A road trip along the Romanesque churches of the Brionnais and Saône et Loire, South-Burgundy

This is a blog post that was a a long time coming. For a period of twenty years we had a house here, where we spent most of our holidays. We have now sold our French ‘pied-a-terre’, so I have to finally write about those beautiful Romanesque churches that have had such a strong pull on me over the years. The churches have a calming, soothing effect on me, I never grow tired of their nostalgic beauty, the thick walls that embrace you and the monochrome earthly colours of the natural stone that blend in perfectly with the environment. When following the route of the Romanesque churches you drive through small quiet villages, between farmland and green meadows where white Charolais cows graze, bordered by the typical stone hedges that are part of the heritage. Tourists heading towards the sunny South of France have overlooked this green, unspoilt countryside of rolling hills, with its sturdy farm houses, its typical Burgundian tiled roofs and its local bistro’s serving the best meats, cheeses and wines. It is squeezed between the red and white wines of the Cote d’Or and the red wines of the Beaujolais and lies between the Saône and the Loire. In between the churches you stumble upon castles and abbeys and the countryside offers great walking and biking routes, that have been well marked over the years. It is here that you can still find the real French countryside. The bakeries sell baguettes for a little over one euro, and the huge croissants and pains au chocolate made with real butter still cost less than one euro a piece. No, you won’t find fancy coffee bars, hip restaurants serving vegan and vegetarian fare or cocktails bars to spend your evenings. The fresh markets cater to locals, selling fresh seasonal produce from the farmland, cheese from local cheesemakers, honey from a local beekeeper and wine from the odd small local winemaker. But if you love medieval architecture combined with quiet walks through beautiful countryside without the tourists, evenings in small local restaurants, with friendly waiters who serve you the best steak or goat cheese with an affordable great glass of wine and warm weather from half April till the end of October but without the stifling heat waves, flash flooding or forest fires, you might consider this part of Burgundy for your next holiday. 

The church of Paray le Monial is probably together with Tournus, Vezelay and Cluny, one of the best known and one of the bigger Romanesque structures of this area. The basilica is built as a smaller version of the Cluny abbey III, on the banks of the Bourbince river, a side arm of the Loire, and dedicated to the sacred heart. The first church was built here in the 10th century by the counts of Chalon who founded a monastery here and the narthex and tower on the right go back to this first church. The church as it stands today was built in the 12th century by Hugues de Semur, an abbot of Cluny. Here you can see and imagine what the monastery of Cluny must have looked like, since in Cluny almost nothing remains. In the choir a 14th century fresco of Jesus was discovered in 1935. On the outside the choir with its radial chapels is the highlight of the church’s architecture. Inside the church is beautifully lighted by natural light flooding in through the windows. 

Starting from Paray le Monial you can start a beautiful tour through the Brionnais along many beautiful small and bigger Romanesque churches. Drive in the direction of Charolles and turn right in the direction of Lugny les Charolles where you make a small sidestep to the small church of  Saint-Paul in Changy, a small village on the border of the river l’Arconce. The church has an original romanesque transept, choir and bell tower dating back to the first half of the12th century.  The chapel are from a later date and gothic in style. 

Via Saint Julien en Civry, where you find a good local bakery behind the parish church, continue to Saint-Germain-en-Brionnais. This church used to belong to an old monastery of the order of Saint Augustine from the end of the 11th century, burned down for the first time during the religious wars and finally destroyed during the French Revolution. The church dates back to the beginning of the 12th century. The bell tower is gothic and from a later period. 

In Saint-Symphorien des Bois, turn left and drive to the Chapel of Saint-Prix, a hamlet of Dyo on the outskirts of Saint-Symphorien des Bois. In a charter of Cluny it is said to be founded in the 11th century, next to a fountain of which the water are said to have healing properties. It was probably a private chapel of the knights of Saint-Prix at the time the Brionnais was a mighty medieval lordship. The commune is said to be older than the parish of Dyo.

Drive further to the picturesque village of Bois-Sainte-Marie to admire the Roman church dedicated of our Lady of Nativity. The parish of Bois-Sainte-Marie already existed in the Carolingian period and the village had a Benedictine monastery under patronage of Cluny in the 11th century. The church, built at the end of the 11th century in one of the most important in the Brionnais. It is the only church with an ambulatory, bordered by a pretty colonnade of which the capitals are very expressive and illustrate the confrontation of good and evil. In summer the church is often the decor for classical concerts. 

Continue to La Clayette via the castle of Drée and Curbigny, and admire the castle of La Clayette bordering the lake.

From there drive to Saint Racho, turn right to cross the little river and drive up the hill to the Chapel of Dun. On the hill there used to be a massive fortress but his citadel was completely destroyed in 1181 and was never rebuilt. Only the parish church was saved on the top of the hill dating back to the second half of the 12th century. You have to park your car a bit below the top and walk the last 500 m up. From the top you have a great view over the surrounding area and it is a perfect picnic spot when the weather is nice. In the evening you can see a beautiful sundown. 

Back to La Clayette and on to Saint-Laurent en Brionnais, where the church with a sturdy three story bell tower goes back to the 12th century. Only the transept and the choir with bell tower are Roman, the nave is built in the 19th century in neo-Roman style. 

