In the south-east of the Morvan is Autun, a cosy town of some 15,000 inhabitants. Many people going to the Morvan Regional Nature Park pass through the town without stopping there. That’s a shame, because Autun has a rich history with impressive monuments from ancient times. But you will also find a beautiful cathedral and charming squares with nice restaurants and shops. So, make a stop in Autun and enjoy the typically French atmosphere of the city.
History of Autun
The Celts were the first inhabitants of Autun. The Haedui, a Celtic tribe, founded the settlement a century before our era. It became their new capital, succeeding nearby Bibracte.
The Romans conquered the city and named it Augustodunum. Roman leader Augustus wanted to make Rome’s power evident in Gaul. Therefore, large buildings, temples and a theatre were erected in the city. A great wall surrounded the city with more than 50 towers and four city gates. In the centuries that followed, Autun was regularly pillaged. Germanic tribes, Saracens and Normans destroyed the city in their raids.
In the Middle Ages, Autun was an important religious site in the Duchy of Burgundy. A magnificent cathedral sprang up and the city flourished and grew. Because of the important religious function Autun had, a grand seminary was built. After the French Revolution, the building was given various functions. For a time, for instance, it was a school where Napoleon Bonaparte spent several months as a lecturer.
Sights of Autun
If you want to visit Autun’s ancient highlights, you will find out how big the city was some 2,000 years ago. Because these Roman monuments are all located outside the medieval centre. But it would be a shame to skip them for that reason. You can get there easily by bus or with your own car.
Temple of Janus
This temple from the 2nd century AD is located northeast of the centre. Now, only two side walls of the building still stand. They are about 25 metres high and 16 metres wide. The temple used to be part of a much larger complex. Surrounding the temple was a large covered gallery. The temple was also surrounded by a city quarter. This lay outside the walls of the Roman city. Now the temple lies on a barren plain. Especially when the sun is low, it is beautiful to visit the temple. Lonely, it shines in the sunlight, which comes in beautifully through the openings in the side walls.
City Wall and Tour des Ursulines
The Roman city emerged during a period of peace. Nevertheless, a more-than-six-kilometres-long city wall was built for protection. The wall had more than 50 towers and four city gates (see below).
Nowadays, some four kilometres of the city wall are still visible. The best part to see is along Boulevard Mac Mahon on the southwest side of the city. Right there, a beautiful tower also catches the eye. This is the Tour des Ursulines. It was not built by the Romans, as the tower dates back to the 12th century. This Donjon served as protection for the old Rivault castle. The castle was destroyed, only the Tour des Ursulines still stands proudly, nicely integrated into the city wall. On top of the tower is a statue of Mary.
Autun has the best-preserved gate complex from Roman times in France. The city wall at the time included four gates. Porte d’Arroux and Porte Saint-André are the best preserved. Some parts of the third gate (Porte Saint-Andoche) are still present. The fourth gate has completely disappeared from the streetscape.
The gates have four arches, two were for vehicles, two for pedestrians. The Porte d’Arroux was the northern gateway to Autun. It is close to the Temple of Janus. The Porte Saint-André is on the eastern side of the city.
A huge theatre arose on the east side of the city 70 AD. Set against a natural slope, the theatre had three semicircles with rows of seats. Behind the stage was a wall 30 metres high to close off the theatre. Unfortunately, that wall is no longer there. The large size of the complex is still striking, though. It could seat some 20,000 spectators, for instance. With a diameter of almost 150 metres, it is the second largest Roman theatre in the world.
Tip: in the months of July and August, the theatre is the stage for a major historical show of Burgundy, including a light show. This website gives more information about the show and dates.
Pyramid of Couhard
Southeast of the city lies this strange-looking monument. In Roman times, this pyramid was a funerary monument at one of the nine cemeteries. These were all outside the city walls. All that remains of the tomb is a block of granite in the shape of a pyramid. Its total height is over 33 metres. Probably, under the pyramid was a tomb of a deceased person. From this spot you get a nice view of Autun. If you want an even more beautiful panorama of the city, drive on to the Croix de Liberation. From the starting point of several mountain bike and hiking routes, the city really is at your feet.
