Vézelay is an exquisitely picturesque village perched on a jagged hill with spectacular views over the valley below. It might not be immediately obvious today, but its quiet, winding lanes have witnessed extraordinary history. It was here in 1146, that Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the most influential and powerful churchmen of the time, preached the cause of the Second Crusade to support the Christian Kingdoms of the Holy Land. An audience of over 10,000 people included King Louis VII of France.
It was a critical moment in winning public support for a crusade that ended in utter failure, and led directly to the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Saladin. Not the result Bernard had in mind. Vézelay’s crusader connections don’t end there though. In 1190, French King Philippe-Auguste and English King Richard the Lionheart, united their armies here on the eve of embarking on the more successful Third Crusade – it failed to wrest control of Jerusalem from Saladin, but managed to re-establish several crusader kingdoms.
This alone would make the village worth a visit, but this Crusades-related history only happened thanks to the Benedictine Abbey of Vézelay. More importantly, thanks to the Abbey’s association with St Mary Magdalene. Founded in the 9th century, shortly afterwards the Abbey claimed to have acquired relics of Mary Magdalene. One of the most celebrated of Jesus’ disciples, Mary is said to have been present at the crucifixion and that she discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. It was to Mary that Jesus first appeared after his resurrection.
The presence of Mary’s relics was big news (and big business) in medieval Europe, and vast numbers of pilgrims descended upon the village and abbey. Although far fewer in number, pilgrims still come today and there are several guest houses in the village that cater to them. The majority of Mary’s relics were destroyed by Protestants during the Wars of Religion. All that remains today is a finger displayed in a golden case, but even that is disputed as a fake.
In the 13th century, the village of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence claimed to have the true relics, and this became the official version of the Mary myth. Pilgrims stopped making the trip to Vézelay and transferred their devotions (and donations) to the new relics. Vézelay’s abbey fell into decline and disrepair. By the 19th century it was close to collapse, only extensive restoration in the 1840s saved it. Today, it is both the crowning glory of the village (it literally sits on the top of the hill), and an UNESCO World Heritage Site protected for future generations.
I’d been warned that Vézelay can be swamped with tourists, but when I arrived in the early evening it’s narrow streets were empty and peaceful. In a small place like this I was conscious that most restaurants would be closed by 9pm, so I strolled up to the abbey and wandered down a few cobbled streets before finding a small bistro with outside tables. I ordered a glass of the local chardonnay and drank in the atmosphere and history of this lovely place.
The following morning I was up early to explore before the coach parties arrived. The village is built so that it climbs up the ridge of the hill, making it long and narrow. A few streets turn off from the one main road, but getting lost is impossible. On the flanks of the village, you get beautiful views over the surrounding countryside. Vézelay has a wealth of historic buildings, many carrying banners of various saints, and a couple of small museums that are worth visiting if you have time.
The main attraction though is the Abbey, and it was to there that I headed. Inside was the rather odd sight of some nuns doing the vacuuming. I wandered around, but the interior is pretty plain, although some of the sculptures on the entrance and pillars are fascinating. I found the crypt and the alleged finger of Mary Magdalene, and was then back outside wandering the streets. A couple of hours later I had seen the village in its entirety, so hopped back in the car and set off for Bourges.