Visit Auvergne

What to See: The Strange Chapel Built Inside a Volcanic Monolith

Deep in the heart of the Cantal mountains lies a quiet, out-of-the-way village called Fontanges. Overshadowed by the larger, more far-famed towns of Aurillac and Salers, it’s the sort of place that doesn’t appear on most trip itineraries. In fact, most tourists have never heard of it. Yet Fontanges possesses a one-of-a-kind treasure: the Monolithic Chapel of Saint-Michel.

Built inside a volcanic monolith, the chapel is an artistic chimera, combining both Romanesque and Gothic styles. The most impressive aspect of Saint-Michel, however, is neither its foliage-lined stained glass windows nor its cavernous interior. What really catches the eye is the chapel’s archivolted portal, a seemingly Medieval masterpiece of design into which are carved a medley of animals, monsters, human figures, and demons. With its fantastical scenes and detailed craftsmanship, it could be mistaken for something out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings (the Dwarven Doors of Durin specifically comes to mind).

The Doors of Durin, as depicted by J.R.R. Tolkien. Image via

But Saint-Michel is younger and less otherworldly than one might expect. Workers blasted a hole in the monolith to make space for the chapel in the early twentieth century. The archivolt itself — a faithful representation of traditional Auvergnat Romanesque architecture — was executed by Jean Ribes, a local designer and wood-worker.

The best way to explore the chapel and the village of Fontanges is as follows. If you’re planning to stay in Salers — which is just a nine-minute drive away — set off for Fontanges in the morning. Pack a sandwich, some snacks, and a bottle of your choice. If you arrive around eleven o’clock, the sun will be filtering through the church windows, filling the sanctuary with kaleidoscopic light. Have your lunch outside; all you really need is a shady spot underneath a tree. Another option is to dine at the nearby Auberge de L’Aspre, a well-reviewed restaurant near the town centre.

For more tips on must-see attractions in Auvergne, click “Trip Ideas” below.