Lavoute-Chilhac – historic village
Lavoute-Chilhac is located on the river Allier.
The little town consists of two distinct districts, the medieval town and the ‘new’ district.
Lavoute-Chilhac was once an active trading town that served the neighbouring hamlets and villages of Saint-Cirgues and Bassac.
However, it greatly suffered from the economic decline that occurred after WWI.
The rural exodus of the 1960s sadly amplified this decline.
Lavoute-Chilhac immediately counteracted by becoming one of the first towns to welcome the establishment of a Village Vacances.
The town has recently incurred significant improvement work.
This includes the restoration of historic buildings such as the priory, the burying of power lines and paving of its medieval streets in order to compete for the prestigious label Plus Beaux Villages de France.
Lavoute-Chilhac – Medieval district
The medieval district is nestled in a meander of the Gorges de l’Allier and is laid out like a fortified city.
The first Prieuré Sainte-Croix-de-Volte was erected in 1025 on the site of the old fortress.
However, numerous vestiges of this castle, that once stood on the edge of the meander and commanded the river Allier, are still visible.
The imposing U-shaped priory therefore overlooks the village and the river.
This historic area is pedestrian, so you can stroll at leisure along the narrow lanes or traboules.
They swirl between ancient buildings and shops and lead to the Place des Vieux Moulins.
The village square is located between the river and the southern facade of the Prieuré Sainte-Croix-de-Volte.
It took its name after the water-mills that were destroyed by floods in the early 20th century.
One of these picturesque lanes leads to the arched bridge that links the medieval town to the left bank.
The 15th century bridge has retained one of its original 11th century arches and was classified Historical Monument in 1926.
Lavoute-Chilhac – ‘New’ district
The left bank is the second district that developed in the 19th century.
It is laid out along a single track that follows the bed of the river.
It was used to be lined with shops, when Lavoute-Chilhac was an active trading town.
All that is left of this thriving era are countless storefronts, today incorporated into private dwellings.
The houses that overhang the river will surprise you with their impressive height.
They were all built over two or three levels of cellars.
These were indeed designed in order to fill in with water during the frequent floods and therefore prevent the buildings’ structure from collapsing under the force of the currents.
The history of Lavoute-Chilhac is, however, centered on the Prieuré Sainte-Croix-de-Volte, which was founded in 1025.
Odilon de Mercoeur was the 5th abbot of the Abbey of Cluny and member of a predominant Auvergne dynasty.
He bequeathed his land of Lavoute-Chilhac and Saint-Cergues to the Order of Cluny to found the priory.
All that is left of the original Romanesque priory church is the Porte Saint-Odilon, which was retained when the priory was rebuilt in 1460.
The church also contains another feature dating from the mid-12th century, a superb polychrome Cross.
The Order of Cluny undertook important expansion work during the 18th century.
The French Revolution interrupted this work, which was therefore conducted in two distinct phases.
The imposing U-shaped priory fortunately escaped destruction!
It was eventually classified Historical Monument in 1862.
One of the reasons for its protection was that the Gothic church became an important site of pilgrimage as of July 8, 1496.
The legend of Notre-Dame Trouvée
An exceptional event indeed took place that day!
Two young girls were playing at breaking stones on the banks of the Allier, when they discovered that the breaking lines of one of the pebbles created the shape of a woman carrying a child on her left arm.
The bishop of the Diocese of Saint-Flour immediately recognized this as the image of the Virgin and the Child Jesus.
Many miracles and healing were soon attributed to Notre-Dame Trouvée (Our Lady who was found), as the pebble relic became known.
For centuries it therefore attracted pilgrims from all over France who came to Lavoute-Chilhac in order to implore the Virgin.
This pebble, which is only 15mm in size, now rests in a golden reliquary created by one of the best jewelers of the time.
It is kept in the church’s Treasure.
Notre-Dame Trouvée is still celebrated on the first Sunday in July with a procession and a prayer, as well as a reconstruction in situ on the site of its discovery.
Tip: You’ll have stunning views of the town from the nearby hamlet of Le Bois; Follow the road to Ally, then turn left at the first junction.
Haute-Loire department – Auvergne
Coordinates: Lat 45.147678 – Long 3.401795