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Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene is a Benedictine abbey church in the commune and town of Vezelay (Burgundy, France). The official history of the basilica starts in 860 AD when the land to build a monastery was given to Benedictines by Girart de Roussillon, a Carolingian count. However, long before that time, the place (which enjoyed a vantage hilltop location) was occupied by a Roman country house (or Roman villa built at the time of Roman Empire). After the demise of once powerful Roman state, the ownership if the villa passed to Carlovingians, a Frankish noble family which consolidated its power in the late 7th century and becoming the de-facto rulers of the Franks.
First attempts to found hilltop convents were not very successful; convents were looted and damaged first by Moorish and later by Norman raiders. The development of the place as a religious center took place in the middle of 11th century when the monks of Vézelay began to claim the possession of the relics of Mary Magdalene (brought allegedly from Mary Magdalene tomb in Saint-Maximin, Provence). As the news and the acceptance of the story were spreading out, the abbey started receiving hundreds and thousands of pilgrims. The pilgrimage resulted in the increase in the monastery's power and prestige and the rise of the town of Vezelay. Construction on the present basilica began in 1096 to honor the sacred relics; it was dedicated in 1104.
The prestige of the abbey began to diminish in late 13th century when members of the quickly growing Dominican Order proclaimed in 1279 a discovery of the true body of St. Mary Magdalene in the crypt of Saint-Maximin in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. During its history, Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene experienced several setbacks. The two most significant ones relate to (1) the French Wars of Religion (1562 - 1598) a period of hostilities between French Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) and (2) French Revolution (1789 - 1799). In particular, the Huguenots burned the relics, and during the revolution most of monastery buildings were destroyed. The basilica itself, although damaged, survived and was restored in 1840.
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What Makes It Special
Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene is one the largest and best-preserved Romanesque churches; it is the largest Romanesque church in France. The basilica rivals in size Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The basilica is known for its remarkable architecture and its visual efects. It presents a rich collection of Romanesque sculptures decorating the narthex tympanums (semi-circular wall decoration wall over an entrance to the building) and portal as well as narrative and decorative capitals throught the church. The church has an amazing sound quality, but it is especially known for the light-filled original nave of the Basilica in sharp contrast with mostly dark inside Romanesque architechture. During summer solstice at noon time, the geometry of the building creates the pools of sunlight leading to the area where the relics of Mary Magdalene were. While visiting the basilica, you visit a place associated with many turning-point historical events. Anong others, that was the place where the Second Crusade was launched by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and the place where Richard the Lion-Hearted and Philip Augustus assembled their forces for the Third Crusade.
The town and the Basilica of St Magdelene are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
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Directions To Destination
International travelers arrive to Paris via Charles de Gaulle Airport (IATA: CDG, ICAO: LFPG) - one of the world's main aviation centers, as well as France's main airport. The airport serves as the principal hub for Air France and is a European hub for Delta Air Lines. It is located 16 miles (25 km) to the northeast of Paris.You can get from the airport to Paris by rail, bus, shuttle or taxi.
From Paris to Vezelay you can get by car or train. Train is less expensive, but since Vezelay does not have any railway station, using trains may take additional time and present problems with planing your itinerary. That's why we recommend renting a car: the trip will take about two hours. From Paris take motorway A6: Paris - Sens - Auxerre - exits Auxerre south or Nitry. From Nitry take roads D944 then D32, then N6 and D951. Use map or locator for help.
If you want to use train, keep in mind that once popular route using TGV from Paris to Montbard and then by bus from Montbard to Vezelay is not practical anymore (after the bus from Montbard to Vezelay was canceled as of September 2010). Today, to go by train you will have to use a regular train from Paris Bercy railway station to Laroche-Migennes or Auxerre. To Auxerre trip takes about 1.5 hours. From Auxerre to Vezelay is 32 miles (52 km). To get to Vezelay you need to transfer to a local train at Auxerre St Gervai railway station (depending on the schedule you may have a very brief window to transfer between trains). The local train from Auxerre goes to Sermizelles-Vezelay station (about one hour trip). The total train cost is about $45/person (2011). Once in Sermizelles-Vezelay, you need to take a taxi or bus to Vezelay (6.2 miles or 10 km from Sermizelles-Vezelay to Vezelay).
If you chose Laroche-Migennes as a transfer station on your way from Paris, the first part of the trip will take about 1 hour 20 minutes. Another hour (or a bit more) from Laroche-Migennes to Sermizelles-Vezelay 1 hour 10 minutes - the price is the same - $46 per person. Distance from Vezelay to Laroche-Migennes is about 50 miles (80 km).
Finally, keep in mind that there is a direct train from Paris Bercy to Sermizelles-Vezelay. The trip takes about 2 hours 40 minutes (same cost as other trains). Although this option may seem attractive, in reality it may be not so since it is scheduled late afternoon/evening with arrival to Sermizelles-Vezelay about 9 PM.
