Tournus and The Abbey of Saint Philibert

Posted | Updated: Jul 19, 2017

It’s ok if you’ve never heard of Tournus, France. It can be our little secret. The Burgundian beauty sits pretty on the right bank of the Saône. Chairs are made especially well in Tournus.

To cut to the chase, I think people should beat a path to its door, especially considering the very interesting 12th century remains of Saint Philibert Abbey, which sits smack in the center of town near the train station, wedged between two towers.

abbaye Saint Philibert
Abbaye Saint-Philibert

Five years ago the little town of fewer than 6,000 residents could crow about having four restaurants with a Michelin star: the Greuze, Quartier Gourmand, Aux Terasses, and Meulien, according to a Wikipedia article deemed so unworthy of a writer’s time that it’s remained a “stub”.

And if you don’t have the foie gras burger at the modest hotel restaurant we happily chose as our the hub from which we wandered the territory—called Le Terminus—then you have lost out on one of life’s “not very expensive” ways to make you happy, happy, happy.

And if you want to exercise those calories off you will want to know that that this is prime cycling territory; there’s even a not-to-miss bicycle museum between Tournus and the Abbey of Cluny tucked between the famous vineyards along the southern Burgundy Wine Road called Musée du Vélo, a private and unique Tour de France memorabilia museum displaying 150 models all neatly stuffed into an 18th century barn, tracing the history from invention (1818) to the first chain drive of 1880—and it’s right on the Voie Verte Cycling Route.

And the views from the roads around here are drop-dead beautiful.

But let’s start at the beginning. There were the Romans, and there was an early Christian called Valerien who preached the new religion in these parts. The Romans beheaded poor Valerien in century number 2, and thus he became a martyr and wasn’t forgotten. Roam a bit and you will see the facade the former Church of Saint-Valérien in Tournus, which is considered to be especially ancient, likely from the 10th century.

Saint-Philibert de Tournus is the main surviving building of a former Benedictine abbey in Tournus that started out as a primitive oratory put up over the tomb of our valiant Valerian. This makes it one of the oldest monastic centers in France.

If you arrive by the front side door, look up a moment. Yes, there are colors still persisting…and a watcher. Do no wrong and he won’t bother you.

abbey church
He watches you at the door

Then enter, just like the ancient pilgrims did in the 11th century. You’ve stumbled into the dark and foreboding Narthex. It’s a transition between the mean outside world and sanctuary. Pilgrims would meditate here in the gloom.

Step forward though and you’ll enter the luminous central nave. Just above your head as you enter is the organ dating to around 1629, making it one of the oldest in Burgundy. And its pipes are held up by this guy:

Abbey organ support
Support for the Abbey's organ pipes is the job of this guy.
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Head up the aisle to see the medieval Mosaics. They’re from the 12th century reconstruction and only recently rediscovered in modern times. They depict the labors of the months and the signs of the zodiac. The Gemini twins are here to amuse you, nakedly and without their man-parts.

zodiac mosaic
12th century zodiac mosaics recently discovered. Gemini, the twins.

On the south side there’s a statue translated as “Our Brown Lady” who has on her lap a small Jesus with an adult face holding the word of God in one hand and giving a blessing with the other.

our brown lady of tournus
Our Brown Lady, presents her son Jesus

But wait! You haven’t gone underground to see the crypt yet! Talk about dark! You might think of carrying a flashlight or using one on your cell phone. Remember, all you see was built over the tomb of the martyred St Valerian, so you’re walking atop a pretty long history.

A side chapel in the crypt

And you’re not even done yet! If you exit the Crypt and head for the door, turning left before you go out, you can see many wondrous things immersed in creepy light!

devil carving
The devil's mad grin

You can see the peaceful yet unadorned cloister. Then, you can go upstairs, meaning you’ll clomp carefully on one of those narrow spiral staircases, your fingers tracing the moist walls lest you make a misstep on the narrow treads of the stairs. St Michael’s Chapel is up there, and you can see the nave of the church from above.

The very best thing about this whole experience? We pretty much had this while place to ourselves! In the middle of June! This doesn’t happen at the better-known but less interesting Cluny or even the Cathedral at Chartres. And it was… free!

Outside the Abbey, you’ll find a very fine medieval town. Head for the river; perhaps have a meal while gazing over its mirrored surface. If you have a car, drive towards Cluny, following the signs. You’ll stop often at the little towns along the way, each with their own charm and the occasional wine shop or castle.

tournus street
Tournus Street View

If You Go

The Hotel Le Terminus is the value choice in Tournus. It’s near the train station and has a wonderful restaurant where fine food is moderately priced. If you are looking for a more upscale choice with a Michelen starred restaurant, choose the Hotel De Greuze, also steps away from the railway station in Tournus.

If you are looking for a tour of Burgundy, Viator has quite a few top-rated tours of the region.

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