The Morvan is best known for its unique natural beauty. Many hikers and nature lovers enjoy visiting the region. For culture lovers, the Morvan also offers a lot. For instance, Vézelay has been named one of the most beautiful French villages. With its Sainte Madeleine Basilica, Vézelay has even earned a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The church is so famous that we discuss this shrine in detail in this blog. We also dwell on other sights that make Vézelay a wonderful destination in the Morvan.
Basilica Sainte Madeleine
This religious edifice is Vézelay’s main attraction. Thanks to its location on a hill, you can see the church from a distance. Majestically, the iconic church towers above the buildings. It is a monument that tells a centuries-old history and houses beautiful details. Not for nothing have pilgrims from all over the world come to Vézelay to visit the basilica for over a thousand years.
Vézelay’s history is closely linked to its basilica. In 860, a Benedictine nunnery arose at the foot of the hill near Vézelay. At the time, marauding Normans were sweeping through Burgundy. The monastery also fell prey to their devastating visit. So, monks built a new monastery at the top of the hill. Later, a first church was built on that spot.
According to a legend, the church is said to contain the bones of Mary Magdalene. She was the one who first met Jesus after his resurrection from the dead. This story brought many believers to the church. However, the church could not handle such a huge influx of pilgrims. Therefore, construction of a larger church was started in the late 11th century. The new abbey church became an important departure point for pilgrims who wanted to make the long journey to Santiago de Compostela. In 1120, many believers gathered in the church. A blazing fire caused more than 1,000 pilgrims to burn. Rebuilding began immediately afterwards. The new church was ready by the end of the 12th century.
Crusades from Vézelay
Several times, the church of Vézelay was the starting point for a crusade to the Holy Land. The Duchess of Aquitaine even rode into Vézelay on a white horse. She joined the crowd ready for the second crusade. Later, several more crusades left from Vézelay.
During the French Revolution, the church suffered enormous damage. During the iconoclasm, the main symbols of the church were severely damaged. For a long time, nothing was done to repair it. It is thanks to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc that we can now see the basilica in all its glory. This famous architect of religious buildings restored the church in a grand manner in the 19th century.
House of the Fisherman
Before admiring the basilica, we first visit Maison du Visiteur. This turned out to be excellent preparation for our tour. Christopher (Chris) Kelly, an English guide who had lived in Vézelay for many years, welcomed us. He talked endlessly about the basilica, recounting numerous special details about its architecture. We were hanging on his every word. He supported his story with a film and a model. We learnt all about the special proportions and the unique lighting in the sanctuary. With all this knowledge in mind, we would soon look at the structure very differently.
Tip: book a guided tour of the basilica at the visitor centre. Then you’ll experience the beauty of this structure even better!
Exterior of the basilica of Vézelay
Chris took us for the final goal: the viewing of the basilica. Before we went inside, he pointed out the magnificent tympanum (gable plate) above the main entrance. This tympanum depicts the Last Judgement. Viollet-le-Duc designed it during the restoration. Chris showed us special details in the tympanum, things we had never noticed ourselves.
Inside, we entered the vestibule, or Narthex. This space is a place of reflection and penance for the faithful before entering the church. Most impressive about this space is the tympanum above the middle entrance door to the church. It depicts the proclamation of faith. Jesus sits prominently in the centre. He blesses the apostles and instructs them to convert the nations.
Mesmerised, we admired this unique work of art. Meanwhile, Chris explained the symbolism and named every detail of the tympanum. There really was much more to the artwork. He also talked about the light around the beginning of summer. At those times, the entrance doors are open. A magical light shines through the church from the presbytery to the forecourt.
Nave and Capitals
Inside the church, the enormous size of the nave is striking. It is even bigger than Notre Dame in Paris. Notre Dame in Amiens cannot match Vézelay’s basilica. The church is very bright inside. Its hilltop location and lack of stained-glass windows make for a unique light.
The many capitals in the basilica are also a source of wonder. Each capital is hand-carved and decorated with stories from the Bible, mythology and everyday life. These sculptures are not only works of art, but also visual stories for the often-illiterate believers in the Middle Ages.
The next morning, we were in a deserted church as early as 6:30 a.m. Unfortunately, it was heavily overcast. That meant that the light was not so magical. Nevertheless, we witnessed a unique scene: a number of nuns shuffled silently into the church. They knelt before the altar and prayed. Then they sang a hymn. Wonderful to witness.
