Way back in time when it was more likely that a camel pass through a needle than a rich man go to heaven, Guillaume d’Aquitaine gave away his rich land in Cluny, lock, stock and barrel to a dozen Benedictine monks and their abbot Bernon in order to weasel his way into heaven. We don’t know if it worked but my, oh my did the Abbey take off! Gifts from the faithful made it grow. It became a place of pilgrimage. It became rich, famous and powerful.
And the largest church Christendom had ever seen was here—until St. Peter’s Basilica was constructed.
We no longer believe such things as a rich man being barred from heaven (more’s the pity), but we can huddle around the ruins of this monumental Abbey in Burgundy and think of what splendor a gaggle of monks could make out of the donations of the good people of southern Burgundy.
But you see, the problem (for tourists, if not for the monks) is that the Abbey fell on hard times. The monks, you see, pushed the boundaries of Benedictine practices to parts unknown. Take food. The monks pinched, squeezed, and massaged dietary guidelines until they had developed a cuisine built atop the old frugality like a fat slab of Foie Gras over a few naked barley grains. After all, you had to honor all those great wines of Burgundy and besides, contrary to modern belief, innovation occurs in lock step with restriction rather than with total freedom, everyone reasonably intelligent knows that. In any case, the monks got fat and happy until the competition went in a more frugal direction and began sapping the strength of the big Abbey.
Thus by the end of the 12th century the Abbey had begun its inevitable decline. By the time the French Revolution rolled around the fat old gluttons didn’t have a lot of support from the good folks of Cluny who lived in the Romanesque homes circling the abbey. Like many in France at the time, the monastery was partly demolished. The abbey was sold as national property and much of it became a stone quarry.
So, when you visit, you’ll have to use a little imagination. There’s plenty of help to aid you in envisioning the Abbey’s size and grandeur. But it might be enough to put you off a bit. For example, that big church they call Cluny 3, the one that nearly bankrupted them? Well, you can see 8% of it.
But do not despair. Some of the out buildings are still looking good. Here’s a view you will get from the top floor of the flour market, for example.
But here’s the fantastic thing: the houses surrounding the abbey represent the largest density of mainly Romanesque medieval architecture still standing. There’s over 200 of them built between the 11th and 14th centuries.
Those are Romanesque window treatments.
There’s even a house that shows you how it looked before the medieval was taken out of it.
There’s even a perfectly preserved market stall in Cluny:
If you like horses, Cluny also has something for you. The National Stud Farm is just outside Cluny. Your friends will snigger and swoon when you tell them you visited a stud farm, eh? The place was put together in 1806 to put worthy animals under the buttocks of Napoleon’s soldiers. You can get a guided tour for about 7 euro.
Of course, one must exercise these beasts, so there is also the equestrian center, EQUIVALLÉE CLUNY, as well as the Cluny Societe des Courses where you can see them race.
Cluny is a very interesting place to visit, especially if you are a fan of the Romanesque period.
And here is that final picture, when, looking back you realize that there are holes where grand palaces had been.
Planning a Trip
You can do this trip in a car, of course, as we did. There are also guided tours of Cluny and other places in Burgundy at Viator.
While there are a few hotels in Cluny, there are many more Gites, or country houses and apartments. This is the way to go if you have a car. If you’d rather stay in town at a hotel or guesthouse, Maison TANDEM is a very highly rated place to stay in a good location.