Taizé on two wheels

23 August 2019

Hilary Macmillan finds architectural and natural beauty along the Voie Verte

THE bee-eaters have come into view, perched in a neat row along the power lines, their cheerful blue bodies setting off the creamy-yellow throat patch and chestnut head. Their burrows are also clear to see, in a sandy cliff carved out by the River Grosne as it meanders its way through fields dotted with Charolais cattle. The river flows towards Cluny, where, before setting off on my bike, I have spent the morning sauntering through the town’s lively Saturday market.

Adjacent to the market stalls, selling everything from cheese to chairs, are the vestiges of Cluny’s Romanesque Benedictine abbey. For centuries, the abbey commanded immense influence across the Christian world, including Britain. Although the monastic buildings and much of the church were destroyed at the time of the French Revolution, the ruins are very much worth a visit. It was also a pleasure to take a walk through Cluny’s medieval streets and watch the hundreds of house martins busy feeding their young.

I HAVE a love of Romanesque architecture, and, in this area of Burgundy, there is an astonishing density of such churches — even more than in my home county of Herefordshire. Many are of a quality that matches or exceeds the parish church in Kilpeck and the fine craftsmanship of the Herefordshire School of Sculpture.

Of course, Herefordshire has the French to thank for so many of its ecclesiastical masterpieces: wealthy Norman aristocrats were behind the building of numerous churches along the border with Wales. This landscape also offers a richness that will enthral any naturalist, and it is a paradise for cyclists — in this case, one embarking on a lengthy retirement tour.

The Café du Nord at Cluny is a meeting place for market regulars, and there I chatted with Michel, a retired local-history teacher. “Cluny has always been a meeting place of peoples, both friends and strangers alike,” he explains. “Remember, the town was, and still is, a place of pilgrimage, lying on the Chemin de St Jacques, the route to Santiago de Compostela.”

Something else that draws people to Cluny is of course, Taizé, an ecumenical community of Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, devoted to reconciliation. Its presence and its work spreads beyond the village boundaries and seeing so many young people celebrating their faith is heartening. Every year, they come from across the globe in their thousands.

TODAY’s cycling follows the Voie Verte, a dedicated cycle-way along the route of a disused railway line. This “green way” extends for some 80km between Mâcon and Chalon-sur-Saône, passing through Cluny and Taizé. It is perfect for families and leisure cyclists, and bike hire is available in Cluny. There are also numerous cycle loops off the path, and, to complete the circuit, there is the Voie Bleue which follows the course of the mighty River Saône, between the same two towns.

HILARY MACMILLANThe church at Ameugny

I get off my bike and grab my binoculars for a clearer view of the bee-eaters, but I am distracted by singing. This is not the fluted song of these dazzling birds, but a harmonious rendering of “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah . . . ” Walking along the cycle path behind me is a group of young people laughing, chatting, and singing. One of the group lags behind, absorbed in a well-thumbed copy of the Bible, while skillfully avoiding walking into passing cyclists.

This is not a sight you would often see on a cycle ride, but these young people are Taizé’s pilgrims. I really want to show them the bee-eaters. I also want to join them and share in their public expression of faith, but my English reserve, and an age gap of several decades, prevents such a move. I jump on my bike and cycle on.

THE village of Taizé sits on a ridge between the valleys of the rivers Grosne and Guye. I am greeted by the 12th-century church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Taizé, standing proudly among a group of traditional village houses. Inside, a few people sit silently in prayer and contemplation. Sunlight spills in through a line of narrow stained-glass windows, bathing the interior in a warm light. It is a place of peace, and I stay awhile. Further on, into the heart of the community, the road is lined with young people.

I cycle on to the neighbouring settlement of Ameugny. The church, Romanesque in style and built of local limestone with an attractive reddish hue, has a spectacular view towards distant vineyards. After admiring the traces of 16th-century frescoes, I retrace my route back through Taizé. I find it extraordinarily moving, seeing all these young people here to experience or search for a spiritual union with God through all that Taizé has to offer: prayer, song, reflection, silence, friendship.

THE cycleway from Taizé is bordered by a colourful sward of wild flowers: poppies, scabious, and vetches. I follow the flowers to the village of Cormatin for an early lunch at La Terrasse. The path skirts the boundary of the immaculately restored 17th-century Renaissance Château de Cormatin, with its turrets, moat, and formal gardens.

One particular delight for me is the presence of a stork’s nest on one of the château’s chimney stacks: a species becoming increasingly more common in this area of France. I watch as a parent bird leaves the nest and heads for the adjacent flood meadows. It will no doubt return with some tasty frogs for the young storks that are just visible over the tangle of sticks.

Refreshed, I leave Cormatin and the Voie Verte to cycle the first hill of the day — and wish I’d taken more notice of the contours when planning this route. After I get my breath back, and enjoy the view of the Château d’Uxelles, it is an easy ride through a bucolic landscape to Chapaize. In its heyday, Cluny Abbey held authority over many hundreds of abbeys and priories: the priory of St Pancras, in Lewes, was the first of many Cluniac priories established in England. Within this European monastic empire, Chapaize was one of the more modest priories. Today, only the 11th-century church of Saint-Martin remains.

HILARY MACMILLANHilary exploring the remains of Cluny Abbey

What strikes me most about this church is the bell tower (no pun intended). Its blind arcades give it an Italian feel, and that, I read, is the architectural influence of a skilled builder brought in from Lombardy. Surrounding the church are some superb examples of stone village houses, and I wander among them. I stand for a few minutes more to watch dozens of swifts busily screaming and swooping around the bell tower — they must have young in there. How extraordinary that these for ever flying arrows even sleep on the wing.

A few more minutes cycling, through the welcome of some woodland shade and heralded by a black kite soaring silently in the thermals above, I arrive at the village of Lancharre, with its recently renovated 11th-century church. Although only the transept and choir remain, it has been restored impeccably, and the new stained-glass windows, in pastel hues of blue, are worth the cycle ride alone. They are the work of the stained-glass artist Jean-Marie Géron. To many, he has the ability to make light sing (“le chant de la lumière”).

I CAN fit in one more church, and it has to be the church of Saint-Martin, at Ougy. The ride through the peaceful patchwork landscape to Ougy takes less than half an hour, and, to my relief, there are no muscle-taxing inclines. My reward is another recently renovated Romanesque church. It looks as if the original builders have only just left.

The blind arcades in the bell tower, similar to those at Chapaize, give it that same Mediterranean feel. In contrast with the outside, the inside has clearly not been touched for decades, but there is a warm simplicity to it.

It is late, and I must head back to Cluny while it is still light. I pass through the hamlet of Malay, where I have to stop for just one more enticing church. As I leave, I notice the ages on a joint grave. The husband died in 1944, and the inscription reads: “Mort pour la France”. His wife would have been just 24 years old.

Tomorrow, I will cycle the Voie Bleue, watching out for curlews, storks, and egrets, and stopping at the riverside town of Tournus to visit the fabulous 11th-century Abbaye Saint-Philibert.

For those looking for a destination where you can delve into a rich ecclesiastical history, enjoy a landscape bursting with wildlife, and experience some fine wine, the environment around Taizé takes some beating.

Hilary Macmillan is a natural-history writer and PCC secretary of St Michael and All Angels, Castle Frome, in Herefordshire.

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