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Mystic Burgundy

journeys through time

We take four journeys through time and look at a defining influence in Burgundy, spirituality, revealing the very roots of this mystical place 

A Route to VezelayThe Age of Man

Our journey begins in the north eastern corner of Burgundy in Châtillon-sur-Seine, a wooded region with gently rolling hills concealing literally a wealth of history.

Just up the road at Vix archaeologists found the tomb of a princess with her chariot, jewellery and the most amazing vase, 1.64m high (5 ft) made of bronze.

Dating back to 6C BCE this is the most lavish of all the Celtic exhibits found so far and it has been rehoused in the Abbey Notre Dame close to the centre of Châtillon, an old shell of a religious building with a contemporary museum inside and state of the art fixtures and fittings.

This museum, the Musee du Châtillonnais exhibits many early archaeological finds from the Côte d’Or including a selection of ex-votos. These statues, often in the form of body parts were offered to a deity or saint as a form of prayer or wish, maybe as a thank you for an answered prayer and a return to health. They are early signs of the spiritual undertones of the region. At the Source of the Seine, a few miles from the town of Châtillon dozens more were discovered including a statue of the goddess Sequana, and these are displayed in another impressive museum space in another abbey, St Bénigne in Dijon.

Alesia from the airFrom the Châtillonnais the route takes us to Alésia where the Celtic warrior Vercingétorix was defeated by the Romans at the battle to end all battles. It marks the end of one civilization and the rise of another. Christianity was only just taking hold of the region but over the next ten centuries the monasteries were to become dominant and powerful. Visit the Abbey of Fontenay, close to Alésia with its restored Cisterian abbey still exuding peace and tranquillity, and the medieval town of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain where you will hear Gregorian chants wafting through the air, and monks scurrying about their business.

Wine had been produced since Roman times in Burgundy but the Benedictine monks  left a lasting legacy when they introduced the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape varieties to the region. Being astute, the monks also realized that the wine from certain parts of the vineyard was better than others and divided the land up into ‘parcels’ according to aspect, soil, orientation etc. This became the concept of ‘terroir’ so important in Burgundy today and many of the demarcations still exist. The Clos de Vougeot is one such example. The monks at Cîteaux Abbey nearby still produce cheese today.

Ancient and Modern

Leaving the Côte d’Or we head south to the Saône-et-Loire region and the journey through time takes on a worldwide approach. Buddhism and Orthodox icons come into the frame together with the oldest and the newest forms of Christianity.

The monastery of Cluny was once the greatest power in Europe, controlling over 10,000 monks from Poland to Scotland. The abbey today is a ghost of the past - only one tenth of the gigantic cathedral remains. This was the first monastery in Burgundy, started by the Benedictine monks in 910AD with over 1000 monks in residence in its heyday. Such was the might of Cluny that it controlled the lives of multi thousands of people in affiliated monasteries throughout Christendom. Some Cluniac buildings and churches are well preserved, but the French Revolution exacted a brutal toll on many others although some 90 member towns and sites remain across Europe.

As a result of Cluny’s greatness, there is magnificent Romaneque architecture throughout the region. Take the cathedral in Autun, prized for its capitals and gargoyles. Paray-le-Monial and Tournus in this area also have important abbeys. There is a pretty Romanesque church at the centre of every village scene, particularly in southern Burgundy and some display frescos in varying states of repair.

But it is not all old news. Drive past the lazy Charolais cattle in the gently rolling countryside south of Chalon-sur-Saône which is dotted with farms and little hamlets and it comes as a complete surprise to find hundreds of young people milling around chatting and laughing in the village of Taizé. There are wooden huts, camping sites and assorted buildings housing this famous religious community where people gather from all over the world.

TaizeTaizé is a Christian community which was founded in 1940 by Pastor Schutz, known as Brother Roger. He came to the village when he was 25 years old and began helping refugees during the Second World War. After the war, other Brothers joined him and the community was formed. Now there are over 100 Brothers from 25 nations and Catholics and Protestants alike come to participate there. In 1986 the late Pope John Paul II paid a visit to this tiny village and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams visited with his family, showing just how important of work of the Brothers is thought to be.

