Le Puy-en-Velay is the most popular of remote starting points for the pilgrimage to Compostela. A fast train, the TGV, bolts across the richer, flatter country of central France to St. Etienne. From there you take a regional train to Le Puy.
Abruptly, you are in France Profonde: difficult country of unusual productions – lentils and lace! – and unusual beauty. As one walks west from here, everything will change daily: landscape, architecture, crops, geology, but the various parts of the pilgrim way are connected by more than pilgrims. Many variants of an old language are scattered across the south and centre, even to the edge of the Basque country. It may be called Languedoc, Bearnais, Gascon. Most commonly, it is called Occitan. Rare and moribund, it may only decorate street signs for a little tourist value; but these fragments of the language of the troubadours and Cathars remind us that Paris and l’Europe are far away, and have always been far and even a little alien.
A chapel, Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, perched on its volcanic “needle”, was built more than a thousand years ago. The name of the rock formation, Aiguilhe, like that of the city it dominates, is Occitan. One wonders where the wealth and resources came from that could permit such an ambitious project. Well, as we know from dry and infertile Siena, there is money in pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is old business here in Le Puy.
The chapel’s interior is worth the climb.
We know more of how another landmark was produced. Our Lady’s statue, atop its needle, was made from melted down Russian cannon captured in the Crimean War. Things were going well for Napoleon III and maybe he decided to whoop it up a bit and also please his (then) strongly Catholic support. I’ve never really grasped what France’s various Bourbons and Bonapartes were trying to achieve – the first Bourbon excepted – but somehow I’m happy to see Notre Dame de France forming a lofty threesome with her Cathedral and Saint-Michel’s chapel.
And it’s the Cathedral of Notre Dame which is the exact starting point for pilgrims in Le Puy.
I cheated a little and visited the day before leaving. But I was there, and passed though that archway.