Sometimes, it’s the places of which I have least expectations that surprise me the most. This is what happened when I visited the towns of Issoire and Brioude.
I had some inkling that they might be special as they are listed in a Michelin published, French guide book that I had acquired called, “The 100 Most Beautiful Detours of France”. Only 30 kilometres apart and easily accessible from the A75 Mediterranean Motorway, it certainly turned out to be a delightful detour.
Saint Austremoine D’Issoire is also listed as one of the Five Major Churches of Romanesque Art in the Diocese of Clermont, along with Saint Nectaire which I had the pleasure to visit two years ago. But what makes Saint Austremoine special is the beautifully painted columns, adorned with equally exquisite capitals which, although reminiscent of medieval decoration, were actually painted in the 19th century. Outside, the stonework is just as captivating, with black and white designs and sculpted reliefs depicting zodiac signs.
The Basilica of Saint Julien in Brioude also features colourful columns, but the faded frescoes indicate a much older origin. Superbly sculpted capitols depict soldiers fighting or mythical creatures, and the paved floor is like a stone carpet throughout the church. Even the choice of different coloured sandstones for the main construction adds to the beauty of the building. However, the finest religious art is accessed through a locked door and a spiral stone staircase which leads to the balcony chapel of St Michel. Here, the ceiling has been adorned with the most marvellous painting of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by adoring followers. The colours seem fresh and bright it seems as though it was painted yesterday rather than the 13th century.
Unfortunately, the original stained glass windows were destroyed during the French Revolution but, in 2008, contemporary designs by a Korean, Dominican monk were installed. They only serve to add more colour to this stunning religious place.