Day 7: On a Pilgrimage

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Today we were off to Vézelay and the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene, another gem I had dug up in my research. This day trip entailed another taxi ride, but thankfully were at the LeBoat base so it was easy to get someone to arrange it all for us. This ride was much milder and soon we pulled into the town. Our driver wanted to drop us off at the base of the hill as it is traditional to wander up on a “pilgrimage.” After a lot of bad communication attempts, C finally just showed the driver her ankle and we were dropped off at the door with a promise we we make our way back down to be picked up.

The first church here was consecrated in 879 and there are still remnants of it in the current building. Man there are some old things here. I am going to totally freak when I finally make it to Greece or Eygypt.

The Basilique Ste-Madeleine (Basilica Church of St. Mary Magdalene) in Vézelay is the largest Romanesque church in France and only 10 yards shorter than the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. As it claimed to guard the relics of St. Mary Magdalen, Vézelay was a major medieval pilgrimage destination. It also saw the launch of the Second and Third Crusades.

The basilica was mostly Romanesque — an archtectural style from the late part of the first millennium and the early part of the last millennium — which means, among other things, that it features round arches rather than the pointy ones that typify the later gothic architecture. Apparently the current building was started in 1096 with reconstruction happening 1120–1132.

It consist of several parts, the first of which is the facade with three doors and a matching narthex (entrance hall) with three portals into the main nave. We spent a lot of time here just staring at the doors and their massive wood and iron construction. We were also lucky as there was a tour group passing through and the guide opened the massive main doors revealing the stunning nave as it was meant to be seen. Otherwise would have had to slip though the smaller side doors and missed the impact of the vast, light-coloured nave opening up down the center aisle.

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The original choir was destroyed by fire in 1165 and then rebuilt in the Gothic style adding yet another dimension to this wonderful building. This combination of architectural styles and techniques made the journey from front to back a fantastical trip though time and spirituality. Another fantastic feature, which we didn’t get the full effect of was, that the building was constructed and oriented such that on midday of the summer solstice, nine pools of sunlight form a path right down the center of the nave towards the altar. They weren’t exactly centered when we visited but they were there.

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My really bad attempt at a picture of the light.

Under the choir, the crypt dating from the 800s contains reliquaries containing purported small relics of Mary Magdalene. It has been a point of dispute in Catholic tradition about whether Mary’s remains resided her or at the Basilica of St Maximin’s in Provence. Most of the original relics were torched by the Huguenots in the 16th century.

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Outside, the use of early flying buttresses of the Gothic choir provided a big contrast in construction techniques to the  older square vertical buttresses of the Romanesque nave. Buttresses are the things that hold the tall walls up to prevent them from just falling over.

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The vertical romanesque buttresses (pillars) used to support the side of the nave.

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The long, flying buttresses supporting the tall center of the Gothic choir

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Compare those to the much more delicate and elegant later-Gothic flying buttresses found at Notre Dame de Paris which were completed in the late 1100s.

The grounds overlooked a long valley and we could actually see the area where the Château de Bazoches — where we had been two days prior —  was off in the distance. It was a grand view and we hung out and admired it for quite a while. When we were starting to head back, I ducked back into the basilica for one last breath of its magnificence and was treated with the sounds of choral singing by the resident monks. The medieval church sure as hell knew what it was doing when they built these things. There has never been anything short of a perfectly dark, incredibly starry night that has so thoroughly put me in my small insignificant place as that moment in that building did. I really recommend anyone ever in the area visit. It is as grand as any big city cathedral, but the 50 or so people that were wandering around inside disappeared and I felt like I was alone with the spirit of the building —not a feeling you are likely to get being herded through Notre Dame with a thousand other tourists.

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Then we split up and wandered down the hill through the town, visiting shops and snacking on things. As we weren’t that far from Chablis, L and I stopped in a cave (short for cave à vin and pronounced cav) which is what you called the local wine cellars and purchased a few bottles of Grand Cru chablis for later enjoyment. Then soon enough we were back in the cab and then back on board and ready to hit the canals once more.

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Today’s destination was near a small town called Merry-sur-Yonne, although we never actually visited it. The real appeal was that it featured Le Saussois, a French climbing destination, right along the canal banks. Since we were still heavy into climbing at this point I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to experience some overseas rock. It would have been too much for us to bring most of the gear but I did insist everyone tuck their climbing shoes in their luggage so we could at least say we bouldered in France.

As we rounded the last bend, the limestone cliffs seemed to grow out of the banks of the canal and we were even greeted with the sight of other rockclimbers enjoying the rock.

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It was late so we pulled up to the small dock and tied up in front of lovely private boat. That evening found us in one of the nicest and more peaceful places we visited in the entire trip and I got one of my favourite shots  there. A lovely end to a spectacular day.

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