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Le Puy-en-Velay, A Small French Town with a Large Legacy

Le Puy-en-Velay, A Small French Town with a Large Legacy

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Despite its relatively small size, the town of Le Puy-en-Velay in France is blessed with a spectacular landscape, great architecture, and remarkable ruins. Many festivals are held here throughout the year which attract tourists from all over. It is also famed as the starting points of a Christian pilgrimage route and the place where the First Crusade was launched.

The Long History of Puy-en-Velay

Nestled at the base of two basalt peaks, the town is aptly named, as puy means peak in French. It is believed that pagan shrines were built on the peaks in ancient times, but they were later Christianized. 

Christians are thought to have been active here during the Roman Empire and according to one legend, Saint Fronto ministered to Christians fleeing Imperial persecution. During the 7 th century, a cult to the Virgin Mary developed on Mount Anicius, the highest of the peaks at Pay-en-Velay and it soon became a popular pilgrimage site. Among those who made the pilgrimage was Charlamagne.

On the smaller peak, 'l'Aiguilhe' (the needle), a small hermitage was built in the year 969 AD. It still stands today and is perhaps the most beautiful early medieval church in France. There are many legends associated with the commune, including that it was visited by one of the most famous Christian saints, St George.

The facade of Le Puy Cathedral in Le Puy-en-Velay, France (sasha64f / Adobe Stock)

The facade of Le Puy Cathedral in Le Puy-en-Velay, France (sasha64f / Adobe Stock)

By the early medieval era in France, the town was a bishopric and in the 10 th century became one of the starting points for the journey to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. This remains one of the great pilgrimage sites in Europe. In around 1050 AD the Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy was built, and it is one of the masterpieces of French Romanesque architecture.

Because it was central and held in such high regard, Pope Urban II announced the start of the First Crusade in 1095, one of the most significant events in medieval Europe. Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy was a central figure in the First Crusade. Well known for his military skill, he led knights and men into battle and fought beside them. The town began to decline when the pilgrimage to Compostela became less popular in the Middle Ages and especially during the French Wars of Religion.

The First Crusade - Crusaders and the Siege of Jerusalem (jorisvo / Adobe Stock)

The First Crusade - Crusaders and the Siege of Jerusalem (jorisvo / Adobe Stock)

The town continued to be a major pilgrimage site and the economy of the commune depended on pilgrims for 1000 years. It also developed a famous lace-making industry in the 17 th century.

The Beauties of Le-Puy-En-Velay, Loire Valley, France

The village is located in the Loire Valley and is situated on a ridge of basalt rock. The chapel of Saint Michel de l'Aiguilhe is perched on a basalt peak and it is accessed by a flight of 268 steps. It replaced an earlier Roman dolmen dedicated to Mercury, although three of the dolmen stones are thought to have been used in the constriction of the beautiful Romanesque church. Its façade consisted of an intricate pattern of polychrome stones.

The Cathédrale Notre Dame du Puy is one of the most impressive cathedrals in France and the majority of the building dates to the 12 th century. The main entrance to the cathedral is through the cellar where stone stairs lead into the nave of the church. Constructed over centuries, it contains architecture styles of every period from the 5th century to the 15th, which gives it an individual appearance. The cathedral’s façade is especially noteworthy for its use of colored stone.

Remarkable arches, ornate stained-glass windows, and weathered medieval frescoes grace the building. Numerous statues of saints from the Middle Ages and the Virgin Mary adorn the walls of the medieval structure, including the Black Madonna statue which is carried in a procession through town to celebrate the Assumption of Mary in August.

Notre Dame de France, overlooking Le Puy-en-Velay, a town in Haute-Loire, France (Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock)

Notre Dame de France, overlooking Le Puy-en-Velay, a town in Haute-Loire, France (Leonid Andronov / Adobe Stock)

The cloisters attached to the cathedral are distinctive with multicoloured bricks and columns alluding to strong Moorish influences.  Beyond the cloister stands the famous iron statue of Notre Dame de France which is made from the iron of hundreds of Russian cannons that were given to the town by Napoleon III after they were captured by the French during the Crimean War. The 52 feet (16m) high figure of the Virgin Mary was erected in 1860 and is painted pink.

The old quarter of Le Puy is like going back to the Middle Ages.  It is a labyrinth of colorfully painted tall houses with distinct red-tiled rooves.

Visiting Le Puy-en-Velay, France

In 1998 the Le-Puy-En-Velay was granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The beautiful town is not far from Lyon and public transport is widely available. A day pass can be bought which gives visitors access to the sights in the town. The local museum contains many artifacts from the town’s rich history and a fine example of a medieval manor is situated not away.

Top image: Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel in Le Puy en Velay, France      Source: Boris Stroujko / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


Foster, E. A. (2015). Moveable Feasts: Processions as Multimedia Performance in Le Puy-en-Velay. Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, 5(1), 37-67

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Kravčíková, K. (2018). Le Puy-en-Velay: The Meeting Place of Nature, Divine, and Human

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Streit, J. R. (2019). Pilgrimage and Liminality at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Le Puy-en-Velay, and the Saint Michael Chapel, Aiguilhe. Source: Notes in the History of Art, 39(1), 6-16

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Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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