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.

Given A Map, A Lot Of People Have No Idea Where They Traveled (Or Where They Live)

world map
Glyn Lowe Photoworks, Flickr

While early explorers may have spent countless weeks plotting their journeys on maps and charting the best course to get to their destination, it seems many modern day travelers don’t have a clue about where they’re actually going.

A new study has found massive numbers of travelers can’t find their vacation destination on a world map. When asked where Cyprus was located, 53% of respondents were stumped, pointing to countries like Greece instead. This is despite having traveled to the Mediterranean island within the past year. Turkey also had recent visitors scratching their heads, with around half of those surveyed hard-pressed to locate the nearly 1,000 mile long country on an atlas.What’s most bizarre, however, is those people who seemed to have trouble locating their own country on a map. When asked where France was, a surprising 14% of French respondents pointed to their northern neighbor Belgium.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on the French. After all, remember this famous gaffe a few years back, when a Miss Teen USA contestant was asked why a fifth of Americans couldn’t locate the US on a world map?



But it’s not just beauty pageant contestants that are stumped by geography. Even politicians can get tripped up, like in this interview where John McCain refers to the problems at the Iraq/Pakistan border…which doesn’t exactly exist.


And then there was the time that President Obama managed to visit all corners of the US, including “about 57 states”.



Do you think it matters that so many people are confused by world geography? Or is understanding maps irrelevant in this day and age of GPS and technology?

Was This The Real Mona Lisa?

Mona Lisa
Wikimedia Commons

Scientists in Florence are examining the bones of a 16th century nun they think served as the model for the Mona Lisa.

Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo was the wife of a wealthy merchant and is rumored to have been the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait. She was a famed beauty in her time and lived across the street from the famous artist and inventor. When her husband died she became a nun at the convent of San Orsula in Florence, where she died and was buried in 1542.

A team of scientists went looking for her in a crypt under the convent. DNA in the bones they found is now being compared with samples taken from the Gherardini family tomb in hopes of finding a match. The next step will be facial reconstruction to see what the woman looked like in life. Perhaps they’ll find the mystery to her enigmatic smile.

Facial reconstruction and DNA analysis have already been done for the remains of King Richard III, found last year under an English parking lot. Researchers are also examining the possible remains of King Alfred the Great.

Tour Paris By Zeppelin

Looking for a way to avoid the tourist crowds in Paris? You might try looking up. Airship Paris is a new company offering tours of the French countryside around Paris by zeppelin.

Tickets range from 250 euro for a half-hour “first flight” tour of the castles around Vexin (including the Villette Castle from “The Da Vinci Code” movie), to 650 euro for a royal tour of Versailles with Paris in the background. Flights take off from the Pontoise airport about 25 miles from Paris. The 250-foot-long airship carries up to 12 passengers and cruises at an altitude equivalent to the Eiffel Tower.

After takeoff, you are free to take in the views from the panoramic windows, sitting or standing. Unlike a hot-air balloon or blimp, the zeppelin is wind-resistant and heavier than air, with a low level of vibration and noise (the company compares it to that of a dishwasher). Airship Paris is the first commercial airship service in the area in 30 years.

Read more and book tickets here.

American Tourist Snaps Finger Off Priceless Florentine Statue

sailko, Wikimedia

An American tourist who says he was “measuring” the finger of a 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary ended up accidently snapping off the statue’s pinky.

Staff at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy are outraged. Although the statue is a cast of the original, repairs will be complex and costly. Timothy Verdun, an American expat and art historian who works with the museum, said:

“In a globalized world like ours, the fundamental rules for visiting a museum have been forgotten, that is, ‘Do not touch the works'”

Although the tourist apologized for his carelessness, he could still be fined for damaging the artwork, which is believed to have been made by Florentine Giovanni d’Ambrogio during the 14th or 15th century.

This is far from the first time someone damaging artwork has made headlines. A tourist once crashed into a work by Pablo Picasso at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, causing a six-inch gash. And then there are people who have purposely damaged paintings, like the woman who once tried to pull a painting by Paul Gauguin off the wall in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, and another woman who threw an empty mug at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in France.