Five reasons to visit Cluny - the Medieval gem of France
March 10, 2019
by Giedre Madsen
Do you know where the biggest church in the world once stood? No? Would you believe it was in Cluny – a little town, situated in the southern part of Burgundy?
Next time you visit France, be sure to reserve a day or two in between exploring Paris or chilling on the sandy beaches of its Mediterranean coast and visit the place in between. After all, even the late president of France Francois Mitterrand found it worthy enough to bring the former leader of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev to Cluny during his visit to France.
No convinced yet? Let me give you five reasons why Cluny should be in your bucket list of places to discover.
1. Cluny Abbey and Church
Cluny is the most famous for its abbey founded in 910. It was one of the most influential congregations in entire Europe, with around a thousand monasteries scattered around France. Even the famous Cardinal Richelieu was once the abbot of Cluny. And yes, the abbey church, which took several centuries to reach its ultimate glory, was the largest church in the world until the day Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome snatched the title.
Unfortunately, the French Revolution did not spare the abbey, and especially its majestic church. It was destroyed and sold as construction materials (they say half of the Cluny has been built from those stones). When there was hardly anything left, a road, going through the heart of the church, buried the remaining history under layers of dirt. Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, an American archaeologist Kenneth J. Conant initiated the excavation.
Today only the right bell tower of the church still stands, but it is easy to imagine its former size with the help of special street tiles marking the locations of its walls and columns. Besides, once you visit the museum, you can watch a short 3D movie which recreates the entire medieval masterpiece in front of your eyes.
2. Haras National – the National Stud Farm of Cluny
Napoleon may have unwillingly contributed to the destruction of the Abbey church by ordering to demolish some part of its ruins to make space for the National Stables he chose to locate in Cluny, but today it is an equally exciting attraction. The stallions are one of the best in entire France. Their majestic stature and size are hard to describe. It’s best to see them, but I am sure they will leave you in awe. When summer arrives, and during Christmas period, the place turns into a stage with equestrian shows and theatrical performances – the symbiosis of acrobatics, dance, music, and human-animal connection, attracting crowds of spectators.
3. Streets that Breathe History
If you are not keen on visiting museums or stables, I can recommend you one of my favorite activities in Cluny – to simply walk the narrow streets, gazing at houses from different centuries. The oldest of them are close to reaching their thousand years of existence. Those houses are a perfect example of the Romanesque architecture of the region. Some of them are more famous than others, but nearly every street has one or two of them. Forget the map, and go exploring. Trust me, you won’t get lost, and if you do, local people will always be there to help you.
4. Vibrant Atmosphere and Culture
There may be many aspects of what defines an alluring place, but nobody could argue that people are an essential part of it. Cluny may be a town of only 5000 inhabitants, but unlike any other small town I had been to, it is always lively. Certainly, the students of the Paris Tech university campus in Cluny, located in one of the former abbey buildings, add a fresh breeze to daily lives. They are also easy to spot as they all wear grey robe-like jackets, each individually decorated with texts and images – an original uniform meant to unify student of different social backgrounds.
But there is no denying the town itself has a special aura. The inhabitants are proud of its history, and they love to enjoy a glass of wine or aperitif outside, chatting with their friends and strangers alike.
There is hardly a day in summer where no cultural event is happening. Art expositions, performances, cinema, jazz and other music festivals, horse riding competitions, vintage car owners’ meetings, even the annual meeting of the Leonberger dog breed owners and their animals – you name it. And I could easily point out the weekend market as another place worth visiting. Not only it is the best place to find and buy local produce, but it is also, above all, a place to socialize.
5. Food and Wine
And what better way of socializing than enjoying a meal together. Burgundy is famous for its food and wines. And the little town of Cluny could proudly compete with Parisian restaurants. I counted at least twenty places you can eat or drink in Cluny, but I am sure I missed some. There is food for every taste from pancakes, pizzas, sandwiches to a traditional and gourmet French cuisine. Some of the restaurants proudly feature in the Michelin Restaurant Guide with excellent reviews.
If there is one dish that all my friends, who come to visit, have to try – it’s the Burgundy snails cooked in butter with parsley and garlic. It usually arrives in a special plate of six or twelve snails. Trust me; it’s not gross; it’s delicious! Especially if you pair it with a glass of Chardonnay produced in one of the wineries surrounding Cluny.
Bonus: Castles and Vineyards
How was I supposed to end this without a bonus reason, now that I mentioned the wines and vineyards? Especially when they are so easy to visit via an old railroad that was turned into a bicycle and pedestrian lane stretching for more than fifty kilometers, and passing Cluny. Just rent a bike and go exploring.
If you head south, you will surely not miss the sight of a castle worthy of being in any movie or fairy-tale. Chateau de Berzé is an impressive fortress with its fourteen towers, and it is only a few kilometers away. Continue further, and you will find yourself amid vineyards and wineries. Feel free to visit them and taste their wine (it’s free). Just don’t forget you are driving!
If you head north, make sure to stop in Cormatin – another cozy town with its beautiful seventeenth-century castle and gardens. The former mill just outside the castle borders is now a gallery selling everything from paintings, sculptures, clothing, and jewelry to soaps, perfumes, and, of course, different eatable treats from around the region. It is a great place to find an original gift or souvenir, made by French creators and small producers.
There is no shortage of sleepover possibilities ranging from fancy hotels to a camping site with an outdoor pool open to everybody in summer. But I would always recommend renting a room (Chambres d’Hotes) in a private house or B&B to experience the hospitality of local people.
Cluny has three supermarkets and some smaller grocery shops, plenty of cash machines, banks, and, of course, a tourist office where you will find all the information you may need.
Traveling to Cluny from Paris is a piece of cake. Just hop onto the fast train leaving Paris Gare de Lyon station, and you will get off at Macon Loché station one and a half hour later. Take a bus going to Cluny from there (the bus timelines are conveniently linked to the train timelines), and soon you will be standing in the middle of this hidden gem of France.