MONDAY 17TH DECEMBER 2012.
LE PUY-EN-VELAY TO SALT-EN-DONZY, RHONE-ALPES REGION.
The room in the Deltour Hotel in Le Puy (pronounced Pwee) was comfortable except for the cigarette smell and we should have asked for a non-smoking room. This morning our clothes smelt like an ashtray.
First thing after breakfast today was to visit the old town of Le Puy and, like yesterday, it was an intense historical experience.
The church on the left sitting on top of the volcanic plug is the Chapel of St Michel d’ Aiguilhe and the statue on the highest point is Notre-Dame de France. Unfortunately we were unable to access the chapel as it was closed for the winter and we couldn’t get up to Notre-Dame de France either as a helicopter was lifting scaffolding away from its base. However there was still plenty to see in and around the old town. I’ll start with some old images and then take you through to today but first, a plaque to read.
In the winter of 951, Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy returned from an overland pilgrimage (3200km return) to the shrine of St James located across the Pyrenees in Santiago de Compostela Spain. To mark his successful return he had the diminutive chapel built on top of the towering volcanic plug. I bet the workers building the chapel didn’t think it was so diminutive when lumbering the rock for its construction to the top.
These days pilgrims taking the walk from France to Spain seeking enlightenment or miracle cures visit the chapel and have their walking sticks and poles blessed in the hope that a blessed walking stick will guide them to their destination. If the chapel had been open when we were there today I would have whipped up the two hundred and sixty eight steps and had my trusty walking pole blessed, just in case we run into trouble down the track.
Across town on another high feature is the Notre-Dame de France (Virgin Mary). The monumental statue dates from 1860 and was made by melting down 213 Russian cannons seized by Napoleon during the Crimean War. It was presented to the town in 1860 in front of 120,000 people. Looking at the statue today I got to wonder if the cannons were iron or bronze. I searched the internet and found conflicting reports. One entry said bronze and another iron but both entries did agree on one thing and that related to its weight. It weighs 100 tonnes and is made up of 105 individual pieces, all bolted together. Visitors are allowed to climb up into the statue.
The overpowering feature of Le Puy is stone: it’s underfoot, inside, outside, overhead, it’s everywhere. The warmth, detail and intricacy of the stonework overwhelmed me. The following images show what I mean.
Solomonic probably comes from the fact that at the entrance to Solomon’s temple there were lavish twisted columns and Barley sugar is an English term. The most impressive helical columns would have to be the ones supporting the canopy (baldachin) over the high altar in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
In 1972 Bev and I developed an intense interest in the work of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Our interest took us to museums all over Europe searching for original works such as the Thinker, the Kiss, the Burghers of Calais and the Gates of Hell. In one particular museum there were some half finished works which fascinated me as it was possible to see the evolution of the form emerging from the base rock. After seeing the half finished work I can visualise the sculpture above emerging from the raw marble block.
At the left end of the steps is a curved section forming a shallow drain. Water runs down the drain and into the grate from where it is piped away.
It’s unique because water running down the steps is deflected away from the wall and channelled into the grate. I’m fairly certain that the drain design here would not be found in the drainer’s handbook; it has evolved over time through trial and error.
Bas-relief is a French term from the Italian basso-relievo meaning ‘low relief’. Bas-relief is created either by carving away materials such as wood (in the case above), stone, ivory, jade, or adding material to the top of an otherwise smooth surface, say, strips of clay to stone or pottery. This is a technique as old as humankind’s artistic explorations. Wedgewood pottery is an example of bas-relief.
The writing of this blog has been a monumental effort and, as I have said previously, Bev and I have worked as a team, not only with regards the editing and posting but also when out there wandering the countryside. Bev is very capable when it comes to map reading so I simply follow her, however she does sometimes get lost.
Unfortunately this colourful shop was closed so we don’t know what was for sale. Look at the worn step. Many customers have passed into the shop since it was first opened.
Eventually we emerged into the town square and there we met Jean-Luc who made intricately carved wooden jewellery using timbers from all over the world.
Once home I intend to send Jean-Luc some Australian timbers for him to play with.
His website.. http://www.jlf-creations.com Check it out.
Cold is the constant companion of those who live on the streets in Europe. I bought this young man an apple and banana and when I offered the apple to him he opened his mouth and showed me tooth stumps, there was no way he could bite into an apple. I then did something very few visitors to Le Puy would do, I extracted my pen knife and cut the apple into pieces for him. He was a humble and appreciative chap and I wondered… ‘Is it fate that our stations in life are so different or are our destinies part of some grand design?’
All travellers have memories of a special place and for me Le Puy is one of them. What makes it so memorable is the architecture, the art, the colour, the million stones under foot, the plight of the beggar and a myriad of things the conscious and subconscious saw today. I know when I return home and I’m attending to the mundane chores of living I will be thinking of Le Puy and planning how we can return.
We left Le Puy-en-Velay mid afternoon and headed towards Switzerland. The road we chose to travel followed the Loire valley and of course there were things we had to investigate.
You might ask what’s so amazing. It is is the way the pylons were built. The next photograph shows what I mean.
Look at this…. the stone has been laid at an angle. Had it been laid horizontally (level), floodwaters rushing by would have washed the mortar out of the joins from between the stones. It’s remarkable that the builders had the forethought to do this.
We found a picturesque spot to stop for a bit to eat on the Loire River adjacent to a small suspension bridge.
The neat detail here is the low step-like stone at road level below the quoins, probably installed when motorised vehicles came on the scene; perhaps a way of preventing motorists from hitting the corner of the building.
At day’s end we found ourselves close to the large town of St Etienne. We had been trying to skirt around large towns but the small details were lost on the road maps we had. After the smaller villages and towns along the Stevenson Trail it was very disconcerting to be in so much traffic, on dusk and at peak hour.
Traffic was horrendous and by a stroke of misfortune we ended up on a cloverleaf road system going around in circles. Eventually we extracted ourselves from the traffic and took stock of the situation. When on a journey there are times when things don’t go as they should and tonight was one of those occasions. We had no water, a problem if we had to sleep in the car, the fuel tank was almost empty and no accommodation was booked. Getting water was the first priority and while in the shop we asked about a service station. A young bloke pointed across the cloverleaf roundabout and indicated it was on the far side, which meant plunging ourselves back into the traffic. We found the service station but drove into the credit card payment lane and not being confident about the process meant we had to go out into the traffic again, around the roundabout and come into the cash payment lane. Eventually we were fuelled up and before leaving I told Bev we were going to sleep in the car tonight as I wasn’t going back into the traffic again.
We managed to negotiate a way out of St Etienne and drove north on a freeway before turning off to the small village of Salt-en-Donzy. In the dark it is always difficult to know where to camp. First we parked by a church and thought sleeping next to the graveyard would be an ideal spot as nobody would disturb us, however the church bell bonged so we pulled out and drove into a carpark. ‘This is it, this is how it is’, I told Bev. First plan was to cover the windscreen with a blanket to cut the light from a nearby streetlight and next lay the seats back and get comfortable. After such a long day and a stressful evening we were soon asleep.
To all intents and purposes we can say that today we completed the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail. Tomorrow we head for Bern and we expect it will take two days, as I’m sure there will be many places along the way that will attract our attention. The journey in Stevenson’s footsteps has been a remarkable travel experience and looking back I’m reminded of what he wrote in relation to travel: ‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints’.
Sleeping in the car tonight is part of coming down off the feather bed of civilisation.