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.

Video: A Sublime Disruption

A Sublime Disruption” from Gareth Nolan on Vimeo.

Gareth Nolan shot this short film, “A Sublime Disruption,” during a trip around the world he took in 2011. “This video is not about the places I visited, but merely an attempt to evoke the feeling of wonder and excitement in seeing as much as I was lucky to,” Nolan says on his Vimeo page. Indeed, this video captures the wonder of travel well. With footage from Belize, Bolivia, Cambodia, Cook Islands, Chile, China, French Polynesia, Guatemala, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Tibet and The United States, from what I can tell, Nolan spent the year 2011 well.

3 Mistakes to Avoid on Round the World Trips

Voyage To Rapanui: 5,000 Miles Down With No GPS, Maps Or Compass

waka tapu voyage to rapanuiHow would you feel about sailing 10,000 nautical miles from Auckland, New Zealand, to Easter Island and back on a double-hulled canoe with no GPS or navigational equipment? In August, after reading a story my colleague wrote on the Waku Tapu Voyage to Rapanui Expedition, I resolved to check back on these intrepid explorers to see if they made it to Rapanui (Easter Island) in one piece.

I’m happy to report that 22 male and female New Zealanders did indeed complete the first half of their epic journey, arriving in Rapanui safe and sound on December 5. Traveling on two traditional waka (double-hulled sailing canoes) they retraced a historic route across the Pacific Ocean using only the stars, sun, moon, ocean currents, birds and other marine life to guide them, just as their Maori ancestors did. They are now en route back to New Zealand and are due to arrive home in late March. The goal of the journey was to “close the final corner of the Polynesian Triangle defined by Hawaii in the North, New Zealand in the South and Rapanui in the East.”
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I caught up with Karl Johnstone, Director of the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute, which organized the expedition, to find out more about this remarkable journey.

Tell us a little about this historic voyage?

It landed on the 5th of December in Rapanui (Easter Island) and they left Auckland on the 17th of August. There were two stopovers, one in Tubuai, one of the Austral Islands in French Polynesia, and then one in Mangareva, to the east of French Polynesia. We had about 22 people on board at any one time, 11 per waka (canoe). These are traditional double-hulled sailing canoes.





waka tapuThe two traditional elements of the voyage are the waka themselves, which are made of indigenous trees from New Zealand and have traditional composition modern rigging and traditional, non-instrument navigation, using environmental tools, habits of the sun, moon and stars and so on.

So there was no GPS or other type of navigational equipment used?

That’s right. This hasn’t been done in modern day times. There are GPS locators on board, and they had a satellite phone, which emits a GPS signal every half an hour back to our waka tracker, so we knew where they were at all times. And we looked at where they were all the time versus their sail plan and the navigators were never really more than 50 nautical miles off the course line they had set. They did really, really well.


You say this hasn’t been done. Has anyone tried it?

It’s never been tried in modern times.

What were some of the hardships the crew faced along the way?

The weather, number one. We had significant storms on our way out to Tubuai, four of them in fact. A lot of the crew, 50% at least were new to open-ocean voyaging, so they had to develop a trust in their vessel. Sickness as well. We had two cases of hypothermia – that’s to be expected when you’re out at the tail end of winter here. Some got boils as well, which is also common. They have to be treated seriously. A few guys had toothaches, infections.

A couple guys had to be taken off because of coral cuts because we couldn’t risk them getting infections out on the open ocean. Another one got burnt – most of the injuries happened on land, not out on the ocean. But we had a well-stocked medicine cabinet, so everyone was treated quite quickly.


Did everyone who started finish?

One had to come off as a result of an injury in Mangareva, but we took him to be there when the waka arrived in Rapanui because he’d made it through the hardest part of the voyage and we couldn’t bear for him not to be there at the end.

Tell me about the crewmembers. Did they all take time off from careers to do this?

waka tapuWe had teachers, people with Ph.D.’s, engineers, people who work for their tribes. It was a broad range of professions, in most cases, they had to walk away from their employment to do this voyage. Some were very senior; one in particular was a very senior official in the Ministry of Education here in New Zealand. A lot of these people walked away from everything you’d consider mandatory in the modern day world to undertake this voyage with no guarantee of success.

And the voyage was unpaid. They got some support along the way but we didn’t pay them or help with their mortgages or anything else, so they had to have a real commitment to this project.

How were they selected for this voyage?

It was through a training program, and they had to volunteer. We had a nine-month training program. There was some natural attrition, we had about 50 who volunteered, and the cream rose to the top.

[Photo credit: Waka Tapu]

In The Lagoon, At Midnight

The Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man …
The trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown.

– William Somerset Maugham

It was the last place I expected to feel lonely: on a little coral atoll in the South Pacific, home to the Tahitian black pearl farm where I would be volunteering for a month.

And during the day, I didn’t. Mornings were spent on the lagoon, in a long silver jon boat as I helped three men haul in baskets of oysters. The baskets hung deep below the surface on a network of ropes, swaying lightly like shirts on a clothesline, waiting for a breeze. Afternoons found us back on the farm, a rag-tag sort of building that was perched on stilts over the reef. We’d talk, make lunch, play Yahtzee, drink a hundred cups of instant coffee.

