Letter from France: A time tunnel named Cluny

Say “Cluny” and most people do not think cowled monks, dunce-cap towers or “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries. They think George Clooney.

Who knows, a thousand years ago Clooney’s ancestors may have strayed north from a monastic cradle in Cluny. Then as now this picturesque town of 5,000 was cupped by green hills at the extreme southern end of Burgundy, a pleasing location. Clooney’s face currently stares out from walls and billboards at mud-clotted carrots and goat’s-milk cheeses: Until recently Up in the Air was playing at Cluny’s only movie theater, on the main market square. Sip an espresso at crusty Chez Sissi or trendy La Nation and you’ll hear natives rolling their Rs with trademark Burgundian accents, pronouncing the actor’s name “GeoRges KloonAye.”

The Clunisois make no claims to patrimony: Clooney isn’t a native. Burgundy is la France profonde-deep, rural France. Family roots run deeper than those of the most venerable grapevines. Never mind that Cluny was once a cosmopolitan city, overrun by English monks, Spaniards, Italians and others, many affiliated with Cluny’s international network of benedictine abbeys. That was a long time ago.

Today’s Cluny is a welcoming, lively medieval town, a showcase of the Romanesque. “Lively” and “medieval” are not necessarily at odds with each other. This year Cluny is experiencing more action than it has for a millennium. To the tune of $30 million, parts of the abbey have been renovated, sidewalks and streets have been torn up and beautified. The pall of dust has barely settled in the leafy squares and alleyways. The last touches were applied this month to a thorough clean up and “relookage,” as some locals are apt to say.

Throughout 2010 Cluny is hosting dozens of events, from a street festival with actors in period costume, to exhibitions, plays and concerts, all to celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding in 910 AD of its abbey, once more famous than even George Clooney.

For centuries Cluny’s tower-studded, walled marvel of ecclesiastical architecture, an orgy of archways, vaults and carved capitals, was the largest and richest monastic complex in Christendom. You wouldn’t guess it by the looks of the place today. Just one part of one of the abbey’s soaring transepts still stands, its freshly repaved floors replacing the dusty beaten earth that was so effective at summoning ghosts. A vaulted cellar, topped by a granary with a stunning, ribbed ceiling, and a cloister, rebuilt in the 1700s, are also left, plus a chapel, castellated walls, and three impressive watchtowers.

But in its heyday 900 years ago the abbey church alone was the size of a shopping mall. In the 1790s righteous French Revolutionaries shut down what was already decrepit and corrupt. Ninety percent of the stonework was quarried in the 1820s, when Cluny entered a slumber lasting almost two centuries.

The slumber is over, at least officially. Jackhammers lead you past art galleries and boutiques selling hand-woven baskets, organic wine and honey, waxed antiques, pottery or glinting handcrafted knick-knacks. Contrasts abound. Archeological excavations have revealed several huge column bases and the yard-thick walls of the 400-foot-long church. The floor plan of the complex has been mapped out on panels and traced on the ground. As you walk along it you can’t help feeling dizzy. Saints, potentates and Europe’s movers-and-shakers once paced here. Carved lintels, cornices, pillars and other architectural features reused in other buildings over the years are plain to see, dotted around town.

They are also on display in the handsome cellar and salons of the Musée Ochier, a Renaissance palace poised on a hill overlooking the abbey’s entrance. Here you buy your tickets. You can spend hours peering at a scale model of Cluny 900 years ago, and take a virtual tour of the abbey by watching a short documentary. It recreates the interiors with startling fidelity. Inside the abbey itself, another virtual visit, with cutting-edge 3D imaging and wrap-around sound, whisks you down the transepts and nave. But there’s no denying that most of the church is gone, not a single monk remains, and the atmosphere today is anything but monastic.

The real draw is outside. Cluny’s 200 or so houses with sculpted Romanesque façades, some 1,000 years old, slump on curving, cobbled streets. Corkscrew staircases hide behind heavy oaken doors. Gothic spires and the mullioned windows of the Renaissance crop up amid a jumble that climbs to a low ridge. From several panoramic spots you can see that the town’s layout hasn’t changed much. Many streets are now pedestrianized and gentrified, with their predictable, shoulder-to-shoulder shops stuffed with artisanal everything. Dentist-office music is piped in. Squint out of earshot and you can almost imagine the days of old, and wonder how glorious they were.

The abbey of Cluny was the right arm of the Vatican, managed by a succession of enterprising abbots, several of them subsequently sainted or made pope. Saint Mayeul (948-994) handed over to Saint Odilon (994-1049). Saint Hugues outdid his predecessors by holding on for 60 years, from 1049 to 1109. At its peak in 1109, Cluny controlled over 1,100 dependent monasteries. The Musée de Cluny in Paris, once a Roman bathhouse and now home to the “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestry series, was the abbey’s city residence. Ten thousand monks toiled like slaves for Cluny. They made, among other things, excellent wine. It was they who perfected winemaking in France.

There are no wineries in Cluny today, but at the Cellier de l’Abbaye, one of Southern Burgundy’s best-stocked bottle shops, I found excellent samples of the monk’s most lasting heritage, and also tasted the region’s best cheeses.

In Cluny as elsewhere in France, the church of Rome is no longer a power to reckon with. But one of the area’s industries remains spiritual tourism: questers flock to Cluny and the ecumenical community at Taizé, a village ten miles north. Hitchhikers line the two-lane road linking the sites. Give them a ride and you’ll learn that most at Taizé are young, penurious Eastern Europeans. Nearly all of them travel with guitars, beads and crosses.