If you want to rely on trains the following Web sites may be helpful with train schedules and booking tickets: Rail Europe, SNCF: Voyage, Transports et Logistique (French) and TER SNCF (French). The distance from Vezelay to Paris is 137 miles (220 km), Laroche-Migennes 50 miles (80 km), Montbard 35 miles (56 km), Auxerre 32 miles (52 km), Avallon 9 miles (15 km), Sermizelles 6.2 miles (10 km).
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Best Time To Go
If you main or only goal is to visit Vezelay, you can do it all year round. If Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene is just one of the stops in your itinerary, summer is the best period to explore France. Anyway, spring or fall, April - May and September - October, are not so crowded, and the weather is mild and pleasant. Christmas is also good peaceful time to go. For annual festival of St. Mary Magdalene the best time is July (Mary Magdalene' Roman Catholic traditional feast day is July 22).
Burgundy has a continental climate with cold winters, hot summers and medium rainfall. July and August are sunny and warm. The temperature goes up to 85 °F - 90 °F (26 °C - 30 °C). December is the coldest month with temperatures about 36 °F (2 °C).
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Where To Stay
- Hotel Le Compostelle (Place du champs de Foire, 89450 Vezelay, France), two star hotel with rates from €50 to €90 per person/night (5.5 % VAT included, city tax excluded, 2011 prices). Hotel occupies an old building and has 18 rooms. It is a cozy place offering an authentic French small town experience with private garden and a terrace overlooking the village square, breakfast room with panoramic views
- Hotel La Palombière (Place du Champ de Foire, 89450 Vezelay, France) - Rates from €60 to €100 (5.5 % VAT included, city tax excluded, 2011 prices). The hotel occupies the 18th-century mansion. It is located in the center of Vezelay, a couple of minutes from Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene. Hotel has 10 rooms.
Research and book hotels in or near Vezelay, France
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Useful Visitor Information and Tips
Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene opening hours: July - August - daily from 7 AM to 9 PM, September through June - daily at sunrise and sunset.
Entrance is free but parking is not - prices are €1 for one hour or €2 for the whole day (prices are subjected to change)
You can see Basilica from the air by hot air balloon. France Montgolfieres offers this service. It takes about an hour with the prices of €185 per person.
From June to September you can listen to organ recitals on Sundays at 4 PM in Basilica of St Magdalene.
There are other places of interest in the area you may want to see. They include:
- Church of the Holy Father (L'église de St-Pere-sous-Vezelay) takes only five minutes to get there - distance 1.2 miles (2 km) from Vezelay center.
- Church of Saint-Lazare (L'église Saint-Lazare est l'église de la ville d' Avallon en Bourgogne) located in Avallon (travel time about 20 minutes - Avallon is 9 miles (15 km) from Vezelay).
- Collegiate Church of Our Lady of Semur-en-Auxois (L'église Notre-Dame, Semur-en-Auxois). You will need about an hour to get there from Vezelay - the travel distance is about 35 miles (57 km).
Vezelay is one of starting pilgrims' points of the Way of St. James which begins in France and goes to Spain to the town of Santiago de Compostela. Saint James is the Patron Saint of Spain and Santiago de Compostela (Latin Sanctu Iacobu -Saint James) is the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia, Spain. The Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is the final destination of medieval pilgrimage route named after Saint James - the Way of St. James. Being the most popular pilgrimage for Western European Catholics from the early Middle Ages it attracts thousands of pilgrims nowadays to Santiago Cathedral where according to the legend the remains of the apostle James are held. In 1985 the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The pilgrims can chose Vezelay as a starting point for their quest (other places are Paris, Le Puy en Velay and Arles). If they chose Vezelay, there are two routs - one through Bourges via la Charite sur Loire, and the other is through Nevers. Both routes join in Gargilesse.
In Tharoiseau, east of Vezelay you can see a tall cross Montjoie carved from stone. It is a point where the pilgrims catch the first sight of Basilica of St Magdalene. The distance from Vezelay to Santiago, the point of pilgrims destination, is between 1034 miles (1664 km) and 1056 miles (1700 km) - 67 to 68 days of walking (15 miles (25 km) per day). From Vézelay to Saint-Jean-Pied de Port via Bourges - 549 miles (884 km); from Vézelay to Saint-Jean Pied de Port via Nevers - 572 miles (920 km); from Saint-Jean-Pied de Port to Santiago - 485 miles (780 km) - 32 days.
If you pick up Avallon as your transfer point for Vezelay keep in mind that buses from Avallon are scheduled to Vezelay only on Friday evenings and Monday mornings during the year. In high tourist season - July and August the bus service is offered on regular bases and there are tourist shuttles between Avallon and Vezelay from Easter to All Saint's day.
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