Le Puy en Velay (Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

We wouldn’t have come to Le Puy en Velay (it’s not Vanya’s kind of place) except that I thought there was to be a preview of the “Puy de Lumieres” (light show) while we were there. In fact, it is to be previewed in two weeks time with the main event running in July and August. The preview weekend is the best time to visit because you get to experience the full event without the large crowds which are standard during the French holidays. For the unaware, eight of the principal sites in Le Puy are lit up during the “Puy de Lumieres” in the most vivid colours for at least two hours every night and a spectacular light and music show follows. Those sites lit up include the cathedral, museum, theatre, town hall, the old bridge over the Loire and most impressive of all, the complete Rock and Chapel of St Michael.

Two sites lit up in Le Puy during a previous Puy de Lumieres

No matter, many of Le Puy’s principal sites are still worth seeing even without the light show and you can buy tickets from the local tourist office and from the sites themselves which offer discounts when visiting three or more locations. I bought such a ticket (I think it cost me 10 Euros) and this allowed access to the three locations which most interested me:-

Le Rocher et Chapelle Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe: This is Saint Michael’s Chapel built up on a volcanic rock known as the needle. You only have to look at the rock to see the association with a needle. The chapel was built in 961 upon the instructions of the local Bishop after he had completed a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela It’s a short sharp walk up a staircase to the chapel itself and well worth the effort. The views over the town are tremendous.

Two photos I took of the outside of the chapel

… and inside

Rocher Corneille et Statue Notre Dame de France: The Statue of Our Lady of France has been built on the town’s highest point (another volcanic rock, this one some 757 metres high). The statue is made from the metal of 213 Russian cannons seized during the Crimean War. You can climb up inside it and there are a few small windows. One of the advantages of visiting outside of the holiday season is that I had the place almost to myself and was able to open one of the windows..

The Statue of Our Lady

Inside the head of the Statue of Our Lady.

A couple of views from the viewing platform, one down on to the Cathedral and the other over to the needle.

The Cathedral of Our Lady: This 11th-12th century Romanesque cathedral complex (the starting point of the Via Podiensis pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela) has been a UNESCO World Heritage site 1998. It contains many interesting features including an unusual 134 staircase leading up to the front door, a statue of the Black Virgin, 12 century cedar wood doors and some quite beautiful cloisters. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to see of the Cathedral. It closed for the day as I arrived.

Walking down through the old down past the cathedral and on into the commerciual part of the town.

Vanya and I made our way back into Le Puy from our campsite on the edge of the town (almost directly underneath the Aguilhe) later that evening for a drink and even without the aforesaid Puy de Lumieres some of the sites/sights looked impressive but, overall, Le Puy didn’t really do it for either of us. It struck us as a dirty and untidy place and, having seen most of the three monuments that I wanted to see, I’m not convinced that either of us would return.

It’s 4 June 20023 as I finish writing this short entry about Le Puy en Velay and we visited the town almost a month ago. We are now back in England and, once again, I have been remiss in terms of keeping up with my blog. Needless to say, any further entries as to Tour 7 will also be more than a month out of date but, I’ll do my best to make up this record.

Beaune (Bourgogne-Franche-Comte), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Neither Troyes nor Beaune were on our radar as places to visit until I started researching a different route down through France to Spain via Champagne. So glad we did and; nice as Troyes was, we enjoyed Beaune even more. It’s nice when things just keep getting better.

Upon arrival we reverted to our usual approach whereby I set off on an explore (leaving Vanya to chill) and then, later in the day, we go into town together and I show Vanya around. It works for us because I get to see things Vanya has absolutely no interest in and, in any event, Vanya would never walk as far as I tend to.

I entered Beaune via the Porte Saint-Nicholas and after making towards the larger church spires soon found myself very near the town centre at the Basilica Notre Dame. These old cathedral spires are very effective way-finders.

Beaune is a pretty town and most if not all of the principal tourist sites are located within the footprint of the old town walls, which makes finding them much easier. A great deal of the old town walls have been removed over time and there are none in the immediate vicinity of the Porte Saint-Nicholas but it is possible to walk those parts that are still standing.

