Issoire and Usson

Sunday 21st April 2013, Lyon
We have gradually moved on during the past few days and for two nights we have been camping just outside of Lyon, a city with well over 1,000,000 inhabitants, that somehow had so far eluded us. We’ve passed this way before but always stuck to the far side of the Rhone to avoid getting sucked into the city.

This morning we took the bus and metro into the city centre and have spent the day exploring the central area that lies between the Rhône and the Sâone. The city speaks of La Rivière and Le Fleuve. Both mean a river but it differentiates the two. The Rhône, being larger and flowing eventually into the sea, is Le Fleuve while the Sâone, which at this point flows into the Rhone, is La Rivière.

Our first port of call was the museum of printing. During the 16th century Lyon was an important European centre for book production and we were anxious to see the collections. Knowing the museum would be closed for the next couple of days it had to be today. I have left Ian the pleasure of reporting on the museum as he is far better qualified to do so than I am.

I will also leave him to describe our visit to the Ambert museum of paper manufacture. An excellent museum we had been determined not to miss, despite it necessitating a day driving through the volcanic peaks of the Auvergne to reach it. Ian was confident there was a campsite some twenty kilometres before we reached Ambert. It turned out to be run by a Dutch couple who seemed to believe money would fall from heaven if they sat back and waited. The pitches were scruffy and neglected on broken terraces that were very inaccessible for Modestine. Once down on one it is questionable whether she would be able to get off, especially if it rained during the night turning the pitches to mud. Ian actually conceded he’d be prepared to sleep by the roadside rather than risk her axles getting on to the pitch! In any case, one of our books informed us there was a campsite in Ambert. So we continued to the pleasant little town which back in the 16th century was a main centre for paper-making in France with dozens of water powered paper mills along the valley just outside of the town. Typically the campsite turned out to be closed until the end of April, we knew of nothing else in the area and the listed Aire de Camping Cars no longer existed. We have become resourceful during our travels however and decided that it was time to be repaid for the favour we’d done the previous day to an extremely heavy goods vehicle. This was carrying a crane down a narrow road deep into the gorge and had got itself jammed on a narrow bridge with no way of passing us. Although in theory I had priority, I was not going to argue with him. I reversed down the steep winding road until I found a ledge onto which I could creep to enable the heavyweight to edge past, followed by a massive freight lorry with a trailer of equal size attached behind!

Anyway, in Ambert we decided to call in the favour and hole up for the night in the space designated for the likes of them. There were only three huge trailers there anyway so we tucked ourselves up close to the hedge and, not having access to electricity, prepared a simple supper and retired to bed for an early night, intending to move on as soon as it became light.

Now, I could not make this up if I tried! No sooner had we settled, around 9pm, than several vehicles drove noisily up and parked beside us. In the corner of the vast and scruffy parking lot was a wooden hut into which a dozen or more people promptly disappeared. We noticed too late, the sign by the door proclaiming it to be the practice room for the “Batterie Fanfare des Sapeurs Pompiers d’Ambert”! A word of warning! If ever you are benighted without accommodation on a Friday night in the area, remember that Friday night is practice night for the drumming and trumpet-playing firemen of Ambert! Pretending we were not there we cowered beneath the duvet until the din coming from inside the hall proclaimed they were all having a whale of a time inside. Ian then sent me out in my pyjamas to drive us across to the furthest corner of the parking area. A few minutes later those cheeky firemen marched out of their hall and surrounded Modestine playing a couple of particularly rousing marches involving massed trombones, trumpets and drums. No longer able to pretend to be asleep we sat up in bed and pulled up the blind to enjoy the show. Having successfully woken us from our slumbers they launched into the most rousing version of the Marseillaise we’ve ever heard before turning tail and marching back into their hall. Of course we could still hear them banging away but it seemed to become less strident as sleep overtook us. When we woke next morning it was as silent as if they’d never been. It could have been a dream except that we were on the other side of the parking area. The town did right to send them out to the HGV parking area to practise. It’s far enough from the town to ensure nobody else will ever get bothered by the noise – except a couple of homeless English pensioners!

Practice night for the Batterie Fanfare des Sapeurs-Pompiers d’Ambert

By the time we left the paper museum next morning it had started to sleet heavily. Impossible to enjoy exploring the little town of Ambert in sub-zero temperatures when we’d be soaked in minutes. So we continued our winding route through the hills towards Lyon. There was almost no traffic around as we followed the tortuous road up ever higher into the hills. Soon we were above 1000 metres and here the sleet had definitely become whirling snow flakes. At the Col de Pradeaux we reached 1,196 metres, higher than the highest peak in England, and the landscape was completely monochrome with a dark sky shimmering with whirling white flakes and pine trees heavy with snow.

Col de Pradeaux, altitude 1,196 metres

High in the Auvergne near the Col de Pradeaux

Wintery landscape in the Auvergne

As we descended we left the snow behind, reaching Lyon during the late afternoon, cold and wet, very much in need of hot showers and large mugs of tea as we huddled by our fan heater. We were early to bed, exhausted by our long drive and the sudden drop in temperature - from thirty to zero in 24 hours!

Tuesday 23rd April 2013, Gorges d’Ain, Jura
The blog is becoming increasingly disjointed. As you see, we are already back in our beloved Jura and in a couple of days we should be back in Champagne-sur-Loue with our friends Susanne and Roland. First though I will go back a few days and fill in what I have generally been too tired to do after our busy days of activity.

