The Basilica of Brioude

Cantal excursion, day 3. We’d seen beautiful towns and had eaten very, very well. How much better could one trip get? Plenty. I was not prepared for Brioude*.

But first, cheese.

Cantal is cool, rainy, and often hilly, perfect for grazing land. It’s unsurprising that it has the most cheese appellations of any region in France. Along with the eponymous Cantal, there’s Salers, Bleu d’Auvergne, Tomme, etc… Roquefort is made just to the south.

We stayed at the Auberge les Volpières, an inn that had a demi-pension option, which means that in addition to room and breakfast, they also offered dinner. Oof, what a dinner. 4 courses: appetizer, entree, cheese, and dessert. 16 euros if you were staying there, 19 if you weren’t. All home made and copious. One evening they were serving the big regional specialties. For the appetizer: Pounti, a baked dish of flour, eggs, bits of sausage, and dried prunes. Utterly unusual and delicious. The main course was Aligot, the ultimate comfort food. Made of pureed potatoes, cream, butter, a bit of garlic, and lots of Tomme cheese, it was slapped from a vat onto our plates by the proprietor’s mother, a friendly 83 year old woman who could easily beat me in an arm-wrestling match. The woman had guns from all of that Aligot slinging!

Aligot is served with sausage. This is mountain food for hardworking people, not for car passenger tourists. I happily did justice to what I was served, but I went to bed with a cannonball in my stomach and could. not. sleep.

At breakfast, after a couple of cups of coffee, I asked my traveling companions to make the day’s decisions and to keep me from wandering into traffic. Paula suggested the town of Brioude. Yes. Put me in the car please.

The town is beautiful, but it’s the basilica that’s the real draw.

The eastern/old side

The Basilica of St. Julien gets a well-deserved 3 out of 3 stars ranking from Michelin. I thought it was one of the best things I’ve seen in all of France, and that’s not just the surprise and sleep-deprivation talking. I’m not usually enthralled by churches, but I am a sucker for anything Romanesque, and this is a magnificent example. I was and still am having trouble finding sufficiently superlative superlatives. It survived the revolution, largely unscathed due to the townspeople’s actions to hide their light under a bushel, as it were. The interior stayed covered in whitewash and dull stone floors until 1957.

The exterior was already impressive enough. Construction began in the late 11th century (on top of an even earlier church) and was finished in 1180. It got an addition in 1259.

The western/new side

It wasn’t entirely undamaged by the Revolution.

St. Julien’s was a major stop on the pilgrimage trail. The historical guy, if the Catholic Church is to be believed, was a Roman solider who was martyred by decapitation. Two aged men retrieved his body for burial and miraculously had their youth restored.

Pilgrims would have entered via one of these 2 doors on the south side. The one on the left, the sinister/evil side was marked with a monkey’s head, the mark of the devil. An animal that appears human, but is devoid of reason.

The hedgehog door is on the right. Did I say hedgehog? I meant lion. Yeah, that’s a lion. They didn’t see too many lions in central France in the middle ages.

We went in. Jaws were dropped.

This most excellent stone floor is from the 16th century, replicating the small original patch of floor from the 8th.

In the crypt: the saint’s relics, in saint jail.

The stained glass windows did not survive the revolution. The contemporary windows are by Korean artist/priest Kim En Joong from 2007.

But wait, on high! Upstairs is a private funerary chapel for church bigwigs. It can only be seen with a guide. We quickly canceled the rest of the day’s plans to stick around for the afternoon tour.

One leisurely lunch later, we were in full-on 12th century polychrome apocalyptic beast heaven, surmounted by armies of angels.

But scarier than all the beasts combined is the cinnabar red paint, made from mercury.

Angels arranged in bureaucratic hierarchies

Completely sated with our day, we went back to the inn where we had a mercifully light picnic dinner on the floor. But we’re not at all sated by the Cantal region. It warrants a much longer visit.

Cheese! I mean, cheers!


*Lest I offend any Brioudians, Brioude is in fact in the Haute-Loire region, not Cantal.


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