For us, therefore, wandering in a “fairyland of travel,” there was something of the joy of the discoverer when the forgotten cathedral town, to which work was our guide, turned out to be “the most picturesque place in the world,” something of the pride of the pioneer when we settled down and made ourselves at home in it…letters still come to us asking for information about Le Puy.
-Elizabeth Robins Pennell
What is “the most picturesque place in the world”? Yellowstone? The Italian Riviera? Bali? Some other island paradise with white-sand beaches, aquamarine water, and palm trees? According to the American travel writer, feminist, and cyclist Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936), the “most picturesque place” in the world is none other than Le Puy (also known as Le-Puy-en-Velay) in Haute-Loire, Auvergne.
Pennell was a veteran globetrotter — she spent most of her life exploring the world’s less-frequented corners with her husband, the artist Joseph Pennell, and her famous uncle, Charles Godfrey Leland. In Pennell’s view, Le Puy was the “perfect place which was to combine the charm of the Middle Ages with the comfort of the nineteenth century”.
Pennell elaborated on what she thought made Le Puy so unique in her book French Cathedrals: Monasteries And Abbeys And Sacred Sites Of France (1909). Here are a few excerpts:
On the General Beauty of Le Puy
But, for all my enthusiasm, I had enough common sense left to look quietly and seriously at the details that go to build up the picturesqueness. Perhaps it is the most surprising thing about Le Puy that it is no less wonderful in those details than as a whole. Once it had arranged itself on its own peak in just the right relation to the neighbouring peaks, to the streams running through the plain, to the hills on the horizon, it might have rested on its laurels and there would have been none to complain. It has not been content, however; it lavishes its attractions broadcast. It has crowned the nearest peak with the little Romanesque chapel of St. Michel, that repays the climb of the two hundred odd steps leading to it. It has buried a hero whose name stands for everything that was romantic in the past — Bertrand du Guesclin — in the old church of St. Laurent, that looks as if it might have been the background for everything medieval.
It has filled itself with delightful old corners, with old turrets and towers, old convents and monasteries, old palaces almost Italian in stateliness. It has given its women lace-making as an industry because few occupations are so pictorial. It collects in its markets the most astonishing array of whitecaps, though I regretted to find on my last visit that the deliciously absurd little black hat like a muffin the women used to wear over these caps was to be seen only on a few of the older generation. It has provided enchanting views in every direction. And it has placed in the exact spot where the finest effect is assured a cathedral that is the most wonderful thing in this wonderful town.
On The Magic of the Notre-Dame du Puy Cathedral
There is no anti-climax in the first view of the cathedral. It is as picturesque and unbelievable as the first view of the town. Wandering in search of it, for I always like to leave something to chance when i begin my acquaintance with a cathedral, it turned into a hilly street, and there, at the top, was the great Romanesque facade. On either side the street, in front of the houses, steps went upward, and I mounted. Presently the whole street became a huge stairway and I mounted. And the stairway passed under the portals, and I mounted, and I saw before me steps still going upward under arch after arch, and when, resting a moment, I looked back again, it was to see the great black and white arches framing in, as in a picture, the steep street, the red roofs, and the distant hills.
I know of no entrance to a cathedral that can rival this in solemnity and mystery. The shadowy stairs under the shadowy arches might lead to you hardly can imagine what strange and mystic sanctuary. It sets you to thinking of the secret offices of the Inquisition, of Oriental rock temples, of monasteries in the heart of the mountains, of all strange and holy houses of god where no profane foot is allowed to pass…The better i got to know it as the days passed, the more miraculous I found it, full of the beautiful and strange things of which time has robbed too many old churches, full of all sorts of corners and hidden rooms and secret passages that you could never have dreamed of, where a dozen Esmeraldas might live in peace, where a dozen Quasimodos could come and go unseen. There should have been a Victor Hugo in Auvergne to write the romance of Notre-Dame-du-Puy.
Pennell’s words — written over a hundred years ago — still ring true. Le Puy with its Byzantine and Romanesque temples — all sitting just below the heavens, atop their volcanic perches — is just as awe-inspiring today as it was generations ago. Don’t take my word for it though — go and see for yourself.
For more tips on must-see attractions in Auvergne, click “Trip Ideas” below.