Visit time : half-day.
The hill of Vézelay entered into history in the 9th century, when it first hosted the relics of Saint Mary Magdalene. It became one of the four historic departure points on pilgrimage route of Saint Jacques de Compostela. And it was just few meters from the Romanesque basilica where the Third Crusade was begun, in the presence of the kings of France and England. At the foot of this architectural masterpiece lies the picturesque village of Vézelay, nestled next to the mound nicknamed the "eternal hill".
Imbued with a mystical dimension visitors walking along these medieval streets will discover the artistic treasures of the basilica, just as the pilgrims and artists who came here for spiritual or cultural inspiration have done throughout the past.
Shortly after its establishment in the 9th century, the Benedictine abbey of Vézelay acquired the relics of Saint Mary Magdalene and was an important place of pilgrimage. Saint Bernard preached the Second Crusade there in 1146 and Richard the Lion-Hearted and Philip II Augustus met there to leave for the Third Crusade (1190). With its sculpted capitals and portal, the Abbey of Madeleine of Vézelay – a 12th-century monastic church – is a masterpiece of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture.
The origins of Vézelay are linked to the memory of a valiant knight, for whom a legend was born. Girart de Roussillon, hero of the lyrical epic that bears his name, was, with his wife Bertha, the founder of a monastery on the banks of the Cure River in 860. Pillaged a few years later by the Normans, a Benedictine abbey was rebuilt at the top of the nearby hill at its current location. The popularity of Vézelay would not come until later. The belief that the abbey held the relics of Mary Magdalene the repentant sinner was not spread until the middle of the 11th century.
Vézelay then became the ultimate endpoint of the great pilgrimages in Christendom, especially busy since it was located on one of the routes to Compostela. The influx of pilgrims was an advantage for the city that had, in the 12th century, 8,000 to10 000 people, a considerable population at the time. Vézelay had become such a vital center for the Christian West that the assembly for the commencement of the Second Crusade was held there on Easter of the year 1146: Saint Bernard preached that day in the presence of King Louis VII, Queen Eleanor, a crowd of nobles, prelates and people from all walks of life that had flocked to the hill. In 1190 again, it was in Vézelay that Philip Augustus and Richard the Lion Hearted gathered their armies together and started out for the Third Crusade.
In 1217, Saint Francis of Assisi chose the hill of Vézelay to found the first Franciscan settlement on French soil, and the king Saint Louis, who had a special devotion to the Abbey of Madeleine, went there four times. The beautiful abbey, rebuilt starting from 1096, is the most striking example of this exceptional destiny.
Criteria for selection
Criterion (i): the Abbey of Madeleine of Vézelay is one of the masterpieces of Burgundian Romanesque art. The nave (1120 - 1140), a little lopsided under the pressure of vaults, seems balanced by its large semicircular arches with colored cupola bricks, and by a series of capitals that are unique in the variety of themes presented (secular allegories and biblical and hagiographic scenes). But the reason for the universal fame of Vézelay is carved between the nave and the narthex portal. The tympanum, the "Mission of the Apostles", stems from an almost encyclopedic inspiration, revealing the science of the time. The magnitude and complexity of the themes did not in any way temper the invention and personal passion of the sculptor, who left here one of the major monuments of Western Romanesque art.
Criterion (iv): In the 12th century, the hill of Vézelay was a place of election where, in a sort of climax, medieval Christian spirituality gave birth to various and specific manifestations, ranging from prayer and the lyrical epic to the Crusade.
Source : Unesco / ICOMOS
The first religious building that was built on the hill of Vézelay was created by Benedictine monks in the 9th century. The Carolingian Church of the monastery was recognized by Pope John VIII in 878. In 1037, the Abbot Geoffrey reformed the abbey and exposed the relics of Mary Magdalene. Following the miracles that were attributed to these relics, Vézelay quickly became an important place of pilgrimage on the route to Saint Jacques de Compostela. In 1058, the relics were recognized by the Pope. The fame of the abbey allowed the village of Vézelay to grow and prosper.
At the end of the 11th century, Abbot Artaud, newly elected head of the abbey, began the construction of a new church. Only the nave of the Carolingian church was preserved. From 1096 to 1104, a new choir and transept were built. But two years after the completion of the transept, the Abbot Artaud was killed by the people who were revolting against the burdensome cost of financing the work of the abbey. Following a fire in the frame in 1120, the nave was rebuilt and completed in 1140. Work continued on the western facade and narthex (between the facade and the nave). The Chapel of Saint Michel, one of the oldest in France, was built from 1145 to 1152. This was the golden age of the cathedral, as many important figures would gather here.
At the request of Pope Eugene III, Saint Bernard (Bernard of Clairvaux) preached the Second Crusade in 1146 in the presence of King Louis VII of France. It was here that the departure for the Third Crusade was organized in 1190 in the presence of Philippe Auguste (King of France) and Richard the Lion Hearted (King of England). In 1162, it was annexed by the kingdom of France. The same year, the Carolingian crypt was destroyed by fire. The overhanging choir and transept were rebuilt in the following years in a Gothic style, which was just emerging at that time. In the early 13th century, the Franciscan convent founded by Saint Francis of Assisi was the first of its kind in France. Louis IX (Saint Louis) traveled there several times on pilgrimage in the 13th century.
In the mid-14th century, the Gothic tower of the west facade was completed. Paradoxically, it was during this century that the abbey would know the beginning of its decline. Pilgrims are fewer and fewer since the tomb of Mary Magdalene had been exhumed in Saint Maximin (Provence), revealing well-preserved relics. Pilgrimage to the site declined and with it the alms given to the Church. Pope Boniface VIII then turned away from the abbey, favoring the Church of Saint Baume in Saint Maximin. The Religious Wars of the 16th century did not spare the abbey, and it was vandalized by Protestant Huguenots. The abbey fell further into disgrace with the pope and the king.
