The day started off with us hopping on the bus in Paris for a long day’s ride to Beaune, France; making stops at the commune of Vézelay and the Fontenay Abbey on the way.
I appreciated the stops we made, it just makes traveling so much easier, you know?
A little about Vézelay
Vézelay is a commune (town or village) that sits on top of a steep hill in north-central France, about 2.5 hours outside of Paris.
A long time ago, the very top of the hill housed a Benedictine Abbey with a chapel that contained the supposed remains of saint Mary Magdalene. Once people heard about this, Vézelay became one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites in Europe.
To this day, it’s one of the popular starting points on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
Hiking through Vézelay
I chose the word hiking because like I said before, the hill that Vézelay is situated on is STEEP!
The pale, cobbled streets have the same lovely small-town France feel that Chartres did, and there are flowers everywhere. Another similarity to Chartres is that Vézelay is well off the beaten track, and in the off season, our class seemed to be the only ones there. After a few minutes of huffing and puffing up the hill towards the center of town, we found a restaurant that was open and stopped for lunch.
I chose to try something called a galette for lunch. It’s basically a savory crêpe, but instead of the crêpe wrapping, it’s more of a pancake-like consistency. Mine had ham and cheese with a cream sauce on top, and it was FANTASTIC! I’ll definitely be getting more of these in the future.
I did feel bad for the woman running that place; when we went to pay, she was answering multiple phone calls and ringing up my card at the same, while two rowdy boys were clinging to her legs and yelling. I hope she’s doing okay.
Once we made to the top of the hill (and I caught my breath), we found ourselves in front of the abbey. Since our tour wasn’t for another half hour, we walked around the hilltop. Around the back of the abbey, there’s a stone wall on the edge of the hill that overlooks the half-patchwork, half-forested French countryside.
This would be an awesome place for a picnic!
Touring the Abbey
The main reason we were at the abbey was to study the artistic elements of the tympanum.
Unfortunately, it was under renovation. But fortunately, they’ve got a little viewing area set up where you can go up some stairs and see the renovators working on the tympanum through a window.
It was a bit dark, and a little hard to see, but I actually thought it was really cool to see the renovation process!
Inside, you can tell that it’s a Benedictine abbey and chapel because the walls are very plain. The only pops of color come from the striped, rounded arches and intricately carved historiated capitals. It really is a strange space considering how vast its interior is and how few decorations there are.
Under the altar is a crypt which holds a little vial-looking container with what I assume is Mary Magdalene’s bone dust. One half of the room is lined with benches so that you can reflect and pray to the bone dust (I think they discovered that it’s not actually Magdalene’s), and the other half is a small worship area with a crucifix where the monks pray. Beside the reliquary is a basket with paper and pencils where you can write prayer requests to Mary.
Entry to the church is free. For more info on operating hours, click here!
A little about the Fontenay Abbey
The Abbey of Fontenay is an old Cistercian abbey that’s about an hour east of Vézelay.
Unlike in Vézelay, the Fonteney Abbey has been incredibly well preserved. The abbey encompasses a tidy square plot, with nearly all of the original buildings intact; including a dormitory, cloister, a forge, and several gardens in addition to the chapel. When visiting, it’s easy to envision the community style of living that the monks led.
Another difference between Vézelay and the Fontenay Abbey is that while Vézelay’s complex is at the heart of the town, Fontenay is removed from the rest of civilization, although it’s only 5 minutes from the neighboring communes of Marmagne and Montbard.
Walking in the Footsteps of Monks
Our tour started out in the abbey’s church. Just like the previous church we’ve visited, it is plain to the nines, perhaps even more so than Vézelay. This is because monks, and especially the Cistercian variety, valued simplicity.
It does, however, contain the Virgin of Fontenay statue, a prized Burgundian sculpture. I thought it was neat because unlike almost all of the other depictions of the Virgin Mary, this one is smiling happily at her son.
After the church, we were allowed to explore the rest of the abbey on our own.
I walked through the dormitory, where the monks slept, and the forge where they completed artisanal tasks like welding and grain refinement. The machines in the forge are no longer used, but learning how self-sufficient the Cistercian monks were made this my favorite part of the abbey!
I can’t forget to talk about the gardens though!
UNESCO is doing a fantastic job here at the Fontenay Abbey, because the landscaping and gardens are PRISTINE. Not a single rock was out of place. The paths that zig-zag through the monastery kind of remind me of a hedge maze without the hedges, and after following a few of these paths, I realized that each path leads to a spring-fed fountain. These fountains all have red ivy growing around the edges, and fish are swimming around at the bottom.
It’s such a tranquil place to wander around by yourself, and I was so sad to have to leave.
Entry to the abbey is €10 per person (age 2 and under are free).
For more info on pricing and operating hours, click here!
Arriving in Beaune
We arrived in Beaune with no problems, though I can tell it’s getting colder because we’re getting into wintertime.
We’re staying at an Ibis hotel near the town center. The walls are so thin that you can hear your neighbors conversations very clearly, though the beds here are far more comfortable than my one at home, so I think I’ll be just fine 🙂
Beaune looks absolutely charming, and I can’t wait to start exploring tomorrow!
I especially enjoyed our short visits to both Vézelay and the Fontenay Abbey, although I’m glad we didn’t stay longer than a few hours at each place.
Vézelay especially impressed me. With good food, kind people, and stunning views, you’d be crazy not to stop if you’re passing through 😉
Visiting places like Vézelay and Chartres has taught me how stopping in smaller towns between big cities, or even just day-tripping to these places can add so much depth to your understanding of the diversity in the different countries that you travel though. It definitely has me reconsidering how I travel in the future!
(Sorry if my wording makes that too weird to understand, I’m still learning how to articulate myself when blogging)
Anyways, I’m loving France more and more every day! Today confirmed that good French food is not confined to Paris, and I can’t wait to eat my way through a new region.
Stay tuned to read about my adventures in Beaune!