Beaune is the capital of the Burgundy wine region and there are plenty of wine merchants operating in the town centre (although you will have to travel a few kilometres to see any vineyards). Many of the wine merchants offer wine tastings but they charge and the charge appears to be much higher than in other French towns. Although it does seem as if almost everything in France is more expensive these days. Clearly France is suffering as much as the UK in these difficult economic times.

We didn’t bother with a formal wine tour but that is not to say that we didn’t sample quite a few of the local wines during our visit – Vanya focusing on the white wines and me on the red wines.

Beaune’s reliance on wine is obvious throughout the town. There are numerous winehouses operating in the centre. The pretty turreted building in the photo above was once home to a rich wine merchant and the statue of wine bottles in the town’s main square says it all.

On a more general note, the most interesting building in the town centre is the Hospices de Beaune (often referred to as the Hotel-Dieu). It dates back to 1443 and was built as an almshouse and hospice for the poor not long after the town lost 75% of it’s population to the plague. It remained a hospital up until 1971 when it was turned into a museum although every November a wine auction is held in the building with much of the proceeds going to local charities. You have to go inside the building and through to the main courtyard to appreciate the beauty of this erstwhile hospital -a half timbered first floor gallery runs around the courtyard and this is topped by the most beautiful glazed tile roof. It is truly striking.

The Hospices de Beaune with it’s beautiful gallery and glazed tile roof.

The second most impressive building in Beaune has to be the 12th century Basilique de Notre Dame. It is a pretty enough building built in the Romanesque style but it is the inside of the church that is most interesting. There is a lovely 13th century cloister area, colourful stained glass windows (of the Troyes School, naturally), an impressive organ, 15th century wall paintings, and a range of tapestries depicting the Virgin Mary’s life.

The front entrance, inside and rear of the Basilique de Notre Dame.

Beaune is one of those towns that is simply a joy to walk. I liked walking the town’s quiet back streets almost as much as I enjoyed the town centre. I stumbled on one area with a great mural which reflected the town’s association with cinema. It goes beyond just providing beautiful settings for films; the inventor of moving pictures, Etienne-Jules Marey, was born in Beaune and the inventor of photography, Nicephore Niepce, and the inventor of the zoom, Roger Cuvilliers were also from Burgundy.

There are plenty of places to sit and chill over a glass of wine or a beer but we really were lucky when we stumbled on a great little restaurant for our evening meal – La Petite Taverne.

I tried the artisan beer during my ‘explore’. The wines followed when Vanya and I went into town together

La Petite Taverne is a bijoux little restaurant of just 12 covers. It offered a great welcome and good food. We settled on a popular local dish, Fondue Vigneronne, washed down with local Beaune red (Vanya settling for a local Chardonnay). We had an enjoyable and fairly long evening in this small friendly restaurant and were delighted when the management presented us with complementary shots of Framboise Sauvage, a raspberry liqueur which Vanya described as savage. No argument there; I politely declined a second.

In La Petite Taverne

Footnote: Vanya considered one of the white wines she tried in Beaune, a Cremant de Bourgogne, so good that we had to track it down. She discovered that it could be bought at the Cave de Bussey in a small hamlet just outside of Beaune called Bissey Sous Cruchaud. Unfortunately, the Sat-Nav (which has long had a mind of it’s own) chose to play up as we travelled to the Cave and; it sent us on a 90 kilometre detour up a motorway. We made it (back) to the Cave just as it was closing but Vanya prevailed upon the owner to let her try a few of his wines and came away with half a dozen bottles. Happy Vanya.

On to Le Puy en Velay.

Troyes (Grand Est), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Now Troyes (pronounced Tois), capital of the Department of Aube in the Grand Est Region, is definitely worth visiting, notwithstanding it’s large population (60,000+ people). It has been described as an overlooked gem and I would concur with that statement. Our campsite was some 10 kilometres south west of the city but we were quite happy making two trips into the city during our short stay, one in the evening and one during the day.

It’s a pretty city. I have never before seen such a huge collection of colourful medieval buildings in the one place (and all in such fine condition and, more to the point, being used). This can be attributed in part to a large fire in 1524 which devastated the place and required almost the whole city to be rebuilt at the same time. It seems that the great majority of those who couldn’t afford to rebuild in stone, went for 4 storey half timbered buildings in pastel colours. I should explain that in those days, local taxes were calculated according to the size of the building’s footprint and so it made sense to build upwards – hence the four stories. The result is very impressive with numerous cobbled streets packed with similar sized leaning structures. The colours too are interesting with the predominantly peach and pistachio pastels now giving way to brighter more vivid blues, reds and yellows.