In 1760, the abandoned abbey buildings were sold or demolished. After the French Revolution, the abbey was used as a quarry and its stone sculptures were severely damaged. The college of canons was closed, and the church, abbey and college became part of the parish. The rest of the abbey ruins were sold and razed.
With the 19th century came the renewal of the abbey. After Prosper Mérimée (Inspector of Historic Monuments) had it registered on the list of historic monuments in 1840, Viollet le Duc undertook the restoration work immediately. The restoration was completed in 1859. A few years later, new relics of Saint Mary Magdalene were given to the church and pilgrimage visits were once again restored, though on a smaller scale than during the Middle Ages. In 1920 the abbey obtained the title of basilica. The basilica has been in the hands of the monastic Brotherhood of Jerusalem since 1993. Visitors will surely come across them when visiting and should not hesitate to ask them questions about this historic place.
12 Rue Saint-Etienne, 89450 Vézelay
Website - tel : 03 86 33 23 69
September through June, daily from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. / 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., cl osed on Sundays from November through March.
July and August, daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. ; Sunday : 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. / 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Village tours offered by the Tourist Office
Guided tour of the village
Visit possible with a tour guide.
Visit Vézelay with an audio guide
Price : €3. Commentary : 1 hour, 30 minutes The tour includes a visit of the village and the basilica. Adapted for a visually impaired audience with books in braille or large print. Information and rental at the Tourist Office (in French only).
14 Rue Saint Etienne, 89450 Vézelay.
Website – tel : 03 86 32 39 26 .
Full price/ reduced price : €5/ €3. Free for those under 25 years old.
Open from March 15 to November 15: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on Tuesdays.
Open every day in July and August.: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Zervos Museum is located in the house of the writer Romain Rolland. It houses the Modern Art collection "Cahiers d' Art", magazine founded in 1926 by Christian Zervos.
The museums hosts an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures by major 20th-century artists such as Picasso, Ernst, Calder, Miro, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Laurens, Léger, Vieija da Silva ... And some archaeological pieces of the Cyclades (Greece).
For children : a booklet guide is available to help them discover modern art.
Musée de l’œuvre de Viollet le Duc
To the right of the basilica.
Tel : 03 86 33 24 62.
Price : €3 / 12 to 18 years old: €1. Free for children under 12 years old.
Open from April through October, on weekends: 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. In July and August, open daily: 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The museum is housed in the former monks' dormitory. This lapidary museum contains many original sculptures of the basilica placed there by the architect in the 19th century.
The Roads to Vézelay (late May to early June)
Pilgrimage of Sainte Madeleine (July)
Musical encounters of Vézelay (August)
Festival of harvest and traditions (August)
Christmas celebrations (December)
Wednesdays, May to October. Place du champ de foire.
Getting to Vézelay
From the north (Paris) : Highway A6 towards Lyon, exit Nitry (29 km from Vézelay)
Take route D11 then route N6 and route N151 .
From the south (Lyon) : Highway A6 towards Paris, exit Avallon
In Avallon (24 km from Vézelay), take route D957
Nearby classified sites
Abbey of Fontenay : 78 km (48 mi), time : 1 hour, 15 minutes
Saline Royale d'Arc et Senans : 210 km (130 mi), time : 2 hours, 25 minutes
Bourges 127 km (79 mi), time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Val de Loire (Sully sur Loire) : 130 km (81 mi), time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Fontainebleau : 157 km (97.5 mi), time : 2 hours
Parking lot du Clos (free), at the end of the village. There is a fee for the other parking lots in Vézelay. Though getting around by car in the village is possible in the winter, it is very difficult and not recommended in the summer.
Gare SNCF de Sermizelles (10 km)
Rue de la gare, 89200 Sermizelles
Website – tel : 36 35.
Transfers : by taxi (reservation required) or by SNCF bus to Vézelay throughout the year. It is also possible to walk to Vézelay from the Sermizelles train station by a marked trail, takes about 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Gare SNCF d’Avallon (15 km)
Place de la Gare, 89200 Avallon
Website – tel : 36 35.
Transfers : taxi (booking).
Sleeping / Eating
The selection of accommodation proposed below consists of establishments that offer quality services at competitive rates, they are considered as references in their respective categories. These addresses are inside or nearby the classified area. The prices shown are for the off season, on the basis of 2 people.
Hôtel Le Compostelle **
1 Place du Champ de Foire, 89450 Vézelay
Website - tel : 03 86 33 28 63.
Room from €59.
B&B "Val en Sel"
1 chemin de la Fontaine, 89450 St Père
Website - tel : 03 86 33 26 95.
Room from €110.
Open from April through October. Credit card not accepted.
The selection of restaurants proposed below consists of restaurants that offer a good price/quality value. These addresses are inside or nearby the classified area. “Formule” corresponds to a lunch special with a starter and a main course, or a main course and a dessert. The “menus” usually consist of a starter, a main course and a dessert, for lunch or dinner.
Restaurant Le Cheval Blanc – local cuisine
Place du Champ de Foire, 89450 Vézelay
Tel : 03 86 33 22 12.
"Lunch formule" : €22. "Menu" : €30.
Offers some rooms from €48.
Le Bougainville – traditional cuisine
26 Rue Saint-Étienne, 89450 Vézelay
03 86 33 27 57.
"Lunch menu" : €28. "Dinner menu" : €33.50.