All roads lead to Vezelay
High on the hillside overlooking the Cure Valley in Burgundy stands the historic 12th century village of Vezelay. Fifty kilometres from Auxerre, you can see the ancient fortress on the bank of the Cure River for miles as you approach.
This was one of the most memorable villages we explored in Burgundy. Not only for its historical significance, but the quaint charm of the medieval streets and buildings.
Vezelay was founded around the 9th century, its history tied to the Basilica. It is most famous for its spiritual significance as a gathering point for pilgrimages and crusades.
Parking at the bottom of the hill in the modern town, visitors then walk uphill to the ancient fortress. We found much later in the day that it is possible to drive all the way to the top and park behind the abbey. However we would have missed so much had we done this.
Rue St Etienne
The town is virtually one long, steep street. Rue St Etienne leads up to Vezelay’s main attraction, the Basilica of St Mary Magdalene. It was amazing to think that visitors have trodden this path for over a thousand years.
Climbing the hill past shops and cafes, we took the time to browse through an eclectic selection of arts and crafts, souvenir shops and little antique vendors. It was here Ian managed to haggle for an escargot cooker in very limited French. I’m not quite sure what he thought we were going to do with this on our return home.
Vezelay is a town steeped in history. There is something interesting around every corner. Some things are significant, others just quaint. It is easy to see why it has been hailed one of the prettiest villages in France.
As you stroll along the street you can see shells set in the ground. They are a symbol of the French pilgrims who set off to walk 1700 kilometres to St James Santiago de Compostella in Spain. Rusty iron gates lead to secluded garden courtyards. Quaint old buildings are shuttered against the summer heat.
The narrow street leads to the Basilica of Vezelay
Exploring the ancient streets of Vezelay
In Borot Square we came across the ancient St Peter’s clock tower. The lane way was a scene from the movie “Don’t look now we’re being shot at.” The church was demolished in 1803, however the remaining clock tower was once the town watchtower.
Vezelay became home to a number of notable artists, writers and creatives over the years.
As you wander the alleyways, you come across plaques denoting the former homes of famous residents. Such as writer, Theodore de Beze, who lived in Vezelay in 1519.
Basilica of St Mary Magdalene
Dominating the hillside of Vezelay is the UNESCO World Heritage Basilica of St Mary Magdalene.
The Benedictine Abbey was founded in the 9th century and is the resting place of the relics of St Mary Magdalene.
It was a popular medieval pilgrimage destination and was the starting point for the second and third crusades
The largest Romanesque church in France, many of the monastic buildings were destroyed during the wars and revolutions over the years. Only the basilica, cloister and dormitories were saved.
However crumbling ruins of other buildings can still be seen around the grounds.
Romanesque sculptures adorn the semicircular arch (tympanums) over the Basilica door and the pillar tops.
Once inside, the church is flooded with natural light. The nave, constructed in 1120 is one of the oldest part of the church. The crypt below is said to hold the relics of Mary Magdalene.
These are not however the relics which drew thousands of medieval pilgrims, as these were destroyed during religious wars during the 16th century. The Archbishop of Sens presented replacement relics in 1876, which were originally a gift from Pope Martin VI to the Sens Diocese in 1281.
By the 19th century, the Basilica had fallen into a state of disrepair. Massive restoration works were undertaken, with additional features added at this time.
The town of Vezelay today still exhibits its faithful origins, with religious artefacts available in many shops around the Basilica.
View from Basilica Terrace
Strolling behind the Abbey, you come to the terrace with remnants of the town ramparts and panoramic views across Morvan Regional National Park in Burgundy.
The scene looks like one great patchwork quilt of rolling farmland, smaller villages and vineyards in Burgundy below.
King Philippe Auguste of France and Richard the Lionheart of England, two of the most powerful sovereigns of their time, met here in 1190 to depart on the Third Crusade.
These ancient ramparts are a truly awe inspiring location. So much history, natural beauty and legend to soak in at one truly amazing place.
Benedictine Abbey Ruins
Strolling further around the ramparts you discover the crumbling remnants of the ancient abbey.
Now a terraced rose garden, you can still see the spaces where the monks and pilgrims worked and prayed over a thousand years ago.
Crumbling stone walls of former Vezelay Abbey
Heading down the hill, you will find no shortage of shady courtyards, cafes and restaurants in which to enjoy a relaxing lunch.
Compared to most of the other villages we visited, Vezelay is very “touristy”. You can purchase everything from a statue of St Mary Magdalene to a pilgrim shell as a souvenir of your visit. However, this does provide a living for the 500 or so residents of this somewhat isolated town, who have endured hordes of visitors tramping up their main street for centuries.