Once the world’s largest church – France

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Avoid Mâcon

When you are in the Beaujolais area and want to get out of the vineyards and into a city or town you best avoid going to Mâcon. There is a lot of history and potential in Mâcon. Sadly its inhabitants don’t see the importance and relevance of preserving it. They think that building a new parking place is the same as renovating an ancient square. Other buildings are left to rot away with a sign on the side informing people about the historic value of what it once was. It’s dirty, most likely because of all the traffic. The tourist office mentioned an old carousel as the only public playground in the center. We found it. It was closed as it is only open in summer time.

The world’s largest church

A far better idea is spending part of your day in Cluny. Here you can visit the grounds of what was once the world’s largest monastery complex. In 910 William I, nicknamed ‘the Pious’, founded the Benedictine abbey of Cluny. Twelve monks were going to live in the monastery. It was a gift, so he did not claim any rights himself. According to the deed of gift it could also not be claimed by any local authority. Only the Pope had limited guardianship, but he could not change anything without the consent of the monks. And since the Pope lived far away the monastery was basically independent.

As time went by the influence of the place grew, mainly because of leaders of the monastery, the abbots, had international status. We can still see this influence, for example at the Hôtel de Cluny in Paris (France) and the Cluniac Houses in England and Scotland. Until 1506, when the construction of the St. Peter started in Rome, this was the largest church in the world. Unfortunately during the French revolution in 1793 the monastery was destroyed. They burned the libraries and archives. What remained was plundered. After the estate was sold the town of Cluny used the bricks to rebuild its houses.

Although not much remained of the former monastery, I could not help but imagining what the place must have been like when it was thriving and influential. Even these days the complex seems huge, especially with the tiny town of Cluny next to it. But apparently the original complex must have been ten times as large.

Our visit

On the way over my husband wondered why the French had forgotten to indicate that the street leading into Cluny was shut down. No warning signs, no alternative route, nothing. Maybe they thought it would be nice for people to see it when driving past the exit and going for a scenic tour before turning around. Luckily we were able to find another way in. A huge parking lot near the entrance of the monastery complex gave away that in summertime there might be a lot of visitors. Do remember the number of your license plate, because otherwise you might be starting a new order of monks.

We entered the site walking through one of the gates. To me it had the appearance of a large park with many trees, grass and small pebbles on the car-free streets. These days there is an elite engineering school (ENSAM) located in some of the buildings. We allowed its students to have some quiet time. Instead of barging in we entered the old church opposite the school.

There were several other tourists walking around in it. However, I must admit with a young daughter full of life I never have the time to have a proper look. We ran in: Eryn first and then me, trying to catch up whilst looking around. I tried to admire the enormous roof. Soon I had to help a surprised old woman who was taken by the hand for a tour by Eryn. I explained to the poor woman what was going on as she only spoke French. Then Eryn got an endearing smile from her. Yes, Eryn knows how to charm people. We looked around again, but did not stay long. The thought of what once was and the enormity of the complex was far more impressive to me than the church alone.

The town of Cluny

After our visit to the monastery grounds the stones with the image of a lamb on them led us to the center of the town of Cluny. These stones are actually part of a children’s walk through this town. Eryn seemed to enjoy following them. We walked past a real estate agent. Compared to the price of the houses in the Netherlands these houses looked cheap. I must admit most of them were very old and needed quite a bit of restauration, but that was the charming idea about it.

My husband and I soon started talking about what it would be like to buy some property here, hire someone to restore it and then start a B&B in it. As good as the idea sounded, there are disadvantages too about living near Cluny. The language for one. Schooling being another one. And public transport, living far away from our family. Still, sometimes it is good just to daydream about what our lives would be like if we made some drastic changes.

While we kept on following the lambs we past a bookstore. This is one of my weaknesses. I find it hard to pass a bookstore without entering it. In no time Eryn and I were standing inside. I tried to explain in French what I was looking for: a children’s book in French for a child who was not native speaking and only 3 years old. We ended up buying a nice booklet about an animal who went gardening. At the cash register the lady of the store had become very fond of Eryn. She even gave her a little present to remember her by.

We then found a cafe, where we sat down for some drinks. Eryn opened her present: a magnifying glass. As I sipped on my coffee, my husband and I continued daydreaming about our B&B and about Medieval Times, when Cluny was an important place in the world.

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