Tournus abbey visitor guide

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The abbey is the most important historic monument in the centre of Tournus, at the south-east limit of the Saône-et-Loire department of Burgundy.

Explore the Abbey of Saint-Philibert in Tournus

France This Way review: the Abbey of Saint-Philibert is largely in its original roman style, and has several features that make a visit interesting

One of the most unique features of the site of the abbey is that its history can be traced right back to the 2nd century, when Saint-Valérian came to the Roman settlement here and started preaching to the inhabitants. Valérian was executed by the Roman, but his tomb remained a pilgrimage destination, and during the following centuries became an oratory and then a monastery.

cloisters of the abbey in Tournus

These earlier churches were destroyed during various raids, and the abbey that we visit today was mostly built in the 11th century, with the most ancient parts from the end of the 10th century.

The abbey is named for Saint-Philibert, not Saint-Valérian, because the monks who settled here in the 9th century brought the relics of Philibert with them - their own monastery on the island of Noirmoutier had been captured by the Normans.

Further small additions were made to the church in the 14th and 15th century - principally the addition of chapels to the left side of the church - but the main building preserved its 12th century roman style.

The period from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 18th century was difficult for the abbey in Tournus, with the abbey being ransacked by the Huguenots during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century and then being suppressed in the early 17th century, at which time it became the monks were forced to leave and the building becoming a collegiate church.

This period ended with the disbanding of abbeys during the French revolution and resulting in the neglect of the buildings and the expulsion of the monks.

As with many monuments in France, Tournus abbey was recognised as an important historic monument in the middle of the 19th century, and renovation works carried out. Further renovations took place in the 20th century that were more faithful to the original roman style of the abbey church.


Architecture and design of the Abbey in Tournus

The abbey is reached through two massive round towers that were originally part of the fortified enclosure around the church. One aspect of the church that indicates it orginally also had a defensive purpose are the arrow-slits you can see in the massive walls of the facade.

The facade is otherwise quite plain, except the tower on the left side that includes two rows of roman style arches (the entrance, that has carvings above the door and a column on either side, was added in the 19th century).

Above the transept you can see the belltower, similar to the tower next to the facade.

You enter the church through a narthex (a sort of porch) . The narthex is one of the oldest parts of the structure, and has three rows of massive columns and some frescoes on the walls as well as tombstones in the floor that were laid here in the 17th century.

From the narthex you can take the stairs that lead to a chapel where you can see some very old relief carvings of people and plants.

After the narthex and chapel you reach the nave. This is a tall and light filled space - quite a surprise after the darkness of the narthex and chapel, with a vaulted ceiling supported by columns and a row odf large windows on each side, which is quite unusual in a roman style church.

There are numerous carved capital stones in this part of the church, several featuring mythical and terrifying characters and demons. If you follow the ambulatory (path) behind the choir area you can see a rarae example of roman style mosaics set in the floor, that represent the signs of the zodiac.

Among the other highlights inside the abbey church, you can see a rare statue of the Virgin and child that dates from the 12th century, as well as the relics of Saint-Philibert that have been here since the 9th century.

The abbey crypt is also fascinating, and one of the oldest parts of the building. It has rows of columns, with the captal stones here carved with foliage, a well and some ancient frescoes in the chapels at the end of the crypt

To complete your visit to the abbey at Tournus you can discover the cloister, now restored and with the walkway on one side still lined with the original massive roman style arches and columns, again with carved capital stones, and an attractive garden.

crypt below the abbey church of Saint-Philibert in Tournus

Attractions nearby

For other sights of interest in the town see the Tournus guide. Not far from Tournus you can visit the famous abbey at Cluny (we preferred the quieter environment at Tournus abbey, but Cluny abbey is much more famous than Tournus abbey).

You can find more travel ideas in the Saone-et-Loire guide and the Burgundy guide.

See also: 

Photos of Tournus abbey

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Map of Tournus abbey and places nearby


Visit near Tournus abbey with France This Way reviews



The Abbey of Saint-Philibert is the highlight in Tournus, but you will also discover several other interesting historic sites

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Brancion guide


The beautifully decorated and furnished Cormatin Chateau, from the 17th century, is the highlight of your visit

Cormatin guide


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Cluny guide


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Chalon-sur-Saone guide


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Macon guide

... or see ALL recommended places to visit in Saone-et-Loire

The French version of this page is at Tournus abbey (Francais)