• HOME

  • FRANCE 2012


    We overslept this morning.  It was 9:00 before we got up.  We went downstairs for breakfast – 10 minutes before they stopped serving.  All they had left was cereal, yogurts, 2 pieces of ham and a variety of breads and a few cheeses.

    We wanted to see the Treasury in the Cathedral yesterday but it was closed on Tuesday so we walked the two blocks to the cathedral and went into the treasury which had lots of gold and silver vessels and the vestments of Thomas Becket.

    We checked out of our Sens hotel and got our car from the attached garage.  We found that we could not get both suitcases in the hatchback trunk, so we had to put one in the back seat which doesn’t provide much security when we stop.

    Our GPS got us on all of right roads.   It was about 80 miles to Vezelay.  Most of it was on major tolls roads.  When we got off the toll road, we came to the toll gate which was unmanned.  We stuck our ticket in the slot and then a credit card in another slot…it would not take our card, and then I dropped it on the road.  I had to pull over while my wife got out of car to get the card and try again.  In the mean time traffic was backing up behind us.  Some voice was telling us what to do, so we decided to try cash---it finally  worked and the gate opened and everyone behind us was very happy…so were we.  We have decided that our American credit cards won’t work  in certain places because most European credit cards have chips in them.

    We drove on little local roads for about 20 miles.  They were almost deserted and rather narrow.  It was amazing to see Vezelay and the church sitting high on a hill as we drove along.


    We finally got to Vezelay and found our hotel-hotel Le  Compostelle.  It is quaint little hotel with only 18 rooms.  Our room is rather small with a loft with rather steep steps. We never used the loft. There is only one other hotel in this little town. There are only a couple of streets -one is the main street that goes up to the Abby church or as it is now called a Basilica (1920)…..it is very steep and quite a distance. 

    We started walking up to the church and found a little shop where we bought quiches for lunch.  We were told that we could drive up and park, so we went back and took the car. It was some distance and quite steep. 

    Vezelay's got its name from a certain Vercellus, a landed proprietor who lived there in the 4th or 5th century. In 860 Benedictine monks settled at Vezelay on top of the hill. When the Saracens invaded Provence, some history and legends report that a monk called Badillon was sent to St. Maximin to bring back the relics of Mary Magdalene which were venerated there.

    The Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene 

    In 878 Pope John VIII dedicated the first church of the monastery, which was later burned down by the Normans at the beginning of the 10th century. The Abby was having a hard time existing when in 1037 Abbott Geoffroy, on the festival day, displayed the relics of Mary Magdalene. Miracles took place, news spread quickly, and pilgrims came in droves. The fame of Vezelay, one of the four French roads that lead to Santiago de Compostela, became equal to that of Rome and Jerusalem. The visitors were so numerous that it became necessary to consider the construction of a large church capable of giving them shelter.  

    Abbott Artaud undertook the building of the Abby in 1096 and the dedication took placein 1104. It is reported that because the residents were so heavily taxed that they revolted and killed the Abbott. In 1120, his successor reconstructed the nave which had been destroyed by fire, in which 1200 persons were burned alive. The narthex or porchwas built to lodge the pilgrims. At this time the population numbered about 6000 inhabitants of whom 800 were monks.

      On Easter Sunday, March 31, 1146, St. Bernard, Abbott of Clairvaux  preached the second crusade on the north slope of the hill, where 100,000 warriors and peasants were assembled.

      In 1166, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury pronounced the excommunication of King Henry II of England. Becket had spent 6 years in nearby Sens Cathedral (see yesterday's comments ). In 1190 the French and English armies of Philip–Augustus and Richard the Lionhearted started on the third Crusade.

    In 1267 the entire body of Mary Magdalen was discovered at St. Maximum where Abbott Geoffroy had found the original relics. Pilgrims were now bypassing Vezelay and the Abbey fell on hard times The Abby was secularized in 1537 and in the monks replaced by a College of Canons. The town having become a Protestant ( Huguenot) fortress was not spared by the religious wars. It also had to stand the siege of Catholic armies. The Huguenots destroyed the front left tower of the Basilica. The apse was used as a riding school. The statues on the outside were mutilated as well as the interior portal and the furniture was sold at auction

    The ruined and abandoned Basilica Was ready was ready to collapse in the middle of the 19th century. With the threat of being torn down, restoration began in 1840 was finished in 1861 by architect Viollet–le–Duc.  

