523km (325 miles) S of Paris; 129km (80 miles) SE of Clermont-Ferrand
Le Puy-en-Velay (usually shortened to Le Puy) is one of the most extraordinary sights in France. Steep volcanic spires, left over from geological activity that ended millennia ago, are capped with Romanesque churches, a cathedral, and medieval houses that rise sinuously from the plain below. The history of Le Puy centers on the cult of the Virgin Mary.
Le Puy today is a provincial city of steep cobblestone streets with lots of rather shabby buildings (many of which are being restored). Much of the population of approximately 21,000 lives off the tourist trade, and today's visitors follow in the footsteps of Charlemagne, Le Puy's "first tourist." Le Puy remains a major pilgrimage destination, although it is not as famous as Lourdes.
In France, Le Puy is defined as the capital of lentils. Lentils produced within a specific distance of Le Puy are categorized in a way that emulates the classification of the country's most prestigious wines, as A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). The town is also the point of departure for pilgrims who follow the road to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. A blessing in honor of pilgrims takes place every morning at 7am in the cathedral. Because of the numbers of pilgrims who have stopped at Le Puy and its cathedral, UNESCO lists the town, as well as the entire length of the chemin de St-Jacques de Compostelle, as a site of importance to the universal patrimony.