On the 18th April we emerged from the gorges of the Aveyron and passed the night at a pleasant site in Florac. Next day we visited the street market, marvelled at an exhibition in praise of libraries in a butcher’s shop window and took coffee on the little square lined with plane trees. We then continued up into the Auvergne and the Massif Central, an area of volcanic activity which has left the so beautiful face of France pockmarked by volcanic eruptions and craters.
We also climbed high into the hills of the Gevaudan. This area of wilderness was until comparatively recent times, home to wolves and there are harrowing accounts of savage attacks on humans, women and children being especially favoured. Whether this was the work of one particularly vicious wolf or several is questionable. It lives on in local legend however and in the little town of Marvejols there is a statue of the wolf of the Gevaudan. It is true that eventually a massive wolf was trapped and killed, after which the attacks on humans stopped.

Wolf of the Gevaudan, Marvejols

Marvejols, Gevaudan

Porte du Soubeyran, Marvejols, Gevaudan

Whereas the Viaduc de Millau is one of the wonders of road-bridge architecture of the 21st century, back in the 19th century Gustave Eiffel created an iron viaduct to carry trains across the river Truyère at Garabit. It should be seen as a warning to parents of the risks involved in making children wait until they are older before having a Meccano set!

Gustave Eiffel’s railway viaduct across the Gorge de la Truyère at Garabit, 1884. Auvergne

Skirting St. Flour high on its hill we camped in an insignificant little town on the municipal campsite. The place may have been insignificant but the welcome from the manager and his three dogs was ecstatic. Next day was cold and chilly but we did as we’d been told, crossed the passerelle over the river and discovered the delights of the town. They were rather limited but included a baker and two hairdressers. This latter was the delight of the campsite manager who told us we really should visit them! Ian asked if we looked that disreputable which seemed to cause great hilarity. Camping at Lempdes-sur-Allagnon was a very pleasant experience.

St. Flour, Auvergne

Market place, Lempdes

Later that morning we arrived in Issoire. We first visited the town when we were still working. Stephan and Cathérine had just married and, unable to make it to their wedding we decided, on a whim, to drive down to Issoire and drop off their present. Stephan was stationed at the time with the French army in Issoire. We have been back since, with Modestine, but Stephan had by that time moved on. They are now of course in Agen where we visited them on our way south several weeks ago.

It was very chilly in Issoire. Its main feature of interest is the delightful romanesque church of St Austremoine. When we first visited the town it was the first time I had seen a church painted and decorated inside in vibrant colours, the columns and capitals decorated and picked out in gold leaf and paint. I found the effect delightful though Ian is more of a traditionalist about such things. I am sure churches would have looked more like this originally. Externally the apse is decorated with the signs of the zodiac and there is use of decorative stonework. It is a charming building. In the crypt is a small enamelled box from Limoges dating from the 13th century used as a reliquary for the remains of St. Austremoine, patron of the town. It has had an exciting history having been stolen from the church in 1962 and lost for thirty years or so. The search for it took Interpol from the Netherlands to Los Angeles, Alaska, New Zealand and finally Hawaii where it turned up in the gallery of an antiquarian from Honolulu.

Painted apse. Interior of the church at Issoire

Painted capital in the main church, Issoire

External decorative stonework on the Romanesque church of Issoire

Zodiac signs on the apse of the church, Issoire

Detail of zodiac sign for cancer, Issoire

St. Austremoine of Issoire

13th century Limoges enamelled casket containing the relics of St. Austremoine, Issoire

We moved on from Issoire and, seeing an enticing village on the hillside around lunchtime made our way up, by a bumpy winding road. The village was too narrow for vehicles so we parked, all alone, below the town and after a picnic in Modestine, set off in a fierce wind to explore the deserted streets of Usson. It turned out to be a fascinating place built on the basalt core of a volcano. It was also the place to which Queen Margot, (aka Marguerite de Valois) was exiled by her brother Henry III for causing disruption at the court with her many lovers and for refusing her husband, the future Henri IV, a divorce. She spent 19 years under house arrest in Usson dividing her time roughly equally between her lovers and her prayers.

Approaching the once magnificent cité of Usson in the Auvergne

Main street leading up through the cité of Usson

The mediaeval streets lead us up to the church where she spent so much time in prayer. There are some talented modern day artists living in the ancient stone houses today and we were particularly impressed with images enamelled on to flat plates of black basalt from the hillside on which and from which, the town was built.

Enamelling on Basalt stone, Usson

Cité d’Usson. Enamelling on Basalt, Usson

During the period that Queen Margo was held captive there Usson was a town of great importance, worthy of holding captive the sister of the king. Shortly after she eventually agreed to divorce her husband and was allowed to return to Paris the cité of Usson was raised to the ground on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu. Thus much of what remains today, are sacked ruins. Above the church we discovered the exposed volcanic core with its hexagonal columns of black basalt looking like organ pipes. Most of the walls and even the cobbles of the street are constructed from cross sections of these basalt stone columns.

Church above the Cité, Usson

View out across the volcanic landscape towards the Puy de Dome, Usson, Usson

Basalt core of the volcano upon which Usson is built,

View from the church steps, Usson

Wall constructed from Basalt, Usson

Natural rockery, Usson

At the summit, above the village, there is a huge statue of the Virgin and child looking out across the landscape to the snow covered summits of the Parc des Volcans and the Puy de Dome. We climbed right to the summit of the Puy de Dome on an earlier trip leaving Modestine scornfully watching from below!

The Virgin watches over the town, Usson

Cité d’Usson seen from the summit

It is a chance encounter, such as discovering Usson, that makes those special moments for us as we travel. We were thrilled with our chance discovery which really does help to bring history to life.

Related Links
Issoire See 2nd April 2006
Puy de Dome See entry for 25th April 2006