Other sights in Vézelay
The Basilica Sainte Madeleine is the absolute highlight of the village, which has about 500 inhabitants. Yet there are other interesting sights in Vézelay:
This museum houses an impressive collection of modern art. It is named after art historian Christian Zervos. This Greek-French collector has brought together works by Picasso, Chagall, Miro and Kandinsky, among others. This museum is definitely worth a visit.
Moreover, there are other museums in Vézelay. The Musée de l’Œuvre Viollet-le-Duc is dedicated to the history and heritage of Vézelay. And the former home of writer Jules Roy now houses a museum dedicated to his life and work.
Strolling through Vézelay
The village is not large. From the southern entrance to the medieval centre, you can walk to the northernmost point within the ramparts in 15 minutes. In reality, it will take you much longer because you’ll pass several quaint brocantes, crêperies and other unusual shops along the way. The houses, often decorated with bright flowers, are also a delight for the eyes.
Walking around the city wall
There is a walking path around the old city wall. You can do the whole circuit in under an hour. Along the way, you’ll pass several defence towers. You’ll also come across the Porte Neuve, an old gateway to Vézelay. From that gate, pilgrims from the west used to enter the village. Now, many hikers still visit the place. After all, Vézelay is an important crossroads of several pilgrim routes towards Santiago de Compostela.
Chapel of the Cordelle
Just north of Vézelay is this Romanesque chapel from the mid-12th century. The chapel came on the site where the second crusade was preached. Franciscan monks inhabit the Chapelle de la Cordelle. From the rampart, a path leads down towards the chapel. After about ten minutes, you can already see it among the trees.
We visit the chapel early in the morning. It is a peaceful, quiet place. Even at times when the cathedral is crowded with visitors, this little chapel is a serene place of rest.
Enjoying the view
The view of Vézelay is magnificent whichever side you approach the place from. Its location on the hill of eternity makes for a fantastic sight. But, naturally, the same is true the other way round. From the hill we looked out over the valley with meadows and fields. We could also see the picturesque town of Avallon.
Furthermore, the surrounding vineyards were amazing. This region produces excellent wines. What more do you want, with vineyards located on the sacred ‘eternal hill’. For many years, Vézelay has had the official Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) label.
At Domaine la Croix Montjoie, you can experience a wine tasting. The domain used to be part of a castle. From the terrace you have a nice view of Vézelay and the hills of the Morvan. You can also book a tour of the vineyards including a tasting.
Sightseeing and things to do around Vézelay
Avallon is about ten miles from Vézelay. Avallon’s historic centre is walled and has several city gates. The Tour de l’Horloge is especially beautiful. Be sure to walk through the main street of the old town and its charming side streets. You will enjoy the quaint shops, cafés and restaurants.
An equally fascinating city is Autun. There you will still find some beautiful sights from Roman times. Another highlight is the Cathédrale Saint-Lazare. The church was once home to the bones of Lazarus, Mary Magdalene’s brother. Now they are in Autun’s museum. It is extraordinary that close together in the Morvan the relics of two important figures around Jesus were kept. Like Vézelay, Autun is therefore an important pilgrimage site for walkers on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
In our blog on the Morvan, we mention many more beautiful locations in this natural area besides Avallon and Autun.
We visited Vézelay at the invitation of Burgundy Tourism. We compiled the content of the blog independently and objectively based on our own impressions.
Practical information about your visit to Vézelay
Vézelay is located on a hill above the valley of the Cure, at the edge of the Morvan in Burgundy. The town is at an important crossroads of pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela.
From Paris, it is around 400 miles to Vézelay. By car, it will take you around two-and-a-half hours. In France, you pay tolls on the motorways. It takes time and effort to reach Vézelay by public transport.
The absolute highlight of Vézelay is the imposing Basilica Sainte Madeleine. It is a beautiful church with many details. You could spend hours there and then you won't have discovered all the wonderful details. Vézelay also has a medieval centre with cobbled streets, beautiful houses and nice shops. Culture buffs will find what they are looking for in several museums. Of these, Musée Zervos is the most important.
Vézelay and the basilica show their special side every season. That's why you can actually visit Vézelay all year round. In the summer months, though, it can be hot. On 22nd July, the feast day of Mary Magdalene, and in the month of August, Vézelay is very busy.
Highly recommended is Sy la Terrasse, the restaurant of the hotel of the same name. In a cosy ambiance, it serves delicious dishes. The restaurant is located on the square near the basilica.
Other well-reviewed restaurants in Vézelay are:
Highly recommended is hotel Sy la Terrasse. You can't sleep closer to the basilica than this hotel. Excellent hotel in a beautiful building. Dining at the hotel is also possible. Delicious food in a cosy ambiance.
Other good choices are:
This is the total offer of accommodation in Vézelay.