The Haute Loire department basks in the sun between the Allier river and the Loire, a landscape of moorland and pasture threaded by rivers and streams. In the far south below the village of Pradelles are magnificent views over the Cevennes and Margeride mountains. From the summit of Mont Mézenc near the village of Moudeyres, there is a fantastic view over the whole of the Massif Central. To the south-east the upper reaches of the Loire river arrive from Mount Gerbier-de-Jonc, carving a path through a mountain pass and a beautiful valley. The river Allier also passes through spectacular gorges and both rivers can be enjoyed by canoe.
Le Puy en Velay, the most important town in Haute-Loire, is the most southerly town of the Auvergne, the starting place for one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostella. It is one of the most extraordinary sights in France, built within a volcanic cone on a series of rocks and basalt pillars, three of which are topped by churches or statues. It became a holy city after the Bishop of Le Puy set off on one of the first pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in 962, and built the Chapelle St-Michel d’Aguilhe when he returned. It stands imposingly, remote on its finger of lava rock, with a 268 step climb to the top. In the Romanesque cathedral of Notre Dame is the famous Black Madonna, the dark wood of the statue blackened with age – these Madonnas, thought to have originated with the Crusaders, are a tradition for which the Auvergne is famous.
In the north are several religious sights not to be missed. Lavaudieu, which has the only complete Romanesque cloister in the Auvergne, and Brioude with its fine Romanesque church, its superbly carved cloister capitals and mosaic floors. La Chaise-Dieu, a tiny village perched on a hill in the remote forest of the Parc Naturel Regional Livradois-Forez is famous for the abbey church of St Pierre, dating from the 14th century, an impressive building with a harmonious blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Most celebrated is the choir with its oak stalls carved with representations of vice and virtue, and its beautiful 16th century Flemish tapestries. There are also frescoes depicting the Danse Macabre and an Echo room, in which two people whispering in opposite corners can easily hear each other. Today La Chaise-Dieu hosts a famous Classical and Sacred Music Festival every year.
A tour south of Le Puy en Velay takes in Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, Arlempdes, Issarlès and Mont Mézenc. It was from Le Monastier that Robert Louis Stevenson set off on his Travels with a Donkey through the Cevennes. You can follow his walk along the GR70, or take an organised tour. Le Monastir is a charming village of old houses with a fine church of geometric red and white stone, containing a valuable treasury. From Les Etables it is possible to drive within 20 minutes’ walk of the summit of Mont Mézenc to take in its fabulous view.