The eye-catcher of Autun is the Cathédrale Saint-Lazare. This 12th-century Romanesque church is dedicated to Saint Lazarus: the man raised from the dead by Jesus and also the brother of Mary Magdalene. Lazarus’ relics were kept in the church (they are now in museum Rolin). It became an important place of pilgrimage for believers on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The church had a strong connection with the Basilica of Vézelay in the Morvan. This church holds the relics of its sister Mary Magdalene. The arrival of pilgrims to Autun ensured its strong growth and prosperity.
Most impressive on the outside of the church is the tympanum. This arch above the side portal depicts the Last Judgement. Another special feature is that the work is signed. Near the feet, an inscription stands out, showing that Gislebertus was the sculptor of this work of art.
In the interior, the capitals are special. These headpieces above the columns depict some 30 biblical scenes. Sculptor Gislebertus is the creator of most of the capitals. The stained-glass windows depict the life of Saint Leodegarius. He was bishop of Autun in the 7th century. He was later beheaded by the Franks. The windows show that too.
Unfortunately, we have to be patient to get to visit this museum. Due to restoration work, it is closed for a long time. So, we’ll miss the many excavations from the Gallo-Roman period as well as the tomb of Saint-Lazare and works like the Temptation of Eve and the Virgin of Autun. Check the museum’s website for up-to-date information.
City walk through the historic city of Autun
Autun’s medieval centre is atmospheric. Cobbled streets, beautiful buildings and quaint shops make up the streetscape. It is lovely to wander these streets around the cathedral. If you like brocante, there are several shops where you can pick up nice things.
Want to learn more about Autun, its history and main buildings? Then join a guided tour. This is possible in the summer season, from 1 July to the end of September. There are several themed walks. This is the complete list of guided walks in Autun.
For the best views of Autun and the natural beauty south of the city, hike to Croix de Liberation. It’s a walk of over ten kilometres and some altitude up. That makes this a strenuous hike. But the views from the various vantage points make up for everything. You can find more information on Autun Tourisme’s website. You can also download a GPS track.
Exploring the surroundings of Autun
We’ve already said it: Autun is the gateway to the Morvan Regional Nature Park. A beautiful nature reserve in a rolling landscape with the most beautiful views. Its untouched nature invites you to take lovely walks along rivers, waterfalls, forests and lakes. But besides nature, the Morvan has several important cultural attractions. You can read more about them in our blog on the highlights of the Morvan.
Finally, the famous wine regions of Burgundy are not far from Autun. Beaune is the undisputed wine capital of Burgundy. But other places near Beaune are also worth visiting.
Answers to the most frequently asked questions about Autun
Autun is located in Burgundy, less than 50 kilometres east of Beaune. Autun lies on the border of the Morvan regional nature reserve. Hence Autun is often called the gateway to this beautiful part of France.
Autun was an important city in Roman times. Several monuments recall those times. For instance, Autun has the best-preserved city gates from antiquity, the largest theatre in France and an impressive fortress wall. In addition, the cathedral is an important landmark.
Autun is a typical French city with plenty of warmth and atmosphere. The cobbled streets around the cathedral give Autun a nice appearance. With many unique sights from Roman times and the imposing cathedral, you certainly won't get bored in Autun.
Autun is not overrun with tourists. Therefore, you could visit the city all year round. The months of July and August can be very hot. So, avoid those months and choose April, May, early June, September and October instead as these are ideal months for a city break to Autun.
- La Trattoria comes highly recommended. Delicious Italian food at a good price. The friendly service does everything to make you feel at home.
- Le Cathédral is also a good choice. A nice spot next to the church, refined local dishes, friendly service and a cosy ambiance.
- Le Monde de Don Cabillaud. Small restaurant specialising in fish and seafood. For many, the best restaurant in Autun.