One thing is certain this summer: after over two years of pandemic restrictions, everyone is looking to travel and get away from it all. But where in France to escape while retaining a little of the calm that came with lockdown and avoiding everyone else trying to do the same? Here’s one possibility: the Haute Loire department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, which offers plenty of space, accommodation, great hiking/walking, and loads of things to see, hear and do – if you know where to go.
The village of La Chaise Dieu is a good place to start, especially in August, when the annual Festival de la Chaise-Dieu takes place from August 18 to 28. Following a major €23 million restoration project, its famous Gothic abbey, the Abbatiale Saint-Robert, recently unveiled a new wing for the display of its remarkable collection of 16th-century Flemish tapestries depicting aspects of the Christian faith. These magnificent pieces really need to be seen, but you can get a good sense of them on the abbey’s website. The Danse Macabre, a stunning 15th-century fresco, is another of the abbey’s notable historical artifacts.
The abbey’s origins go back to 1043, when Robert de Turlande, canon of the nearby town of Brioude, went in search of a spot for a more ascetic life and founded the abbey on a 1,082-meter-high granite plateau.
Three centuries later, one of its monks became Pope Clement VI, whose marble tomb can be seen in the center of the abbey’s main hall, where much of its world-class classical music festival takes place.
This year’s festival
The 56th Festival de la Chaise-Dieu originated in 1966 with a single recital by the famous Hungarian pianist György Cziffra, who fell in love with the abbey and the region and devoted many years to the festival. Its program tends, fittingly, toward religious pieces.
This year, it spotlights works from the sacred repertoire of the Italian Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), with a performance on August 19 by Thibault Noally and the ensemble Les Accents of Scarlatti’s Il Sedecia, re di Gerusalemme. It is followed the next day by a concert by Les Accents and the Opera National de Paris of Scarlatti’s La Giuditta. The festival will also mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Belgian composer César Franck with a series of concerts by the Orchestre National de Belgique. Conferences will be held on both composers. Haydn and Mozart also figure prominently on the program.
Taking to the trail
The Haute Loire department is known for its Romanesque churches and medieval ruins. A great way for walkers to discover them is the GR hike called “Robe de Bure and Cote de Mailles” (which roughly translates as “Monk’s Habit and Chain Mail”) a nine-day circuit that can also be picked off in stages. It passes through La Chaise Dieu and joins the beautiful gorges of the Allier, one of France’s last truly wild rivers.
The low-mountain surroundings are perfect for vigorous but not difficult hiking, and the accommodation en route is good and reasonably priced.
Other notable towns to visit in the area include Brioude (its wonderful Saint Julien Basilica has exciting modern stained-glass windows by Kim en Joong, a South Korean friar and artist), Ambert, Chamalières-sur-Loire, Saint-Paulien and Le Puy-en-Velay.
The “undiscovered” holiday destinations everyone is looking for are far and few between, but the area around La Chaise Dieu is truly one of them – especially for those seeking a breath of fresh air and new vistas post-lockdown.Favorite