If it weren’t for the cell phones and sunglasses, I’d have sworn we were in 16th-century France, walking on cobblestones and avoiding donkey dung on the streets of Le Puy-en-Velay.
Peasants in plain brown tunics and aristocrats in velvet cloaks filled the narrow lanes, drinking ale from horns, buying meat pies, watching jugglers and stilt-walkers, and attending Mass in the cathedral.
The people of Le Puy-en-Velay dress in full regalia every September for the Roi de l’Oiseau (Bird King) festival, honoring their medieval and Renaissance heritage. Visitors flock to the Upper Loire region in south-central France, 325 miles south of Paris, for the week-long celebration. My husband John and I joined in, almost the only Americans; in five days we heard no language but French.
On the main square we watched knife-sharpeners work old whetstones, cooks roast chickens on spits, children brandish cardboard swords, musicians play recorders and drums. In tented stalls, vendors sold coats of armor, bows and arrows, and – a modern touch – barbe de papa (daddy’s beard: cotton candy).
The Bird King festival hearkens back to a 16th century competition when the archer who could shoot the most birds from the air was declared the Bird King. Today, it’s targets only, and the main competition is among the performers who dance, play instruments and sing on every corner.
Le Puy-en-Velay, set on a volcanic plateau in a valley, has many more attractions. Its impressive Romanesque cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dates from the 12th century and is a stopping point for pilgrims on the Santiago de Compostela route. Above the cathedral, set on the highest point in town, is the 52-foot statue of Notre-Dame de France. The red landmark , which can be seen for miles, is made of cast iron from 213 melted-down cannons from the Crimean War. The view from here, across the red-tiled roofs to the valley and hills beyond, is spectacular. Perched nearby is the Chapel of St. Michael, rising from another high, steep pinnacle of lava. The helpful tourist office has maps leading to beautiful country walks.
The region is famous for its beautiful lace; a unique green herbal liqueur called Vervain; and flavorful lentils. The lentils appear in many forms on restaurant menus. At the Tam-Tam, a tiny bar and café, they serve only three items, all of them good: grilled cheese sandwiches, green salads, and lentils. Restaurants range from the Tam-Tam, at 6 euros a plate, to the Michelin-starred Francois Gagnaire.
Accommodations include B&Bs and mid-range to luxury hotels. We liked the comfortable Hotel du Parc, across from the lovely Henri Vinay Park and easy walking distance from the historic center.
Our Restaurant Recommendations in Le Puy-En-Veley
Le Poivrier $$
A warm, friendly restaurant serving traditional cuisine.
69 rue Pannessac
L’Ecu d’Or $$
an excellent restaurant in a 13th century building.
59-61 rue Pannessac
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com