This building, the Maison du Dauphin has a particularly strong list.

A particularly quaint and picturesque street is the very small Maillard Street, now known as the Ruelle des Chats, where the upper floors of the top heavy listing buildings lean so much they have been joined by wooden beams. It was these beams that allowed resident cats to stroll from one building to another and which prompted the name change.

No surprise to learn that is the Ruelle des Chats on the right

Also of interest, to me at least, are the city’s many elaborate churches. Most prominent are La Cathedrale Saint Pierre Saint Paul (parts of which date back to the 13th century), L’Eglise Sainte Madeleine (that’s 12th century with additions in the 16th century), La Basilique Saint Urbain (13th century but significantly updated in the 19th century) and, last but not least, L’Eglise St Jean au Marche where under the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, England’s Henry V (of Agincourt fame) married Catherine of Valois and was recognised as heir to the throne of France. Sadly, I never got to see this last church.

The first of the abovementioned churches, the Gothic style Cathedral of Saint Peter & Saint Paul was built over a periof of 400 years between the 13th-17th centuries and is unusual in that it has only one spire. They spent all the money and there was nothing left for a second spire. Another unusual feature of the cathedral is the amount of stained glass in the building – there’s a staggering 1,500 square metres of glass dating from between the 13th and 19th centuries.

Cathedral of Saint Peter & Saint Paul…

with some of it’s 1,500 square metres of beautiful stained glass windows

The second of the principal churches, and without a doubt my favourite, is the 12th century Church of Sainte Madeleine, another Gothic design, with it’s intricately chiselled stone rood screen which was added early in the 16th century. This church also has the most exquisite stained glass windows which, for my part, are easier to see and understand than those in the Cathedral.

The Eglise de Sainte Madeleine (as seen from the Jardin des Innocents) and a detail of the stone rood screen inside the church…

… and the most incredible stained glass windows from the Troyes School of Stained Glass – the colours are so vivid. The window on the left features scenes from the Book of Genesis.

At the risk of boring you, stained glass windows mounted in blocks such as those in the Eglise Sainte Madeleine are generally read from left to right and from bottom to top. So, bottom left in the first of the above photos (that’s the one featuring the Book of Genesis) the world is created. In the second image from the left, the elements of sky, earth and water are being added. In the third from the left, these elements are separated and in the fourth image on the far right, stars are formed. Moving up to the second row from the bottom, the image on the left reflects the fish and the birds being added to the world and then in the second from the left, the other animals in the world are introduced. Adam is added in the third image from the left and then, on the extreme right of the second row up from the bottom, Eve is added. And so it goes on. Third image from the left in the third row up from the bottom, Cain kills Abel… it’s like reading a comic but starting at the end. Enough about stained glass.

From the outside, the Baslique Saint Urbain de Troyes is the most impressive of the big three churches. It owes its existence to Jacques Pantaleon, the son of a local cobbler, who was elected Pope Urban IV in 1261 and he chose to celebrate the life of a predecessor, Urban I, by building the church in his honour.

Saint Urbain, consecrated as a basilica in 1964, was built on the site of his father’s cobbler’s shop.

So what about the rest of the city? It has a great deal more to offer and for the most part it is all easily accessible. Most major tourist attractions, whether it is medieval buildings and churches, bars and restaurants or modern shopping opportunities are tightly packed around the city centre.

We made directly for the centre of the city where, alongside the old canal (the Canal du Trevois which is fed by no less a river than the Seine), a modern stainless steel heart designed by local artists Michele and Thierry Kayo-Houel has been fixed. At night, this heart glows a deep red and the colour begins to pulse as movement sensors pick up on any approaching people. It is very clever and can make for some excellent photo opportunities, especially if the surrounding water jets are turned on.

There are a number of other contemporary statues dotted along the canal and some these too make for ideal photo opportunities, one being a life size statue of “Lili, la dame au chapeau”. I’m surprised Vanya didn’t pose Beanie with Lili but it was the “attendez-moi”, a statue of a dog chasing geese which most interested her.

