France Forever: Exploring Cluny And The Butte de Suin

cows in France
David Downie

As I teetered atop the wind-blown, 700-year-old Tour des Fromages in the medieval tangle of Cluny, on Burgundy’s southern edge, I could see history writ large: the Romanesque spires and broken columns of Cluny’s ruined abbey, once the biggest in Christendom. But my rapturous eyes took in more: the tuck-‘n’-roll hills and rocky trails my wife and I explored a few years back.

Alison and I clocked 750 miles across Burgundy and Southwest France, a 3-month “skeptic pilgrimage” chronicled in my book “Paris to the Pyrenees.” Among our absolute favorite places: Cluny and Southern Burgundy. This backwater of timberland, vineyards, and pastures is where the big white Charolais cattle you now see all over the world came from. Cows outnumber residents.
The views of uncluttered countryside are inspiring. The best view of all is from an isolated mountaintop 12 miles due west of Cluny called Butte de Suin. On our pilgrimage we detoured to it. So, back in Burgundy this summer, Butte de Suin was the first place we revisited.

With the August sun behind us, we saddled up and headed west from Cluny at 8 am on cross-country hiking trail GR 76. It corkscrews out of the valley and roller-coasters through forests flanked by pastures. By 10 am we could see Suin on the horizon. Between us and it were stone-built villages, outsized animals, and some pretty iffy fences.

Approaching weathered but flower-filled Sivignon, a village footing the butte, we pulled over. An SUV-sized bull snorted, rattling the chains on his shaggy, cream-colored head. He was a large specimen. Separating the bull’s horns from our flesh was maybe two yards and a single strand of electrified wire. I hoped the battery was charged.

Glancing up toward the Virgin Mary atop the Butte de Suin, my mind’s eye saw emerald pastures running crimson – punishment by goring for my religious skepticism. Bellowing then lunging at us, the bull turned suddenly and trotted away. “Thank you,” I whispered, feeling skeptical about skepticism. I wasn’t sure if it was Mary, the bull of ancient Mithras, or Zeus himself who’d spared us. He’s been known to take a bull’s shape at the sight of a woman.

We marched up a steep trail through a tunnel of trees to the boulder-strewn top of Butte de Suin. The pastel-blue and cloud-white sculpture of the Madonna rose at the mountain’s summit. Scrambling over boulders to her rusty feet we followed the trajectory of a hawk over the patchwork of forests, fields, and pastures. Due south were the vineyards of Beaujolais. No freeways, cities, or blight was visible, and few signs of modernity.

Residents claim you can count 64 steeples from Butte de Suin. We mounted a faux medieval lookout tower atop another pile of boulders and ran our fingers over a ceramic map embedded in stone. Arrows and distances took us from the Loire Valley to alpine peaks in Switzerland. I counted 50 belfries but Alison disallowed three. “Not too shabby,” I remarked, satisfied. As the Michelin guidebook might say, Suin is worth the detour.

History books say humans have been climbing Butte de Suin for some time now. The hogback outcrop of Roche de Solutré lies due east about 20 miles, near Macon. Everyone knows the Solutrian Phase of the Upper Paleolithic Era covered 3,000 years, from 15,000 to 12,000 BC, right?

Julius Caesar’s army overran Butte de Suin about 2,000 years ago. Back then it was a Celtic stronghold and place of Druidic worship. But archeologists think the boulders at Suin were stood on end or piled up to make table-like dolmens thousands of years before Caesar. Shrine-building was a big deal for the Earth Mother worshippers or “Megalithic Missionaries” the Celts wiped out. Suin was strategic in antiquity: The Butte is a watershed. East of it waters flow into the Sâone River and wind up in the Mediterranean; west they join the Loire and flow to the Atlantic.

From the lookout we could see the pre-Celtic trail of those Solutrian Age hunter-gatherers, later used by the pre-Celtic Earth Mother worshippers and then the Celts, the Romans, medieval knights, and, nowadays, by lost pilgrims. In theory the prehistoric trail zigzags south to the Massif Central.

We ate a slender picnic while soaking up the magical ancientness of Suin. A Roman fort once sat on the pre-Celtic boulders. A thousand years ago a Romanesque church grew alongside it. As the centuries rolled by farmhouses mushroomed around the church. The fortress burned down in 1580, leaving the boulders, farmhouses, and church. They’re still clustered here, frosted by lichen and buffeted by wind.

We stepped inside the cool, dark, empty interior. No pilgrims to be seen. I could’ve settled down for a nap. But it was time to head back to Cluny and modern times.