Continue to Chateauneuf, where you find the church Saint-Paul, one of the most beautiful Roman churches of the area, next to a privately owned castle it used to belong too, on a small hill overlooking the surrounding area. The church dates back to the middle of the 12th century in a style that is reminiscent of Cluny. Above the South portal a beautiful sculptures serie of the twelve apostles under small arcades. Saint Peter holds the key in the middle. The interior has a high vault and is very luminous. Offers a great picnic spot overlooking the village. 

In Charlieu visit the abbey and church of Saint Fortunatos, the bishop of Poitiers, founded already in 872. In 932 the abbey was annexed to Cluny, one of the first acquisitions of Cluny that was founded in 910. Pope Urban II consecrated the new churching 1094 and was already the third church on the location. The narthex was adde in 1130. The layout of the church is similar to that of Anzy-le-Duc, both having roots in Cluny II. Of the church only the narthex the the Western bay still exist. Some parts of the abbey have been reconstructed in gothic style. Many of the sculpted decorations were vandalised during the French Revolution, inside the narthex the sculptures have been better preserved. 

The next stop is La Bénisson-Dieu, where we find the church of the former Cistercian abbey of Notre-Dame-de-la-Bénédiction-de-Dieu founded in 1138. Of te church remains the nave and two arches of the ruins of the old transept. The church preserves a Romanesque altar and a beautiful glass stained rosette window. The beautiful Burgundian polychrome roofs go back to the end of the 15th century.  

From here we return in the direction of Paray le Monial and make a first stop in Iguerande, here the church of Saint-Marcel was buit late 11th century and belonged to Cluny since 1088 via the priory of Marcigny. The church is known for its mysterious carvings. 

Briant is the village that used to be the centre of the Brionnais and gave the Brionnais its name. The church was dependent on Cluny and Marcigny and has a romanesque bell tower, transept and choir. The church is dedicated to Saint Nazaire and Saint Celse and the oldest parts date back to the 12th century. 

The chapel of Sancenay in Oyé is about 2 km from Oye itself not far from the road to Saint-Christophe and belongs to what is called les ‘Blancs’ a separate branch within Catholicism. The chapel with its painted decorations on the ceiling from the 17th century by Marquis de Tenay, are remarkable and form a unique ensemble in the Brionnais. The chapel used to be part of the castle of Sancenay. 

In Varenne-l’Arconce you find one of the nine most important Roman churches of the Brionnais. The Saint Peter in Chains church from 1120 was an independent Clunisian monastic church and was attached to the monastery of Marcigny (1054), the 6th abbey of Cluny and its Roman architecture stayed completely intact.

Anzy-Le-Duc is one of my favourite stops in the Brionnais. The priory of Anzy-le-Duc was founded in 876 and and one of the oldest monasteries in the region where the first pilgrims arrived around 930. The church was builtin 1180-1230. The layout of the church is similar to that of Charlieu. The richness of he carvings is impressive and is one of the finest examples of romanesque art in the region. The beautiful three-storied bell tower is nicely lit at night. The crypt under the choir is the oldest still existing part, the choir the second oldest. 

The last stop before Paray le Monial is in Montceaux-l’Etoile with its single nave church constructed around 1130. It was previously ministered by the monks of Anzy-le-Duc. The church lost the biggest part of its apse in 1777 when a burial chapel with rococo decoration on the inside was added for Abel de Vichy and his wife. The western facade with its portal is preserved with beautiful carvings. The lintel and tympani are carved out of one stone. 

Other worthwhile romanesque churches to visit in this area are those of Semur-en-Brionnais, the chapel of Saint-Maurice-les-Chateauneuf near Chateauneuf, Baugy, Fleury-le-Montagne, Saint-Julien de Jonzy and Saint-Bonnet-de-Cray.

Vezelay is another site that has always intrigued me. The town on the eternal hill with its small picturesque streets leading up to the basilica are a real treat. The abbey church, now a basilica, is a masterpiece of Burgundian romanesque architecture and a Unesco World heritage site. The Benedictine and Cluniac abbey was constructed around 1120 around the relics of Mary Magdalene making it into a pilgrimage site lying on the road to Santiago de Compostala. Many crusades started at this church. The tympanum of the central portal is impressive as are the columns with sculpted capitals and the two coloured arches. A natural display of light has occurred every yearfor the past 8 centuries, and is an absolute must-see. Between the 20th and 30th June at around midday, 9 spots of light appear on the ground and seem to outline a trail leading from one side of the nave to the other. A must see site. 

The attraction of Beaune is its hospice, or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a former almshouse founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of Burgundy at the time, and his wife Guigone de Salins, as a hospital for the poor, in typical 15th century gothic Burgundian architecture, but for the most part built by Flemish architects and artisans. Burgundy was then under the rule of Philips the Good. The glazed-tile roof is one of the finest in its sort in France and probably has its origin in ceramics from Hungary. For the chapel Nicolas Rolin and his wife commissioned Flemish primitive painter Rogier van der Weyden to make an altarpiece of the last judgement, featuring Rolin and his wife on the outer panels. 

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