Abbeys of Fontenay and Vézelay, Burgundy

Fontenay Abbey

The first time you visit a place is when it’s the most captivating. Subsequent visits may be great, but you don’t have that same thrill as the first time you stumble on an unexpected and truly magnificent sight. The Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay was one of those magical places that I hesitated to return to for fear it would not live up to my memories.

Originally built in the 12th century, it was painstakingly restored in 1905 after a brief life as a paper mill. Generally I prefer ruins that show the passing of centuries as nature reclaims the edifices that man has built, but Fontenay, fully restored, is exquisite. The simplicity and perfection in design of the stone chapel, cloisters and garden is breathtaking. You know you are in a well designed landscape when every scene through your view finder is yet another great shot.

However, the real joy of the place is the serene setting. On a Tuesday morning in late June there were few other visitors. Walking the grounds one easily imagines the life of a 12th century monk. This time, going back was just as inspiring if not more so than that first visit.

We had gotten an early start to the abbey as temperatures were expected to approach 100° F, extremely hot for Burgundy. With temperatures barely reaching 70° over the previous weekend we could scarcely believe that it could get so hot, but it did.

Flavigny sur Ozerain

After Fontenay we took a quick spin through Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where Chocolat was filmed. A cute medieval town perched on a hill, with only a handful of tourists snapping pictures along its quaint streets. The Flavigny Abbey is home to Anise of Flavigny. Originally an anise seed candy, it now comes in a dozen flavors. Be there before 11AM on a weekday if you want to tour the abbey factory where the sweets are made.


Vézelay, one of the most popular medieval towns in the region was about dead as it could be, scorched to death in the rising afternoon temperatures. A few tourists clung to the narrow strip of shade along the main street. Shops were open, but dark until you stepped inside.

The star attraction, Basilique Ste. Madeleine, was a cool retreat. More tourists seemed to have the same idea, but still minimal in number compared to the hoards Vézelay is supposed to get in the summer months. We’re happy to spend some time here and take in the vastness and serenity of the space. The intensity of the hot sun produces a soft glow through the cathedral’s candy-striped arches.

For links to all the posts in this series see the Burgundy page.