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Vezelay Basilica Restoration

Wanted to alert anyone planning a stop at Vezelay on their France itinerary. We visited for an afternoon and overnight the last week of May, 2019. The basilica -- the Cluniac abbey, which is the main reason for any visit to Vezelay -- is undergoing a major continuing restoration. The facade with its two towers is enshrouded in scaffolding, and workers are loudly and busily at their estimated 2-year task. Disappointingly, the entire narthex is closed off from view, including the famous tympanum over the central and two flanking portals. Nave and grounds are still open to visitors, and remain impressive in their Romanesque spirituality notwithstanding the intermittent power tool soundtrack. But no portals! Quel dommage!

We lucked out, however. A small notice near the visitor entrance clued us in that, beginning the very next day, guided tours of small groups (12 people) would be conducted on the half hour for 2 euros. Thanking our lucky stars we'd planned an overnight stay, you'd better believe we were first in line the following morning. Two experts in the basilica restoration led us behind the plywood and up two levels of scaffolding, and suddenly we were eye-to-eye with Christ, his bedazzled apostles, and the fantastical array of humanity and beasts in carved stone for which the tympanum is known. The guides explained the relief and the aims of the restoration -- true, mostly in French (the rest of our group was all French), but they answered our questions in English and their enthusiasm and love for the masterpiece was palpable. Quite an unexpected treat! While the overall impact of the portals and the tympanum as works of art was compromised, the close-up view was memorable, a far more unique experience than a walk-by at ground level would have been. I don't know if or how long these tours will continue, so it may be a gamble to depend on one if you visit. But they dramatically reversed a major disappointment for us.

I will put in a plug for the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Sy la Terrasse, literally a stone's throw from the basilica. At their restaurant we had one of the best dinners of our entire 17 days in France. Neither are in the RS France guide for Vezelay, but I'd recommend both.

Posted by
3111 posts

Glad your disappointment was turned into an unexpected face to face look at these wonderful carvings. Sounds like such a unique experience. I’m so glad you stayed overnight in order to take advantage of this once in a life time view. We’ll have to be content with “only” seeing them from the ground again someday.

Posted by
7726 posts

We spent a night in Vezelay years ago, near the Basilica. It encouraged us to visit Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the
Pilgrims from Vezelay’s Basilica headed on their
religious Caminos.

Posted by
532 posts

Thank you for this information. I checked the website and they are not offering the guided tours the day we are going to be there. I am hoping that we can still enjoy the abbey.

Posted by
18 posts

@rizell, if you want a very good prep for your visit to Vezelay, check out episode 2 ("The Great Thaw") of Kenneth Clark's BBC documentary, "Civilisation." Some would call it dated and fusty TV, but I'd say it provides excellent context and a real feeling for the century during which the abbey was founded, if you have 45 minutes. The same episode also suggests some other, similar churches of the period in the same region, such as Autun, whose tympanum may not be under renovation. We didn't go to Autun (one must make choices) but were very glad we spent an afternoon, night, and morning in Vezelay. Have a good trip.

https://youtu.be/8Rn4CRu9pa4

Posted by
3111 posts

We had the good fortune to visit both Vezelay and Autun on the same trip. While l liked Vezelay and appreciated it’s place in the history of pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, I LOVED the cathedral in Autun. Both have carvings by Gislebertus, the beautiful stone storyteller, but Autun’s are more accessible being that you can get closer to the intricate detail of the capitals. I bought a coffee table book of Vézelay to bring back home but I carry Autun’s imagery around with me in my heart. I hope you’ll have a chance to see this cathedral on a future visit. “Giselbertus made this”

Posted by
72 posts

That is a wonderful story of how disappointment turns into an unexpected and wonderful experience. That is what travel is all about right? My desire to visit the Vezelay Basilica is to visit where Rostrapovich recorded his Bach Cello Suites. He felt the basilica had the best acoustics for which he could make his famous recordings. So long story short... if I visit during restoration can you still tour the interior of the church?

I also just completed my first Camino and would love to learn more about the Camino history in France as I am entertaining doing a Camino segment that starts in either Vezelay or Le Puy.

Thank you for your report.
Amy

Posted by
18 posts

@amy
Yes, you can visit the interior and the crypt containing the Magdalene relics, an important point of veneration for pilgrims on their way to Santiago. They've all been restored previously. Also the modest cloister and most of the grounds.