Lili, la dame au chapeau

Troyes is in the Champagne producing area. Indeed it is the historic capital of the old Champagne-Ardennes Region. It is also the capital of the Aube Department which, after the Marne Department, is the second largest producer of champagne. Having said that, we were surprised not to see a single vine during our drive down from Montreuil sur Mer to Troyes although; we did “see” a lot of champagne bars in the centre of Troyes.

I was intending to go on and write a little about some of the many interesting museum’s here and also about the city’s retail parks (there are three) but since we didn’t visit any of them and because I have been dabbling with this particular blog for over a week, I’m going to finish now. I’ll leave you with my final photo of the heart of the city.

Chalons en Champagne (Grand Est), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

We’re looking to overnight a little way further south at Troyes in the Aube Department of the Grand Est Region but Vanya wanted to sample a glass of champagne sooner rather than later. So we stopped at Chalons en Champagne.

A quick visit to the tourist office and we came away with a map identifying the principal sights of the city (there aren’t that many) and, more to the point from Vanya’s perspective, directions to a highly recommended local champagne bar – Tiffany’s.

We didn’t stay in Chalons en Champagne for very long – there is surprisingly little there to see for a city with almost 50,000 residents. It is more about the surrounding, rolling countryside and vineyards here (we’re in the middle of the champagne producing region) but, in the city centre, there is a particularly impressive church in the predominantly gothic style 12th century Collegiate Church of Notre Dame en Vaux.

The city also has a nice park (Le Jard Parc) and offers boat trips along the River Marne although for the city to be named as yet another Little Venice, as one tourist site has described the place, is really stretching the boat.

It was a nice place to pause for a glass of champagne but it offers little else. Sorry Chalons… but your Champagne is good!

On to Troyes…

Montreuil sur Mer (Hauts de France), France April 2023 (Tour 7)

We began what will be an all too brief tour of just one month (because we have to be back in the UK for a friend’s wedding early in June) by revisiting an old favourite of ours, Montreuil sur Mer. This place wasn’t without incident last time we were here (this was our last stop of Tour 5 before we returned to the UK) with us both enjoying an outstanding meal at the Michelin Star Restaurant, Anecdote, and; then, back at the campsite, locking ourselves outside of the Van (with the dogs on the inside) and my having to break into the Van and causing some £600 of damage. It could have been a lot worse.

Once again we stayed at ‘la fontaine des clercs’ campsite just outside the city walls. There were a great many more people in the town this time, no doubt due to it being a bank holiday weekend (May Day tomorrow), but while many places were closed for the holidays, we were able to get a reasonable meal and wine at Brasserie Le Caveau on the Place de General de Gaulle. There were a couple of other restaurants we wanted to try out; one situated on the town walls which specialises in light local produce (Le Pot du Clape) and the other a creperie (Creperie le Clan des Elfes) but both were closed. Next time.

It didn’t take long for Vanya and I to reacquaint ourselves with the town (Vanya even joined me for a brief stroll along part of the town ramparts – she’s getting better with heights) and soon enough we were sitting on the main square under the watchful eye of Field Marshall Douglas Haig drinking a glass of Chardonnay.

Check out the measure of Chardonnay in each glass

The last time we were here (February 2022), on the way back from dinner, we passed an old and somewhat derelict looking hotel/restaurant which was up for sale – Le Relais du Roy. We passed it again and it appears to have been sold and reopened as a restaurant without so much as a lick of paint…

The hotel as was one year ago (left); the hotel as is now (centre); and a look inside one of the windows now (right).

Whatever else may be said about “Le Relais du Roy”, it certainly isn’t lacking in character.

I’ll not repeat everything I said about Montreuil sur Mer in my last blog on the place and there’s little point me posting photos of the same sights as before (Le Relais du Roy excepted). Instead, I will leave you with a couple of photos of the area we had hoped to eat in. That’s the Pot du Clape in the first photo below…

… HOWEVER, Montreuil sur Mer really is a great little town and one we would heartily recommend especially if you are into good food and of course Les Miserables. If you want more information on the town, take a read of the previous blog I wrote on this place but, better still, visit the place yourself.

Well, that’s Day 1 of Tour 7 over. Tomorrow, we head south to Champagne. Vanya wants a drink.