Historic Villages on Walking holidays in the Auvergne
This article takes a close look at a couple of the delightful historic villages in the French region of Auvergne: Orcival & Besse
Orcival is a pretty historic village nestled in the Sioulet valley in the Auvergne region of central France. It is worth a detour in its own right even if you were not passing through on a French walking holiday, with well preserved stone houses built from dark volcanic rock which have kept their original features and charm. It is best known, however, for its stunning Romanesque Basilica.
The land at Orcival in the Puy de Dome area of Auvergne was the property of the local lords and then the Dauphin d’Auvergne until 1243. In the 11th century, a church situated to the east of the Orcival had a statue of the Virgin Mary which was passionately worshiped. Legend says that it was sculpted by Saint Luc, the patron saint of painters and sculptors. The Basilica was probably built during the early 12th century, some say due to the increasing number of pilgrims coming to the village. The Basilica Notre-Dame became the new home of the statue, preserved today behind the granite high alter and still attracts pilgrims, particularly on Ascension Thursday. On the eve of Ascension the pilgrims witness a torch light procession and a midnight mass. Some attribute to this church the power to heal and bless. In thanksgiving for released prisoners, chains have been hung from the arcades in the southern part of the transept.
One of our hiking trails on our self-guided walking holiday in France in Auvergne starts at Rochefort Montagne and ascends to the ridges above a number of picturesque glaciated valleys. The walking trail then descends to the village of Orcival via a number of steps lined by shrines, representing the stations of the cross. Our guided walking holiday in Auvergne - Amazing Auvergne will also visit the area.
During the walk it is worth visiting the basilica. On the outside of the church, the many tiers of the rear part of the building rise up to the spire (truncated during the revolution) of the octagonal bell tower. The very beautiful east end has four radiating apsidal chapels, one encompassing, on the south side, the crypt. The panels of the three doors still have their Romanesque hinges and ironwork; the most elaborate with ornamental foliage and human heads, are on the south door. Inside, the most striking features are the slender pillars and the disposition of windows and light. The vaulting is varied throughout the Basilica. It is domed in the transept and supported by eight slender columns topped by elegant foliate capitals.
BESSE is one of the prettiest and oldest villages in the Auvergne region. Its fascinating winding streets of noble lava-built houses – some as old as the fifteenth century – sit atop the valley of the Couze de Pavin, with one of the original fortified town gates still in place at the upper end of the village. The town is the starting point for one of the walking trails on our self guided walking holiday in this beautiful region of central France. The walk explores delightful upland countryside before reaching the beautiful Lac Pavin.
Its wealth was due to its role as the principal market for the farms on the eastern slopes of the Mont Dore, and its co-operative is still one of the main producers of St Nectaire cheese. The annual festivals of the Montée and Dévalade, marking the ascent of the herds to the high pastures in July and their descent in autumn, are still celebrated by the procession of the Black Virgin of Vassivière from the church of St-André in Besse to the chapel of La Vassiviere, west of Lac Pavin, and back again in autumn (July 2 & the first Sun after Sept 21).
The Church of Saint André is a Roman and Gothic style building dating from the 12th century. Its chancel dates from 1555. It contains the statue of the Notre Dame de Vassivière (see above). The Belfry is a symbol of the former richness of the town. Its ground floor is square whilst above, the bell tower is in the form of an octagon.
The old houses in the town are built from a dark lava and decorated by red shutters (as is the local tradition). Some houses are roofed with volcanic stones (lauzes) made of Phonolite. These can be large and very heavy, requiring large beams. Above some doors you’ll find sculptures or coats of arms for the richer families.
As well as forming part of our independent France walking holidays - Volcanoes, lakes & historic villages, and Summits of Auvergne: Tour of Sancy, these villages and the trails will be explored during our level two guided walking holiday in the French Auvergne region.