    The Vezelay Basilica certainly has had an interesting history. Several years ago I took an art course at the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program in Washington DC, entitled: "The Age of Faith: Art in the Middle Ages" taught by Judy Scott Feldman. Dr. Feldman had lived in Vezelay while working on her dissertation. She brought her experiences and descriptions to our class. I never thought of that I would be actually visiting Vezelay in person one day. I am indebted to her enthusiasm about this wonderful church and community.

    After driving up the steep hill, we found a parking place right in front of the Abby church. The first thing that one notices is that there is only a right side tower. We were immediately drawn to the exterior tympanum of Viollet-le-Duc which depicts the Last Judgment. In the center is Christ in Glory seated upon the throne with his arms extended. Around him are the four symbols of the Evangelists. To the left of Christ the souls of the dead are being weighed in the presence of Satan who adds his weight against them, while the demons lead the condemned souls to Hell. At the right of Christ, the souls of the righteous are welcomed by the Virgin Mary and are directed by angels towards St. Peter who opens the gates of Paradise. Several scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene are represented on the lintel.

    Between the two towers and above the central portal there is a pediment dating from the 13th century which contains statues of St. John, St. Andrew, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Benedict. At the very top Christ is enthroned and surrounded by angels with the Virgin Mary and St. Mary Magdalene.

     The center portal was closed so we had to enter by the north portal (left side). Immediately inside is a very large narthex. In most churches a narthex is like a covered porch before entering the nave. In Vezelay, the narthex is larger than some churches that we have visited. It was built this large to accommodate the large crowds that gathered during the time of the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. In the narthex there are a number of columns with interesting capitals.  

    The center portal leading to the nave also has a wonderful tympanum sculpture which dates from 1125 – 1130. The theme is Pentecost. The rays, which an enormous Christ sends out from his hands, opened in benediction and welcome, touch the heads of the apostles, conferring the spirit. There are seven compartments surrounding the center with representatives of various peoples. Above that are the signs of the zodiac. We could've spent all day admiring these unique sculptures.

    Next we enter the nave which is quite large – 200 feet long and 60 feet high. There are 10 groin vaults separated by heavy semicircular ribs of alternating white and colored stone.


    The pillars which separate the central and side aisles have capitals which tell wonderful Biblical stories. This photo shows Moses at the grinding mill

    The choir,totally different from the nave , was built at the end of the 12th century. Here the Gothic style can be seen with its pointed arches, and 20 windows and vaulting ribs.

    Around the walls are 15 wooden crosses. The story of the crosses is a touching one. In 1946, at the end of the Second World War, many European Christians made a pilgrimage on foot to Vézelay in a spirit of peace and forgiveness. The pilgrims from many countries carried wooden crosses, fourteen in all. On their arrival at Vezelay, German prisoners of war, being held in a camp nearby, asked to join the procession. They were allowed to do so, and a fifteenth cross was hastily made, and they joined the 30,000 people assembled here praying for reconciliation and a peaceful Europe. This photo is of the 15th cross along with a photo of the sign explaining its significance.


    We walked around the outside.  The cathedral overlooks a huge valley below. We stopped in the gift shop where we bought a book.

    We had dinner reservations at a nice restaurant,  about a block away from our hotel – A La Fortune Du Pot.  We had foie gras and a delicious egg appetizer then I had Beef Burgundy and my wife had lamb plus apple tart for dessert.

    We came back to the hotel and had to enter a code in the box by the front door to get in.  The streets were deserted.  



    Day 1 - Paris

    Day 2 - Sens

    Day 3 - Vezelay 

    Day 4 - Abbey Fontenay, Semur-en-Auxois, Vezelay -

    Day 5 - Beaune

    Day 6 - Beaune, Autun, Citeaux, Chateau du Clos Vougeot-

    Day 7 - Cluny  

    Day 8 - Cluny 

    Day 9 - Paray-le-Monial and Clermont-Ferrard

    Day 10 - Le Puy-en-Velay 

    Day 11 - Avignon 

    Day 12 - Avignon to Nimes

    Day 13 - Avignon

    Day 14 - Marseille

    Day 15 - Marseille

    Day 16 - Marseille

    Day 17 - Marseille to Aigues-Mortes

    Day 18 - Carcassonne 

    Day 19 - Carcassonne to Toulouse  (posted 10/6/15)

    Day 20 - Toulouse

    Day 21 - Albi

    Day 22 - Toulouse