Right in the middle of the Massif Central, Le Puy-en-Velay, often shortened to Le Puy, is one of the most remarkable towns in the whole of France, with a landscape and architecture that are totally theatrical. Slung between the higher mountains to east and west, the countryside erupts in a chaos of volcanic acne: everywhere is a confusion of abrupt conical hills, scarred with dark outcrops of rock and topknotted with woods. Even in the centre of the town, these volcanic thrusts burst through. Le Puy is also somewhat inaccessible: the three main roads out all cross passes more than 1000m high, which causes problems in winter.
In the past, Le Puy enjoyed influence and prosperity because of its ecclesiastical institutions, which were supported in part by the production of the town’s famous green lentils. It was – and in a limited way, still is – a centre for pilgrims embarking on the 1600km trek to Santiago de Compostela. (History has it that Le Puy’s Bishop Godescalk was the first pilgrim to make the journey, in the tenth century.) The specific starting point is place du Plot (also the scene of a lively Saturday market) and rue St-Jacques. Recently, however, Le Puy has fallen somewhat on hard times, and its traditional industries – tanning and lace – have essentially gone bust. However, in the maze of steep cobbled streets and steps that terrace the Rocher Corneille, lacemakers still do a fine trade, with their doilies and lace shawls hanging enticingly outside souvenir shops. If you happen to be here in the third week of September you are in luck: the five-day King of the Birds festival engulfs the Old Town in a colourful feast of Renaissance costumes (wroideloiseau.com).