Our last port of call in the Auvergne was le Puy-en-Velay. A pretty town built around a cathedral on a hilltop. We started Saturday with a visit to the market, a thriving affair with the whole world there, buying, sitting drinking the first morning glass of wine, pausing for coffee or nattering, generally doing the French market thing. I woke myself up with a 15 megawatt coffee, very effective.
The cathedral is an impressive affair, worth a visit and worth the walk up the steep hill too. You can also visit the local volcanic needles that jut out of the ground and the view of Puy cathedral above is taken from one of those nearby (below).
Puy-en-Velay has two main claims to fame: lentils and a travel book. Oh yes, and lace, but that's pretty much died out. Lentilles de Puy are a locally-grown speciality, awarded an A.O.C and generally regarded, at least in Puy, as a little bit special: there is something about the fertile, volcanic soil, the clarity and colour of the light, the ideal winds, rainfall and temperatures, and the special texture and aroma of the local bullshit that all come together to make lentilles de Puy a product that is unequaled anywhere else.
Not that I'm against the idea of an A.O.C in principle. Champagne was in danger of becoming a generic term for fizzy white wine, until the producers stamped their feet. But you can take things too far: you can't even describe fizzy white wine that has been produced using the methods traditionally used to make champagne, as "méthode champenoise", you have to describe it as "méthode traditionnelle". This is all very well but if won't help you if the Aussies (or the Brits even), start making something better and cheaper, and people, strapped for cash, start looking at value rather than cachet. That could be now.
The other claim to fame arises from a visit by Robert Louis Stevenson (of "Treasure Island" fame), who wrote a book based on his hiking trip in the area, entitled "Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes". It's turned into a nice little earner. There's a local society that promotes and classifies accommodation along his route; you can hire donkeys to walk the route with you, and various guide books are available for purchase to help you on your way. Apparently it's impossible to get lost on the route these days; you just follow the trail of donkey droppings.
There is a special "donkey-friendly" label that you can apply for if you can accommodate both donkeys and people overnight. The criteria (for the donkey part) are as follows:
* There must be an easy-access, protected, hazard-free area of at least 50 square metres for the donkey, no more than 1km away from the accommodation.
* There must be good quality hay and barley for the donkey, and a block of salt. (Requirement for AOC not specified), and drinking water.
* There must be somewhere to securely store donkey saddles, etc, overnight.
And fortunately for us, the guide books are able to correct the more obvious mistakes made by Mr Stevenson, arising, evidently, from his Presbyterian background and general poor taste. He doesn't mention the wonderful architecture of Le Puy en Velay at all (because, although he passed through it before he started his trek, he didn't go there with the donkey) but the guide book starts us from there so we can correct this oversight. All he commented on, apparently, in a note to a friend, was the lousy meal he was served at Puy (should have tried the lentils, obviously).
And he doesn't mention the pretty Auvergne ladies until about 2/3 the way through his trip. Although this was probably due to the fact that he was pining for his girlfriend who had cleared off to the USA, and he was getting his emotions in order, we are guided to the conclusion that this was down to his Presbyterian upbringing. Thank heavens for good ole Catholicism, eh?
Lacemakers and UFO spotters, both harder to find these days in Puy.