Only at night, when the men returned to their rooms and I was left to my own devices in my bungalow for one, did the loneliness creep in, the one ghost I can never quite shake no matter where I am in the world. It was too perfect – this bungalow whose bright blue exterior matched the turquoise lagoon just steps away, this rickety bridge connecting my atoll with the farm, this narrow island called Ahe, where the only thing marking our days was the sun itself, bright, golden, omnipresent. All of it served only to remind me that I had no one to share this with.

One day after lunch, the farm’s manager, an attractive Frenchman named Lucien, asked if I wanted to go to the village with him. I jumped at the thought of movement, at this chance to see more of Ahe beyond the farm.

As we set out across the lagoon, he stood in the back of the boat, one hand on the motor, the other holding a beer. We cut lightly across the water, skipping even, but a bump from a larger wave sent sea spray flying into my face. I turned around. Lucien cocked an eyebrow and bit his lip into the hint of a grin. I wasn’t sure if it was him or another wave that made my stomach do a flip. I leaned back on my arms and stretched my legs out in front of me, feeling lucky to have my own private chauffeur across a crystalline sea.Since I’d arrived on the farm, it had been Lucien that my mind always returned to, like a favorite spot in the sun. He had one gold hoop in each ear and a thin, scruffy beard. His hair was sandy brown, short but with a playful curl up top that he ran his fingers through now and then. A single tattoo, a band of Polynesian design, wrapped around the top of his left arm. Above all else, he was tanned and remarkably so, his skin the shade of well-steeped tea. But what drew me in the most were his eyes, flickers of amber that seemed to hide nothing.

I’d never seen him wear anything but shorts, not even shoes, but I liked to imagine he had a T-shirt or two tucked away in his room, faded and a bit tattered around the neck. He had been living on Ahe for ten years and before that, in the capital of Papeete for another ten. He was born in France, near Paris, but his father’s job led them to leave when he was a young child. They had spent a few years on Martinique before moving to French Polynesia.

Lucien seemed kind, tutting only when the boat’s motor wouldn’t start in the mornings. It wasn’t just how he carried his tall frame or the strength with which he swam up from the line, bearing all those heavy oysters to the surface. It was the way he cradled Mec, the farm’s playful orange cat, in his arms like a child, the way he was the first to leap up from the table when that stupid cat caught his paw in a basket and wailed like the world was ending. It wasn’t Lucien I was falling for, but the idea of him, a man living out his life simply on an island, farming pearls, drinking coffee no matter the time of day. A man without ghosts, whose contentment depended upon nothing more than a full pouch of tobacco and a book of crossword puzzles.

There wasn’t a hint of restlessness about him, and in this he was unlike any man I had ever known.

When a two-storied building appeared on the horizon, with a real roof instead of thatch or tin, I knew we’d reached the village. Children were swimming in the water as we pulled up; Lucien cut the motor and moved past me to the bow, taking a rope in his hands to moor us along the quay. I didn’t know why we’d come, or for how long, but was happy simply to follow him.

We walked through the village down a side street, past a primary school, cemetery, and nurse’s office. “The cycle of life,” Lucien said. He knocked on the door of the house behind the infirmary, home to a French couple named Hélène and Guillaume who had lived on Ahe for three years. Hélène was the village nurse, a petite woman with silky brown hair. Her government salary meant that Guillaume, with his goatee, paunch and thick dark ponytail almost as long as his wife’s, didn’t have to work.

We spent the evening around their kitchen table, beer flowing as always and me the only one not smoking. “Are you okay, Candace?” Lucien kept asking, and I kept assuring him I was fine. Actually, I was more than fine, sitting quietly, blissfully, with a fluffy white cat named Bon Bon on my lap. Lucien told me they were being unfair talking in French, that they all knew some English, but I didn’t mind. As they talked in a language I couldn’t understand, I wondered what it would be like to belong here, to belong to Lucien, who sat tall across from me and seemed almost to be pulling his stomach in, as though to flatten it. I toyed with the idea that he was trying to impress me. It was working.

Guillaume showed us pictures on his laptop of a recent fishing trip to a neighboring island. I shifted seats around the table for a better view, placing myself closer to Lucien. When it grew dark, the couple got up to make dinner. “It’s only chicken and pasta,” Guillaume said as though apologizing, but he and Hélène served us warm fresh baguettes and shaved Parmesan, and they felt like delicacies.

Hélène brought out wine, boxes of red Zumuva – “It is great … it is Zumuva!” the cartons read – and a French liqueur that tasted of sambuca. For dessert, Guillaume had baked delectable chocolate soufflés in little bowls, using only sugar, chocolate and eggs. Lucien grew affectionate, kissing my hand, leaning in close. When he spoke to me, I had to work to hear him over Hélène and Guillaume’s banter.

“What?” I would ask.

He’d angle himself even closer, the smell of cigarettes strong on his breath. “I said, ‘Are you okay?'”

