The Center of Their Universe (Dennis Aubrey)


In France and Spain, if a medieval church is to be found in a town, it is most likely in the exact center of town. If the town happens to be built on a hill, you can be sure that the church will be found at the highest point.

Église Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur, Brousse-le-Chateau (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I have bad knees from many surgeries in a mis-spent youth and find it hard to walk on hills, either up or down. We also have a case full of photographic equipment to be hauled and tripods to be carried, so it has always been extremely unpleasant to park the car and climb up a steep hill to the church only to find an open square and a road right at the church. From these lessons in deduction, we discovered the Aubrey Theorem of Church Exploration – no matter what the church, there is always a road leading to it.

Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Dennis Aubrey

The Aubrey Theorem has a Corollary – one derived from hard empirical evidence – medieval towns were not built for automobiles. I know that this is a shock to some of you, but truth is truth. If you persist, as PJ and I do, in seeking out the most remote churches in France, you will discover that just because the road is called the “Grande Rue” doesn’t mean it is anything more than a passageway meant for a man walking a cow between two looming rows of leaning stone houses. And if it is called a “ruelle”, it is probably a narrow paved gutter.

Ruelle, Brousse-le-Chateau (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

We once decided to drive to the abbey church in Lavaudieu at the top of the hill in the center of that lovely town. We ignored many signs telling visitors where to park and entered the warren of narrow medieval streets. We mounted higher and higher until we came to a promising road that we followed for several hundred feet until we found ourselves at a T-intersection. As we stopped the car at the intersection, the wall of the house opposite appeared to be six feet away. There was no apparent way for us to make that particular turn but the Aubrey Theorem says that it was possible so we decided to try. It took a seven-point turn with the side windows folded flat (what we call “taking the ears in”) but we made it through the intersection with a tolerance that would have made a German tool and die maker proud. And to prove our efforts justified, we found an empty square with parking right in front of the Church. However we also found a much larger road entering the square from another direction!

Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The lesson learned in Lavaudieu was simple – when confronted by a seeming exception to the Aubrey Theorem, one must engage in additional reconnaissance. We applied this to our next challenge. Several times we have tried in vain to drive to the 12th Century Église Sainte-Croix of Champeix, just northwest of Issoire in the Puy de Dôme. There is a way to walk up the steep hill to the church through the old town, but as stated before, that is not an option for me. Besides, our ample experience told us that we could find a way in the car. We drove round and round the town and the only way that presented itself was a straight but exceedingly narrow alley, which we finally decided to hazard with the “ears in”.

We entered this alley and started mounting the heights. As we drove, the alley got narrower and narrower until it felt like we were being digested in the intestines of a large beast. It finally got so narrow that the car literally would not fit anymore, ears in or not. And since there was no place to turn around, we had to back our way out. This taxed both my nerves and driving skill and PJ’s patience. After what seemed like an eternity, we were slowly regurgitated onto a road designed to accept an automobile. We still have never gotten to the the Église Sainte-Croix!

Champeix demonstrated a clarification to the Aubrey Theorem – while there may be a road, it may not be passable for an automobile.

Església de San Jaume de Queralbs, Queralbs (Gerona) – Photo by PJ McKey

In the Spanish Pyrénées, we decided to visit the Iglésia Sant Pere in the small village of Olopte. As we mounted the hill in the center of town, we came to an intersection with what can only be described as a small concrete lane running down the steep hill to our left. It was little more than a sidewalk. However, where the two roads had met, the stone paving had crumbled leaving a deep and wide gap. To the right was a stone wall six or seven feet high. Further to the left, there was a steep hillside – the road was impassable.

We spotted a large square of plywood nearby, leaning against a wall. This could only mean one thing – it was meant to cover the hole! As I laid the old and pliant sheet across the hole, I felt it was not necessarily the kind of support I would have wanted for an automobile, but worth the risk.

We got back in the car and carefully drove over the makeshift bridge. I calculated that it was better to drive quickly across hoping that the less time spent on the improvised surface the better. We made it but the plywood appeared to have been seriously weakened. I wasn’t worried too much because I figured that coming down we could speed over it again without a problem.

We drove the hundred yards or so up the road to discover a dead end below a walking path to the church. We haulted out the equipment and trudged up the rest of the way to the church, only to find it locked! Ah, the curse of the Spanish Pyrénées. Most of the villages in the Catalan area had become tourist havens and the churches were closed. We took a few shots of the exterior and returned to the car.

