Le Puy to Conques – Le Puy, the city of the Holy Virgin

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Cast iron statue of the Virgin and Jesus in Le Puy

In Le Puy, France for the start of our walk to Conques:

The next day we had a lot to do. Waking early we left the hotel in the dark to attend the 7.00 am service which would include a pilgrims’ blessing. I felt a sense of adventure as we walked up Mount Corneille and into the centre of old Le Puy looking for the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Walking along the dark streets with occasional lights illuminating cobble-stoned streets and the windows of closed shops we eventually found an entrance into the Cathedral and sat down. People, most of them pilgrims, arrived and sat in the pews. I could see the Black Madonna of Le Puy above the altar.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame is one of Europe’s oldest and most famous pilgrimage shrines. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, an enormous dolmen (stone) stood atop this sacred hill. Around the fifth century a local woman suffering from an incurable disease experienced visions of Mary, mother of Jesus. In her visions the woman was instructed to climb to the top of the mount and sit on the stone, where she would be cured.

Following the advice, the woman found that she was indeed cured. Another vision instructed the woman to contact the local bishop to build a church on the mount. When the bishop climbed the mount in the middle of summer he was astonished to find it covered in snow. He noticed a lone deer walking through the snow tracing the outline of the church that was to be built there. Convinced that Mary’s wishes were authentic, he built a church there in 430AD. Initially the dolmen was left intact and was consecrated as the “Throne of Mary”.

By the eighth century the dolmen, known as “the Stone of Visions” was taken down, broken up and incorporated into the floor of the part of the church known as the Angels’ Chamber.

A priest accompanied by three nuns arrived and began the service. The morning light gradually illuminated the stained glass windows and by the time the service was over we felt our spirits lifted.

The priest asked all pilgrims present to join him for a blessing near the statue of St. Jacques. Afterwards, we were given a small medallion depicting Mary and her infant Jesus to keep as a memento of the occasion.

In medieval times pilgrims collected souvenir badges from each shrine they visited – a scallop shell of St. James from Santiago de Compostela, the keys of St. Peter from Rome and a medallion of St. Michael triumphing over the dragon from Mont Saint-Michel. These souvenirs were proof that pilgrims had reached their holy destinations.

One of the nuns announced the Cathedral shop was open for business and we followed her to buy our souvenirs. We needed to buy a Pilgrim’s Passport or Creanciale so that we could get a stamp from the many churches and villages we would pass on our way to Rocamadour. The passport included a stamp of the Cathedral.

Pilgrims were asked to sign the Livre de Pelerins, the Pilgrims Book. Over the ages pilgrims have traditionally gathered in the Cathedral before setting off on their journey towards Santiago de Compostela. It was in this very Cathedral that Bishop Gottschalk began the first recorded pilgrimage to Santiago in 951AD.

Feeling pleased with ourselves, we left the Cathedral via the main entrance, descended the steps to the Rue des Pelerins and promptly got lost. A local woman showed us where we were on our map and we walked back to the hotel for a belated breakfast.

After breakfast it was off to visit the statue of Our Lady Mary, a huge cast iron statue set upon another of Le Puy’s peaks. In the photo you can see Carol waving her hat from one of the windows in the statue. From there it was a short descent to the base of St. Michael’s peak and a long haul up to his chapel.

It was early afternoon by the time we repaired to the hotel and spent the rest of our time relaxing and checking the maps and guide book.

Tomorrow the walk.

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