It was midnight when Lucien and I tumbled down Hélène and Guillaume’s front porch, talking smack as we walked, drawn to each other like the opposing poles of two magnets. We lowered ourselves into the boat but started drifting from the quay before Lucien could untie us. He crouched over the side and used one hand to paddle towards shore. I made fun of him from the comfort of my seat.

“You won’t be laughing in a minute,” he said.

On the way home, the motor slowed halfway across the lagoon and I turned around, afraid we’d broken down.

“Wanna go for a swim?” Lucien asked.

“I will if you will,” I said, sounding like a kid on the playground.

“Is that a dare?”

The words were barely out of his mouth before he was in the water. My heart rolled its eyes as I pulled my dress over my head and dove in after him.

“Over here,” Lucien said when I surfaced, one hand holding onto the side of the boat, the other extended in my direction. I took it and let myself be pulled towards him. My face looked up into his, full moon silhouetting his head. Suddenly, I saw that there wasn’t any question of a kiss, that the entire day had been leading to this moment, that it was obvious our lips would eventually find each other’s. I opened my eyes, wanting to take in the full moon and the sky incandescent with stars, this solitary lagoon in the middle of the Pacific, this beautiful Frenchman I had my arms wrapped around – easily the most romantic situation I’d ever found myself in, and probably ever would.

Instead, there was only one thing I could think about: I’d never kissed a smoker.

And yet the unmistakable taste of tobacco was nothing compared to the salt water I kept swallowing in what I could only assume were unhealthy amounts. Treading water while making out proved as impossible as patting my head while rubbing my belly. My legs had a way of looping up behind Lucien toward the surface; it felt like slow motion swing dancing. After a few minutes, he pulled me back into the boat and we sat for a few seconds drying off. For the first time on Ahe, I was freezing, shaking even.

“Is it because you are wearing these wet things?” he asked, tugging at the top of my swimsuit. It was an old bikini, one whose neck and back ties had long ago formed unyielding knots.

I laughed, a bit nervously, and laid my dress over my legs as he started the motor. At the farm, I waited on the dock as he went upstairs and came back with a fresh bar of soap. He rinsed the salt from my skin, pouring jarfuls of water along my arms and down my back, while I stood there somewhat helplessly.

“You don’t like it,” he said. It wasn’t a question. He took a long beach towel and wrapped it around my shoulders, pulling me into him. “Let’s go upstairs and get warm.”

But I stayed behind on the dock as he walked in, unable to move any closer. I didn’t know if I liked it or not; I didn’t know if I wanted to. It wasn’t that I couldn’t picture it, falling asleep to him whispering exotic sweet-nothings in my ear, waking up in his tattooed arms with only a tangled sheet to cover us. At least that would be something to do at night. But it was the idea I could picture, not the reality. It was strange to have a wish met so suddenly, for Lucien, whom I had admired so much from afar, to be here now, telling me I was sexy, pronouncing it “sex-zee.”

It seemed too easy, too quick, too convenient a solution to my loneliness here. I’ve moved countries, hiked volcanoes, jumped off bridges with nothing but a bungee cord strapped around my feet, but so often the hardest courage for me to summon is the courage to be alone, to not rush into fighting off the ghosts with whatever temporary fix I can find.

“I should get back,” I said, not sure of how convincing I sounded. But Lucien walked me home anyway, stretching his hands out behind him for me to hold in the darkness, stopping to kiss me on the bridge, on the shore of the island, on the steps of my bungalow. It was all I could do to pull away and say goodnight.

In the morning, there was no mention of what had happened. As I arrived at the farm for breakfast, Lucien walked past me to the sink.

“Sleep okay?” he asked with the slightest glint in his eye, a single flash and it was gone.

Gone like Ahe’s rainstorms that came quick and poured down hard, gone like what never would be, or maybe never was.

[Photo credit: Flickr user SF Brit]

Overseas France: Or Where You Can Find France Outside Of France

The days of colonial empires may be long over, though the United States, United Kingdom, France, Netherlands and Denmark continue each to administer a smattering of overseas territories.

Among these, France has arguably the most interesting and wide-ranging set of territories. Overseas France includes tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland (population around 6,000), the Caribbean overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, the smaller Caribbean “overseas collectivities” of St. Martin and St. Barts, the South American overseas department of French Guiana, the Indian Ocean overseas departments of Réunion and Mayotte, and French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Wallis & Futuna in the South Pacific.

Officially, overseas France is divided into “overseas departments” (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Réunion), “overseas collectivities” (French Polynesia, St. Barts, St. Martin, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and Wallis and Futuna), and New Caledonia, which has a special status unto itself.

There are also two uninhabited French territories – a vast, noncontiguous territory with the grand name of Territory of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands, inhabited only by researchers, and, most curious of all, the uninhabited island of Clipperton, which sits off Mexico and is administered directly by the Minister of Overseas France.

Tourism is a huge economic driver in many of these territories. St. Martin, St. Barts, and French Polynesia are particularly well known to Americans. Francophone tourists are also familiar with the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, New Caledonia, and Réunion.

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[Flickr image via Rayced]