Vézelay, France

Vézelay is considered to be one of the must see villages in France. We offer a range of small group tours to France for the senior traveller to enjoy. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

13 Mar 24 · 8 mins read


The village of Vézelay – officially one of the most beautiful in France – sits on a hill on the left bank of the Cure River over stunning views of pristine French countryside. It’s located in the north-central French region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, on the edge of the Morvan Regional Park. Every wall and street in the Vézelay drips with history – the entire village, along with its 11th-century Romanesque Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Join in the footsteps of pilgrims who have been coming here from all over Europe for the past 1,000 years, and enjoy the religion, culture, history, cuisine, and surrounding natural beauty that the village has to offer.

This article explores the history and attractions of Vézelay as part of our series on French villages, each with its own unique history and culture. Odyssey Traveller visits these villages on our various tours of France, each taking you on a journey through different periods in history and exploring the rich tapestry of these places and the people who have lived there. On each tour, we examine the various cultures and economies that have shaped these villages, including their agriculture, trade, and merchant activity. In doing so, we delve into the wealth and philanthropy that has come out of these places, represented today in the art of their museums and galleries, as well as the palaces and homes built in these periods. Each village we visit will offer a unique snapshot of the past, showcasing the lives of the people who lived there and how they created vibrant and thriving communities. Join us on a journey through time to discover the beauty and history of these enchanting French villages.

We conduct a tour of Vézelay as part of our 23-day Provincial France Small Group Tour and our 24-day La Belle France small group history tour. Read on for more information about the village! And if you’d like to learn more, readers are urged to take a look at Stéphane Bern’s The Best Loved Villages of France, which was used in the writing of this article.

The town Vezelay, Burgundy in France

The Village of Vézelay

The village of Vézelay was founded in the 12th century around the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (Saint Mary Magdalene). It more or less consists of one long, steep street that climbs up a hill – known as the ‘eternal hill’ – to the basilica at the top. From the top of the hill, you can contemplate panoramic views of the Morvan mountainous massif. The stunning surrounding landscape features attractive Burgundian vineyards, meadows, and forests.

The historic village itself encircles the eternal hill. Enter through the two imposing towers of Porte Neuve at the bottom of the village. This is part of the fortifications, built between the 12th and 15th centuries, to protect the village.

Once inside the village, visitors can stroll along the main street, as well as its narrow, winding side alleys, past Renaissance high houses nestled together. Many of the houses on the main street have been converted into cafes, galleries, and gift shops, with cellars open directly onto the sidewalk.

Along the village’s cobbled streets, you’ll also find the remains of the original village ramparts, as well as the scattering of shells set in the ground. These shells were laid here by the French pilgrims who set off to walk from here in Vézelay to the church of Saint James at Santiago de Compostella, in Spain. In summer, hollyhocks nicknamed the ‘sticks of Saint James’, join in to dot Vézelay’s streets in majestic colour.

In all, the sights of the village may remind you of the French film La Grande Vadrouille. At one point, the actors Andre Bourvil and Louis de Funes speed through the Porte Neuve on their bicycles. Indeed, the majority of the night scenes, such as the one in which the two starts hide from the Germans, were filmed here.

The town Vezelay, Burgundy in France

The Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine

Vézelay’s main attraction is easily the Basilica. Sitting atop the eternal hill, one of the last hills before the end of the Morvan, the monastic church has watched over the village since the twelfth century.

It is all that remains of the Benedictine abbey originally constructed here in 771 to protect the holy relics of Saint Mary Magdalene. The relics, still housed in the basilica today, reputedly arrived in Vézelay after being rescued from a Muslim invasion of Ephesus in modern day Turkey. The story goes the burial remained a secret so that even the monks didn’t know about it. Only around 1050 did they rediscover the saint’s remains, after which the word spread throughout France.

The site soon became an important place of pilgrimage, conveniently located on the road to the Church of St James in Santiago de Compostela, a popular pilgrimage site in Spain. Over the centuries, thousands have come here to worship the relics of Saint Magdalene as a starting point on the route.

Construction of the great abbey church, one of the largest monastic churches in France, began here under the instructions of Gerard, Duke of Burgundy, at the end of the 11th century. It soon became connected to the Crusades, with St Bernard preaching the Second Crusade here in 1146 and Richard the Lion-Heated and Phillip II Augustus meeting here before embarking for the Third Crusade in 1190.

From the late 13th century, the influence of the abbey declined and fell into repair, before suffering further destruction at the hands of revolutionaries in the late 18th century. It would be saved from utter ruin, however, in the 1840s by the French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Responsible for the renovation of many of the greatest monuments in France, he would restore the abbey too to its former glory.

Basilica of Vezelay back external part.

The result is the splendid basilica that you can see today. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, it stands as a masterpiece of the Romanesque style of architecture. It is filled with soaring vaulted-ceilings, semi-circular arches, sculptured capitals, and imposing pillars. The façade includes numerous decorative elements, including a seated Christ blessing the evangelists and several statues of the saints.

