France Forever: Exploring Cluny And The Butte de Suin

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.

Photo Of The Day: Indian Pilgrim

Today’s excellent and colorful portrait shot comes to us courtesy of Flickr user SoumishD. Soumish was in the Indian city of Haridwar, an important Hindu pilgrimage site along the holy waters of the Ganges River, when he captured this mysterious woman, cloaked in a translucent pink veil. The depth of field focus on her face, the vibrant hue of the pink fabric and the look of concentration all contribute to a sense of intensity and intrigue to the image.

Taken any great portraits during your own travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

[Photo credit: Flickr user SoumishD]

Video: A sadhu singing by the Ganges River, Varanasi

One of the best gifts travel gives you is all the great music you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Strange tunes often stick in the mind long after the memories of meals and sights have dimmed. Last week I brought you a video of a kalimba player in Malawi. Here’s a completely different tune from a completely different country, yet both tunes have gotten into my head.

This man is a sadhu, one of the countless Hindu holy men who wander the city streets and country roads of India preaching the tenets of Hinduism. He’s playing by the Ganges River in Varanasi, one of the holiest spots for Hindus. Watch how he plays two instruments and sings with ease. The camera is a bit shaky at the beginning but gets much better. Does anyone know what he’s singing?

Herod may not have completed Jerusalem’s Western Wall, archaeologists discover

It is one of the holiest spots in one of the holiest cities in the world. The Western Wall attracts Jews and Christians alike, and is on the limits of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a Muslim holy site.

It’s always been believed to have been built by King Herod, the king of Judea and a vassal of the Roman Empire who reigned from 37-4 BC. Herod expanded the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the Western Wall is the western boundary of that expansion.

Now archaeologists have found evidence that the Western Wall was finished after Herod’s death. The coins found under the foundations date to 20 years after Herod died.

This isn’t news to scholars. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus wrote that the project was finished by Herod’s great-grandson. Archaeologists also found a mikve (Jewish ritual bath), three clay lamps in a style popular in the first century AD, and other artifacts. Seventeen coins were found, including two minted by the Roman governor Valerius Gratus in 17 or 18 AD.

I visited Jerusalem several times when I was working as an archaeologist in the Middle East back in the early Nineties. On numerous occasions I saw where local tradition came up against the findings of archaeology and history. For example, the route of the Via Dolorosa, the trail Jesus supposedly took on his way to Calvary, was only established in the 19th century. In the centuries before that there were several different routes.

In the current debate between the faithful and the atheists, these facts change nothing. The deflating of a local tradition will not make anyone stop believing in God, and the atheists are equally convinced about their views.

Photo courtesy Chris Yunker.

Ramadan begins today: what travelers can expect

Today begins the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, a month long period of prayer and reflection, fasting and sacrifice, as well as feasting and acts of charity and kindness.

Travelers should exercise extra patience and flexibility this month where Ramadan is celebrated, but enjoy the special atmosphere and festivities.

If traveling in a Muslim country during August, expect closures, a slower pace, and shorter tempers during the day, but lively iftar meals and celebrations at night.

Here in the largely secular city of Istanbul, foreigners and tourists won’t encounter many problems, most restaurants and attractions will be open and travelers aren’t expected to observe the fast, though it’s polite to refrain from eating or drinking in public (read about last year’s Ramadan in Istanbul here and in Cairo).

In the US, Whole Foods has become the first nationwide chain to offer promotions and special content for Ramadan. The grocery store’s blog will share recipes and sponsor giveaways all month for the nearly 2 million American Muslims.

The TSA has just posted on their blog about what to expect in airports during Ramadan, though most of their tips are general for any time of year (you may encounter Muslims performing ablutions in airport bathrooms or hear prayers whispered) or information about what not to expect (i.e. eating or smoking).

Ramadan will end on August 29 this year, followed by a week of celebration when many Muslims travel to visit family or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Read more Gadling travel tips for Ramadan here. Traveling in the Muslim world this month? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.

[Photo courtesy balavenise, Wikimedia Commons]