godlike quality.

We made it down, and up, to the Cathedral’s cloister and sacristy before they too closed, closed again, this time for the evening, which starts at 1700 hours. The Sacristy was a shop. We visited the Cloisters, which, although reputed to be some of the most beautiful in Europe, were peaceful, interesting in terms of variation in capitals, and featured an amusingly grotesque frieze under the eves, on the inside, showing ectoplasm coming out the mouths of maids and demonic faces and chimaera of various sorts, but were most striking for being the object of the giant metal Madonna and her Ward’s gaze.

We returned to the Sacristy shop to shop and had a conversation with the shopkeeper. Her husband, it turned out, owns the Hotel Bristol building, not the business. She confirmed the narrowness of the garage entry, saying that the local authority wouldn’t let a new entrance be made from the rear. She tried to help us out with suggestions of places to dine, but in the end, after returning to the warmth of our hotel room, with the A-Team on, over-dubbed in French, we decided to stay in, visited the supermarket for cold chicken and salads, and dined in.

After the A-Team, a show waxing nostalgic about the TV shows of the 80s in France. Hard to know if A-Team part of same nostalgia or general programming.

Note: stopped in at a church with an unprepossessing facade between Cathedral and Hotel. Inside it turned out to be one of the richest we’d visited. Beautiful canvases and frescos by Guy Francis, a painter who studied in Italy, but had returned to his birthplace, Le Puy. Ornate gilt side chapels and high altar, the latter ascending into the vault painted by Guy Francis. Women were busy polishing the gold. It smelt of polish. A special service tonight for Notre Dame. The painting behind the altar was quite remarkable. The figures cut out in complete chiaroscuro.