Vezelay, Yonne: tourism & sightseeing
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Vezelay, one of the 'most beautiful villages of France', is 50 kilometres south of Auxerre in Burgundy. An attractive village, Vezelay is in an imposing position strung out along the crest of a hill, with far-reaching views over the 'Monts de Morvan' and on the edge of the Morvan Regional Park.
The village of Vézelay, founded in the 12th century around the basilica, is more or less one long, steep street that rises up to Vezelay Basilica at the top of the hill. Enter the village through the imposing Porte Neuve with its two towers, at the bottom of the village. This is only part of the fortifications that can be seen and once protected the village, and were built between the 12th century and the 15th century.
Many of the houses along the main street are now cafes, galleries and gift shops but I was pleased to see almost none of the 'tack' along the road that occupies many a tourist town - if you 'need' carved zebras, coloured fluffy toys and lollies saying "je t'aime" you will need to look elsewhere... this is a big plus in Vezelay's favour!
As you stroll along the street you will notice the shells set in the ground. These shells are the symbol of the French pilgrims who set off to walk from France to the church of St James at Santiago de Compostella (Spain). One of the four main pilgrim routes starts from the basilica at Vézelay.
There are also a few narrow winding streets leading off the main street, hemmed in by ancient houses featuring many examples of the local architecture, and parts of the original village ramparts that still surround Vezelay. When we visited these side streets were curiously quiet and empty despite the large number of visitors in the village just a few metres away - be sure to amble along a couple and take a look.
In addition to being listed among the 'most beautiful villages of France', Vézelay and the basilica are listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The basilica of Saint-Marie-Madeleine at Vezelay
The highlight of the village is without doubt the Basilica of St Mary Magdalene, an awe-inspiring building with soaring decorative vaults. The basilica contains the relics of Saint Mary and was historically the departure point for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella. The most notable event in the history of the basilica took place when Richard the Lionheart and Phillippe Auguste embarked on the 3rd crusade from this basilica.
After the 12th century the basilica fell into severe disrepair, and had become dangerous to visit. It was restored in the 19th century, under the guidance of Viollet-le-Duc, the French architect responsible for the renovation of many of the greatest monuments in France, to the splendid basilica that you can now visit.
The facade of the basilica is in the roman style (although much modified and repaired in later centuries) and includes several decorative elements such as the seated Christ (part missing) blessing the evangelists, and also several statues of the saints.
The carving of the Last Judgement above the door is a 19th century addition, the original having been destroyed during the revolution. As you can see, the left tower was never completed. If you walk to the rear of the church you will notice that the chevet, which was built around 1190, is in the gothic style - the original version had collapsed.
Inside Vézelay basilica you first enter the narthex (entrance area) which is a large space with three most remarkable doorways; the entrance to the nave in particular contains one of the most extraordinary roman style sculptures to be found in France, incorporating Christ and the 12 apostles.
The main nave in the cathedral is rather more simple than the narthex, if very large, and the many carved capital stones and the striped effect of using different colours of stone are the main features of interest.
There is a Visitor Centre in an attractive half-timbered building about half way along the main street whre you can learn more about the history of Vezelay basilica.
Also to see in Vezelay
Jules-Roy House: the writer Jules-Roy lived in Vézelay, and his house can now be visited, next to the basilica. The gardens at the house are very beautiful and peaceful, well-maintained, and have far-reaching views - worth a look even if you don't know of Jules-Roy himself.
There is also a Museum of the work of Viollet-le-Duc. Rooms above the cloister of the abbey now house some medieval sculptures that have come from the basilica and area.
Note: parking in Vezelay is below the village and a small charge (2 euros for 2 hours or 3 euros for all day) is payable.
In stark contrast to the abbey at Vezelay visit the nearby village of Saint-Pere - a small village with an extravagantly decorated gothic style church dating from the 13th century and dominating the village centre. The facade and entrance porch are the most impressive features. Also in Saint-Pere you can see the excavated ruins of a roman baths.
Photos of Vezelay
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Map of Vezelay and places to visit
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Vezelay is classified as a historical protected town centre' (secteur sauvegardé)
Address: Vézelay, Avallon, Yonne, Burgundy, 89450, France || GPS: latitude 47.466, longitude 3.7476
Plan your visit to Vezelay, Yonne
Sightseeing & tourist attractions to visit nearby
- Vézelay basilica St Madeleine (monuments on French pilgrim routes): heritage site
- Asquins église St Jacques (monuments on French pilgrim routes): heritage site
- Clamecy: secteur sauvegarde (17 km)
- Eglise de Saint Barthélémy (Cervon): religious monument (25 km)
- Noyers-sur-Serein: most beautiful village (32 km)
- Prieuré de Saint Révérien (Saint-Reverien): religious monument (34 km)
- Morvan: regional natural parc (34 km)
- Parc de Saint-Léger: remarkable garden (37 km)
The French version of this page is at Vezelay (Francais)