The art inside the abbey is just as majestic. In particular, there is an abundance of remarkable sculptures. At the entrance to the nave, for example, is a most extraordinary example of a Roman style sculpture to be found in France – another splendid depiction of Christ and the twelve apostles. And several more sculptures dominate the tympanum, gates, and capitals. The crypt, meanwhile, contains colourful wall paintings dating back to the 12th century, including a must see “Christ in Glory”.

The movement of light within the roman basilica further adds to its sense of overwhelming beauty. The entire structure is built according to the position of the earth relative to the sun. At noon on the summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point of the year, light pass through the southern clerestory windows to project a luminous path precisely along the longitudinal centre of the nave floor to the Basilica’s choir. The symbolism is truly something to behold.

The grand entrance to the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine , central France.

Other Attractions in Vézelay

Vézelay is host to numerous more cultural and architectural attractions. Over the years several celebrated writers, including Georges Bataille, René Char, Paul Eluard, Paul Claudel, Romain Rolland, and Jules Roy have all chosen to reside in the village. Maison Jules Roy, the former house of Jules Roy, can now be visited. Here one can experience the atmosphere in which the writer worked, with breathtaking views over the Basilica and the Cure valley. The house’s peaceful and well-maintained gardens are also a pretty site. Nowadays, the house continues to welcome authors in residence and also hosts regular cultural exhibitions and literary evenings.

The former home of Romain Rolland, meanwhile, has been turned into a museum – Musée Zervos. It displays the extraordinary collection bequeathed to the village by the late art critic Christian Zervos. The collection includes sculptures, paintings, drawings, and mobiles by some of the all-time greats, including Henri Laurens, Alxander Calder, Pablo Picasso, Vassily Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, Max Ernest, Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti, and Le Corbusier.

The 12th century Chapple Sainte-Croix is also a popular attraction. This small Romanesque chapel was built on the hillside below Vézelay, dedicated to the Holy Cross in honour of the Second Crusade. When the first Franciscan Brothers arrived in the village some 70 years later and asked for hospitality, the local monks gave them the chapel, becoming the first French Franciscan establishment.

Nearby Attractions

There are several other small and quaint villages close to Vézelay. Just a couple kilometres out of the village is Saint-Pere. This small village is home to an extravagant 13th-century gothic church, which dominates the village centre. It also hosts ancient saltwater springs, known as Fontaines Salées on its outskirts, including the excavated ruins of Roman baths. Tickets to the fountains will also grants you access to Le Musée Archéologique in Saint-Pere, a museum host to a collection of antiquities from the fountain’s excavations as well as medieval sculptures.

The pretty fortified town of Avallon is also within easy reach of Vézelay. It includes an historic centre, with half-timbered houses, clock tower and terraced gardens. From here, you can then drive over to Montréal, a quiet village surrounded by a lush-green environment. Here’s perfect for forest hiking, lake swimming, or exploring history at Bibracte – a Gallic fortified settlement,

Just south of Vézelay, meanwhile, is the 13th century Château de Bazoches – a medieval castle formerly home to the military engineer Sébastien Vauban. Here you can visit the room where Vauban drafted plans for 300 fortified towns all over France.

Tour of of Vézelay

Provincial France Lavender
Abbey of Senanque and blooming rows of lavender flowers at sunset. Gordes, Luberon, Vaucluse, Provence, France, Europe.

Odyssey Traveller visits Vézelay as part of our 23-day Provincial France Small Group Tour for mature and senior travellers. On this small group tour exploring provincial France, drift through Alsace, Burgundy, Provence and the stunning Jura Mountains on the byways and waterways of France. With a key focus on the region’s history, our French foray commences in Alsatian wine country and concludes in Paris, after detouring through the south of France. This tour is fully escorted, accompanied by an Odyssey Program Leader and local guides.

We also visit Vézelay during our 24-day La Belle France Small Group Escorted History Tour. The tour for mature and senior travellers explores some of the greatest regions of France filled with beautiful scenery and iconic landmarks – from the Loire Valley, to Provence, Southern France to Normandy & Brittany with its standing stones and magical coast. In all, we visit nine key cities and towns where we stay for between 1 and 3 nights. As we explore each region, we learn from our expert local guides about its history and contemporary society. We also enjoy breaking bread and sampling wine in some great cafes and restaurants as we explore the regional cuisine along the way.

The regions of France can further be explored during our 25-day Secret France Small Group Tour and our 24-day Rural France Tour. Escape France’s bustling cities to visit the country’s beautiful rural towns and picturesque medieval villages, basking in the fairy-tale natural beauty, Roman and Imperial heritage, and World Heritage Sites.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about France published by Odyssey Traveller

The following list of articles, represents some of the articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of France when visiting;

For all the articles published by Odyssey Traveller, please click through to this link

External articles to assist you plan your visit to France

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