On Top of the World in Aiguilhe
Le Puy is one of those places right out of a Tolkien novel and one of the highlights of this year’s Tour de France. Also known for its lace and lentils, what I love most about Le Puy is its architecture, capped by its iconic Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe. While technically in neighboring Aiguilhe, the two towns are essentially synonymous and only a few meters apart. The viewscape of Le Puy is dominated by two dominating ancient volcanic outcroppings. In Le Puy, this is called the Rocher Corneille and is topped by the statue of Notre-Dame de France. In Aiguilhe, the towering basalt rock is more striking, rising to the sky with a cathedral propped on top like a lighthouse beacon. This is Chapelle Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, built by the Bishop of Le Puy in 969 upon his return from the inaugural pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. With Moorish influences undoubtedly picked up in Spain, the Chapelle has a decidedly Umayyad feeling and the interior is surprisingly small and unadorned, obviously a result of the chapel’s extreme location. The chapel sits 85 meters above the town and is only accessible via 268 steps, a journey that is well worth the effort. Due to the available space at the top, reserve your visit online or make it a point to attend mass, which is held every Thursday at 6:30 in the evening.
A Tots Dream in Toyland
When Stage 6 of the 2016 Tour de France started in the small town of Arpajon-sur-Cère, a suburb of Aurillac on the River Cère, it very easily could have been overlooked. The town itself is quaint and tiny with a population of just over 6,000 spread over numerous hamlets. Like any good French town, Arpajon-sur-Cère features several chateaux and has a fun claim to fame that is apropos for this time of year – classic toymaker. In the late 20th century, the company Dejou – Féniès & Son settled in Arpajon-sur-Cère making all kinds of wooden tools and furniture. But by 1935, the company decided to make toys for the Christmas season. Pretty soon, Dejou expanded their selection to over 100 models. Toys were made from the Dejou factory just outside of Arpajon-sur-Cère until 1985 when the Company went out of business. Today, the toys remain a collector’s item.
Lakeside Chateau du Val
On the edge of Lake Bort-les-Orgues is a magical chateau that appears to rise out of the lake like Camelot. Chateau du Val is a little bit off the beaten path, but it’s such a landmark that it is worth a side trip. The castle rises five stories like a tower at the water’s edge. Made of stone and featuring six conical turrets, it is an imposing fortress. Its stature is made only more impressive by the surrounding landscape and what it once was. In 1952, the Dordogne River was dammed just north of the town of Bort-les-Orgues with a massive 120 meter high concrete structure. It was constructed in the 14th century as a stronghold for the local Enval Valley fiefdom below. From its placement on a precipice above the valley and its inhabitants below, Chateau du Val and its master could keep watch over their territory. What a sight that must have been.
Life on A Farm
Just before reaching the Pas de Peyrol and at the foot of Puy Mary is the small town of Le Falgoux. It is a small farming and hill town of about 150 residents. Unique to this town is also a luxury farmhouse for rent, called Le Domaine de Nerestant. That’s right – saddle on into your own boutique farmhouse for the night. This stone farmhouse is absolutely beautiful and the interior fireplace and wood beam ceilings are cozy enough for even the coldest nights. The accommodations are quaint with only four rooms and 153 square meters to offer. But it is the lure of the property’s surrounding 18 hectares to explore and the mountains beyond that are the draw here. There isn’t any work involved at this farmhouse, but submit your reservation now for any chance of getting a stay at Le Domaine de Nerestant – it’s a popular stopover, especially in summer.
A View to a Kill
Up river form the Dordogne, the views of the nearby Massif Central mountains are amazing. Here, the little known and even partly mysterious Puy Mary, Puy Violent, and Mont Dore (Super Besse) can be seen, begging to be explored some more. Sourniac is a great place to feel this tug. The village is only at 631 meters in elevation, but you wouldn’t guess it by this location in the Massif Central. From the hill on which Sourniac sits, the vistas are magnificent. In the foreground of the photo are the requisite chateau and chapelle of Sourniac. The small Romanesque chapel of Saint-Amand was built in the 11th century and is considered to be the oldest and smallest religious building in the area. The adjacent Chateau was built in 1636 but largely destroyed by fire.