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A Discovery in the Massif Central
by Mark Rowlee

The cold, crisp days were perfect for hot air ballooning in the French Massif Central. We arrived here with this intent while visiting friends from Lyon. This is how we found our special corner of France called Le Puy en Velay.

My wife and I had hopes of flying in or near the town of Annonay. It was here over 200-years ago the brothers Montgolfiere first began what was to become our favorite sport. Both visiting and possibly flying in this historic area sounded like a great idea. We called other friends in Annonay early in the morning only to hear the weather was not cooperating. Clouds and strong winds it seemed, two major obsticales to flying balloons, were going to be the "spoil sports" today.

But not to be deterred, we decided to at least tour the town of Annonay. We settled on pictures of us beside monuments, a stroll through the local market and a purchase or two from the local ballooning gift shop. While having lunch with a local balloonist, though, our luck changed. He told us of a small balloon event taking place a couple of hours away in a town called Le Puy en Velay.

After a couple of hours of winding mountain roads we arrived mid-afternoon at our destination. About 5-miles outside of town we spotted a balloon in the distance, floating gently over the distant mountains, a good indication we were getting close. Pulling up to the afternoon's launch site with cars, people and balloons (in various stages of inflation) all around we learned the balloon we had seen earlier was actually a pilot who had launced nearly 4-hours earlier in an attempt to set the French endurance record in his home-built balloon. He succeeded in capturing the endurance record as well as the altitude record.

Parking the car we rushed towards the balloons, with cameras in hand, along with gloves, in anticipation of possibly joining a local crew. There were nearly 25-balloons, some commercial with advertising emblazoned on them, some private or belonging to clubs. There was even one shaped like the original elongated balloon of the Montgolfiere brothers. We introduced ourselves to several people who were with the record-attempting pilot and soon found ourselves chasing his balloon.

That evening we wandered through the town of Le Puy en Velay and, for dinner, feasted on some of the local specialties of green lentils and sausages. Trying to decide on this or the cassoulet was very difficult but a challenge we eagerly accepted, along with selecting the perfect red wine. With a moonlit sky as the backdrop we noticed impressive monuments on spires of volcanic rock that were calling us to explore. But, on this trip, there was no time for exploration. We were there to fly and chase balloons and, after all, the monuments would still be there when we returned on our next visit.

The next morning welcomed a cold that left puddles of water with a thin layer of ice. We followed the caravan of balloon retrieval vehicles to one of the five communities that are incorporated into this area. As we launched shortly after sunrise a new world opened up to us. The leaves on the trees of red, yellow and orange colors were set against a backdrop of lush, green forests and meadows. We floated over the mountain tops caped with the ruins of castles long since forgotten with an awesome view of the Alp's snowy peaks in the distance. We followed the steep-sided valley that is the Loire River Gorge traveling Northeast towards the village of Retournac.

The pilot, who had set the records the day prior, now manuevered into a cow pasture belonging to a local farmer. Settling to earth, our chase vehicle drove up to assist. While in the air, they had stopped for croissants and some sinfully delicious French pastries. With this bag of goodies we were able to make a wonderful brunch since the farmer had come out to meet us with several bottles of the local muscat and red wine. Our table was the inverted basket of the balloon we had just flown.

It was at this moment my wife and I decided we needed to get to know this area better! We had toyed with the idea of eventually moving to France and here we felt we had found our "home." From this point on we learned as much as we could about the area and started making plans to return when we had more than just one-night to spend here.

The opportunity presented itself the very next year. We decided to attend two Summer balloon events, one in the West and the other to the East. This gave us the perfect opportunity to drive back via the South-Central area known as the Auvergne, where Le Puy is located, for a longer visit.

The history of this area goes back thousands of years, to when volcanos shaped the surrounding countryside previously molded by glacial ice. The rich soils deposited would eventually provide fertile ground for farms and grazing cattle. The steep cliffs and volcanic pinacles provided the perfect location for well-protected castles and religious monuments.