Another very active centre lies close to Autun amidst the pine forest. Drive along and  the golden pinnacle and colourful stepped roof line of the largest Buddhist temple in Europe appear through the greenery. As you enter the grounds of the Temple des Mille Bouddhas, Dashang Kagyu Ling, the prayer flags rustle in the breeze. You could be in Bhutan. Here there are 11 lamas at the centre, plus 30 lay residents. Ten men and five women are on retreat for the traditional three years, three months and three days following a rigorous and structured rhythm of life. Visitors are welcome for a shorter stay and yoga courses are on offer.

Perched on top of the world at Uchon, with views looking toward the Morvan Forest, the Serbian Orthodox Centre Saint-Hilaire can be found. This is a monastic centre for studying iconography. Modern frescoes adorn the chapel and refectory and there is an exhibition and workshop showing Byzantine art. Open to visitors at the weekend.

The ‘Founder’ of Lourdes

Heading to the Nièvre, the south western flank of Burgundy, there are two places of note. The medieval town of Charité-sur-Loire has the abbey Notre Dame at its heart, part of the Cluny dynasty. This is a UNESCO Heritage Site under the Santiago de Compostela listing.
Hugging the banks of the Loire, this is the most picturesque of all the towns along this stretch of the mighty river.

Then down the road in Nevers you will find a major pilgrimage site. Bernadette Soubirous, a simple country girl in Lourdes claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared 18 times to her. Several miracles occurred as a result of this and Lourdes then became a famous place for pilgrims. Persuaded of her calling, she became a nun at St. Gildard, a convent of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. She died there in 1879, was beatified and later canonised in 1933. Her body has lain at the Espace Bernadette Soubirous , 34 Rue St-Gildard since 1925 and every year half a million people stop at the shrine.

The Mystic Heart of Burgundy

Lake St. Agnan, Morvan Natural ParkHeading north into the Yonne department, our journey back in time begins at Les Fontaines Salées. On the banks of the River Cure, Les Fontaines Salées had been an important Roman spa since the first century AD, and as the name suggests, the source of mineral deposits. But before the Romans – even before the Celts - going back to Neolithic times - the miraculous springs were also a source of great wonder. This was an ancient place of worship, and thought to be one of the most important healing sanctuaries in Gaul.

But today, Les Fontaines Salées lies totally in the shadow of Vézelay, quite one of the most charming small towns in the whole region. In summer geraniums cascade from the balconies, there are boutiques and cafes, tourists and pilgrims. For this is where the Crusades set off from in the 12thC and the relics of Mary Magdalene are supposed to be lying. Centred around the magnificent Basilica Ste Marie-Madeleine, this is the mystic heart of Burgundy. On the route to Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims follow the scallop shell markings in the pavements as they continue on their pilgrimage.

In this region too you have the Chablis vineyards which were first planted by the monks from the Abbey of Pontigny, and the towns of Sens and Auxerre, both important bishoprics in their time.

As a consequence, this area remains a popular place to go on retreat. At the Abbaye de la Pierre qui Vire in the Morvan Natural Park, the Benedictine brothers have a flourishing guest wing.  For a retreat of a different nature the gentle countryside of the Puisaye in Burgundy provides just the right environment for serious meditation. A Vipassana centre was set up here in 1988, providing ten day courses throughout the year to help men and women to be at peace with themselves. This is the Dhamma Mali Centre where complete silence is the order of the day, a harsh discipline to adhere to and not everyone’s cup of tea. Most of the teaching is in French but some of the courses are held in English and Khmer.

Spiritual Burgundy continues today adding alternative therapies and meditation to the traditional. No matter what your beliefs, the effect of religion over the centuries has permeated through the veins of life and is still alive and well.

Article first commissioned by www.burgundy4U.com