La Grande Rue (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

At the car we discovered that we had a new problem. After several tries, it became clear that there was not enough room to turn the car around. I would have to back the car down the steep, narrow curving street while PJ got guided me from below. After an initial false start, we decided that we had to get our signals straight. “Right” for PJ meant a different thing than “right” for me, for example, but we agreed on a protocol and proceeded. She piloted me slowly backwards until we got to the board that covered the canyon (for now it seemed so) in the road. Here was the moment of truth, the moment that the bullfighter dreads – reaching over the horns of a charging bull to make the kill.

Passing over quickly was not an option. I had no choice but to inch along and it seemed to take an hour – first the left rear tire passed safely, and then the left front tire. I’m sure that if a trail of ants had subsequently tried to cross, the plywood would have disintegrated. When we emerged back into the flat lands, PJ got back into the car and we turned around. As we did, we saw a farmer and his family leaning on their gates, watching us. I guess we were their entertainment for the evening. We waved cheerfully to hide the relief we felt at getting back to safety without damaging the car. They waved right back, but I don’t think that they were fooled by our pretense.

This experience at Olopte revealed the final clarification of the Aubrey Theorem – even if there is a road leading to the church, it is sometimes more sensible to bite the bullet and walk instead of trying to drive.

Oh, and one more thing. There is a church in France, Le Puy’s Chapelle Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, that even I am convinced cannot be approached by automobile. It is the one exception to the Aubrey Theorem, and PJ had a wonderful time climbing up by herself to take photographs while I sat in a cafe below enjoying a Pernod.

La Chapelle Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, Le Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire) Photograph by Jean-Pol Grandmont (Courtesy of Creative Commons license)

27 responses to “The Center of Their Universe (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Thank you, Jennifer. It was fun thinking about all the little towns and villages that we have visited while shooting these churches. We appreciate your kind words.

  1. A wonderful post – blogging allows us to make capital from our disasters! But how frightfully un-PC they were in mediaeval times, not obeying the regulations requiring all public buildings to have disabled access! I too have difficulties with steep hills, and find my Nordic poles invaluable – not that I could carry the equipment while using them. Shopping for me involves a rucksack on my back.
    PS Your pictures were so marvellous they made me want to try and go there. Perhaps one of those disabled shopping trolleys they have in supermarkets might get me there….

    • Viv, glad you liked the post. We avoided disaster in these particular instances, although we weren’t quite so lucky in Le Puy. A minor issue with a damaged undercarriage and a tow truck, but that was in a parking lot! You must know well what it is like in some of those small towns. This year will be a challenge because my parents are coming, so we need to have an even larger vehicle. Gulp!

      • You can park near the cathedral in Coutances! Place du Parvis is a good place to start… Our Renault Kangoo seats 5 with masses of room for luggage. It is narrowish and turns on a sixpence.

  2. Dennis forgot to mention the look on the face of the gentleman at our usual car rental place..ok, yes we always have a scratch or two, ok call it a dent…yes we’ll be back next year. Sigh.

  3. Dennis, your post brought back smiles and memories of some hair-raising drives that I had to endure on steep hills, once going to Orcival, another time on the way to Sant Pere de Roda in Gerona. How treacherous some of these roads are leading to these less travelled churches. Thank you for your light-hearted and informative essay and wonderful photographs by you and PJ. Jong-Soung

    • Jong-Soung, we always have to worry about some of these places, but it is fun nonetheless. Foreigners have the same kind of reaction to the US, though. We had a French friend who was the postmaster in a tiny village in the southwest of France come to visit when I lived in Los Angeles. He took the bus from Tuscon and just before he arrived in Riverside County, the bus was highjacked by an armed lunatic who forced the bus back to Arizona. Who could ever convince him afterwards that the United States was not still plagued with outlaws and roving tribes of hostiles? He has personal experience that shows otherwise! And that story is good for many drinks in his village.

  4. That’s a lovely shot ‘Eglise Abbatiale Lavaudieu, Lavaudieu (Haute-Loire)’ Very appealing lighting. I always think that there is something somewhat enticing about an open doorway, leading out to… somewhere.

    • Thanks, Michael. Had a great time recalling our visits to write this post. And the doorway shot of Lavaudieu is one of my favorites as well. It was a complete accident to get the shot. We had shot for about three hours in the small church (it was our third church of the day) and I was exhausted. I packed up my cameras and sat at a pew in the back waiting for PJ to finish (she has the endurance of a long distance runner). I turned back to the door and saw the late afternoon light coming through through the door and just had to shoot it. The light held for the few minutes as I set up and this was the result. Two minutes later, the sun was below the houses across the square and the light changed completely. Serendipity.

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