As you drive into this area you are first greeted by the sight of the city's red roofs stretching across the valley and the town's three major landmarks, the one's we had seen on our previous visit. Because of the altitude, the Summer temperatures are rarely extreme which makes for perfect weather for hiking through the Old Town to visit the three famous sites.

The first is the Rocher Corneille. Following the seige of Sebatopol during the Crimean War, 213 of the cannons used in its defense were melted-down to construct the statue of Notre-Dame de France. This impressive statue stands over 50-feet, high atop what is left of an eroded volcano...the core, itself standing 400-feet above the surrounding area. You can take the long climb up to shoulder level in the statue for a panoramic view not to be forgotten.

The next point of interest is the Chapel of St Michael d'Aiguilhe. Built in the 10th Century, the chapel also stands on the top of a volcanic chimney. This one is 280-feet high, and all that remains after centuries of erosion.

The Cathedral, built in the 5th Century on the hillside of Mont Anis, is supported on one side by pilars sunk deep in the rock. It rests at the base of the pinacle on which sits St.Michael's chapel. Climb the 134-steps for a real treat.

From July to mid-September guided tours are available from the square, or Place, near the tourist office, located in the center of town. Once oriented to the city you'll want to start your own explorations into the towns' past.

Nearby you can visit the Chateau Lafayette, originally built in the 14th Century. It was here in the village of Chavaniac that the man who played a major role in the American Revolution was born. But the General Marquis de Lafayette was noted for more than just this. He was a unique man also involved in the French Revolution of 1789, the Fall of Napolean and the Revolution of 1830. Take the tour...its worth it!

Just to the Northwest of Le Puy is the unique village of Polignac. Perched over 300-feet above the village which surrounds it, sits the fortress of the former owners, the Polignac family. The steep cliffs form natural walls which offered the perfect defense during feudal times. This is the same location where the temple to the god Apollo was located during the Roman era as pilgrams would make their way to seek the advise of the Oracle.

As you make your way thru the villages and towns of this area you will soon discover the primary products of the area are lace, lentils and a liquore with a unique flavor and strength that reminds one of a medicine from your past.

Lace has been made by hand here for centuries. It's origins can be traced to the late 15th century but it wasn't until the mid- to late-17th century that the industy blossomed. The industrial age brought special equipment designed to reproduce the exquisite and unique designs in mass quantities. For years it had taken days and weeks and even months to complete a complex table cloth or curtain. Now the area embraces the new technology yet maintains a pride in it's small community of artisans still expert in creating lace patterns by hand.

Another item, a simple legume, is the green lentil of Le Puy. Known to grow only in this area, it even has its own Apellation and is known throughout France as "cavier Lyonnaise." With a history dating to Gallo-Roman times the green lentils grow best in the micro-climate of the upper plateaus of Le Puy. A unique flavor sought out in fine restaurants as well as the local bistros, it is a perfect complement for two of the local favorite dishes of sausages or pork. More and more specialty shops in the U.S. now carry this item as demand continues to increase.

Since 1859, the same company has been producing green and yellow liquors known world-wide as Verviene du Velay. This liquor is made from 32- different plants and herbs from the surrounding area and is both a wonderful aperatif and a mixer with a multitude of other spirits. Once tasted, you'll understand why the recipe hasn't changed in 150-years.

We have since returned several times, with our own balloon, and already have plans of making this an annual event. The beautiful surroundings. The wonderful people. The rich history, and everything else about this unique place have left us with fond memories and, at the same time, anticipation of all there is still to learn and discover in the French Auvergn region in and around Le Puy en Velay.

Michelin Map #76 or IGN Map #50.
514-km South of Paris
190-km North of Nimes
Elevation: 1900-ft.
Access by train from or via Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand or St Etienne Tourism

Office-District of Le Puy Place de Breuil 43000 Le Puy en Velay France
Telephone: 04-71-09-38-41
Fax: 04-71-05-22-62

Festivals and Other Events:
..Music and Dance festivals in March, July, August, September
July goes to the dogs when the International Dog Show is held
Well-known Lentil Festival in August
International Assembly of Hot Air Balloons in November

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