Most Roman Catholic pilgrims, on the other hand, are French. They arrive in Cluny by private car, tour bus or on foot. Hiker-pilgrims often wear scallop shells symbolizing Saint James. The shells sway and click against the pilgrims’ burnished staffs as they make their way up Cluny’s main street. The Way of Saint James, the famed medieval pilgrimage route, runs through town and is now a paean to Mammon.

Climb the creaking staircase of the Tour des Fromages, a stone watchtower that houses the city tourism office, and glance down at the peaky, red tile roofs. In the streets below you might glimpse a three-cornered hat perched atop the head of a caped quester. Like other visitors, those seeking enlightenment, inspiration, succor and the company of kindred spirits open their beggar’s purses, filling the local coffers.

Another mainstay is the Ecole Normale Superieure d’Arts et Métiers, a polytechnical university, attended by budding engineers. They sometimes appear, bent by mountains of antiquated books and contemporary electronic communications equipment. The campus is inside the abbey. It makes Cluny not only France’s smallest university city. The students also add a touch of youthful if quiet life year-round.

The other, bigger cash-earners hereabouts are cattle and horse-breeding. Sniff the air and you’ll get the drift soon enough. The region’s indigenous white Charolais cattle, flanked by Arabian horses from the National Stud farm, also inside the abbey compound, graze in pastures within hailing distance of Cluny’s shopping streets.

Circle the abbey’s forbidding perimeter walls, following your nose. Near the post office you’ll find the newest of several equestrian rings and tracks. Horses trot, jump, race or parade, and do all the things that horses do, among them pulling an antique omnibus carriage. It’s Cluny’s answer to the elephant train. There are so many horses here that an equestrian level-crossing and equestrian stop light have been added on the main road flanking the equestrian ring. When the horse shows are on, traffic backs up-a mix of hard-driven semis and tractors, gleaming BMWs and SUVs. The horses clomp by, then dash into the fields bordering the old railway tracks, now a hiking and biking path, and a rushing stream. The stream once acted as Cluny’s natural moat.

Farther out of town the vineyards of the Maconnais stipple tuck ‘n’ roll hills, their summits cloaked by dark fir forests. Remarkably handsome, these hills are now spawning increasing numbers of tract homes for commuters, and luxurious villas for well-off retirees, horse-breeders, and foreigners with vacation properties.

A few hundred yards beyond the old railway tracks, the TGV high-speed train from Paris swooshes past like digital clockwork, skirting town innocuously. It stops 10 miles south at Macon-Loché station. Some residents, especially the horsey set, commute from their pastoral enclave at Cluny to the City of Light, a 90-minute, painlessly postmodern ride.

If they’re not nurturing thoroughbreds, making wine, producing forestry products or catering to pilgrims, most other residents work in the government offices of Macon, Lyon or Nevers, the main cities within a doable drive.

Clearly, though partly preserved in historic amber, Cluny is neither isolated nor undiscovered. Like so many provincial French towns, it walks a tight-rope between tradition and modernity. The contrasts often add to the allure, though not always: if removed tomorrow, the sprawling supermarkets and parking lots edging town, and the piped-in music around the abbey, would not be missed by most old-timers.

It’s not that people here are anti-modern. But the supermarkets and the lack of easy parking in the center of town have made life difficult for many normal businesses-grocery stores, shoe shops, appliance and hardware stores.

Ultra-modern, the TGV is a life-line, and few complain about it. The TGV brought me to Cluny for the first time over 20 years ago. Back then, when walking or driving up the pitted asphalt of Cluny’s main street, you felt as if you were entering Sleeping Beauty’s castle. You also sensed it couldn’t and possibly shouldn’t last. To paraphrase Giuseppe di Lampedusa in The Leopard, you knew that if things were to remain the same, everything would have to change. Historic landmarks were crumbling, locals were moving out, and widespread bankruptcy loomed.

Cluny is compromise incarnate. A grassy, landscaped parking lot stands where the cattle market used to be. Instead of light industrial plants shoehorned into Romanesque buildings, you now get the car-free cobbles, virtual reality displays, and quaint sellers of delightful if unnecessary items for tourists and starry-eyed pilgrims. Some of the latter seem more interested in the costume drama than the spiritual quest.

How different things were 1,000 years ago, when Cluny’s sainted abbots grew fat by exploiting monkish drudges, is a question worth asking. Today’s democratic populism would have been unimaginable. Would Mayeul, Odilon and Hugues have approved of the sublime chocolates and pastries served to one and all at Germain, on the main drag? Or the sinfully sumptuous food at Hotel de Bourgogne, built atop the demolished abbey’s nave? Their ghosts are distinctly absent in Cluny today, and perhaps that’s for the best.

[Photos, from top: Hellolapomme; Olivier Bruchez; wwhyte1968; Olivier Bruchez; PhillipC]

An American author and journalist based in Paris, for the last 25 years David Downie has been writing about European culture, food and travel for magazines and newspapers worldwide. His nonfiction books include Enchanted Liguria, Cooking the Roman Way, The Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam, and three critically acclaimed volumes of travel, food and wine in the Terroir Guides series: Food Wine the Italian Riviera & Genoa, Food Wine Rome, and Food Wine Burgundy. Downie’s travel memoir Paris, Paris: Journeys into the Heart and Soul of the City of Light is being reiussed in 2011 by Broadway Books. His latest books are Paris City of Night, a classic thriller set in Paris, and Quiet Corners of Rome (to be published in spring 2011). His website is www.davidddownie.com