Scattered among the houses of the attractive modern-day town, the abbey of Cluny is the Saône Valley’s major tourist destination. The monastery was founded in 910 in response to the corruption of the existing church, and it took only a couple of vigorous early abbots to transform the power of Cluny into a veritable empire. Second only to that of the pope, the abbot’s power in the Christian world made even monarchs tremble. However, Cluny’s spiritual influence gradually declined and the abbey became a royal gift in the twelfth century. Centuries later, in the wake of the Revolution, Hugues de Semur’s vast and influential eleventh-century church, which had been the largest building in Christendom until the construction of St Peter’s in Rome, was dismantled. The most exciting thing that has happened since has been the burial of Mme Danielle Mitterrand, the President’s wife, in the town cemetery; her grave attracts many visitors.
What you see of the former abbey today is an octagonal belfry and the huge south transept. Standing amid these fragments of a once huge construction gives a tangible and poignant insight into the Revolution’s enormous powers of transformation. Access to the belfry is through the Grand École des Ingénieurs, one of France’s elite higher-education institutions, and you can often see the students in their grey lab coats. At the back of the abbey is one of France’s national stud farms, Haras de Cluny, which you can visit, but only on a guided tour. The Musée d’Art et d’Archaeologie, in the fifteenth-century palace of the last freely elected abbot, helps to flesh out the ruins by renting tablet PCs which provide a representation of what the abbey looked like as you stand on particular spots; from the top of the Tour des Fromages (entered via the tourist office) an amazing virtual reality screen projects the old buildings onto a live cam that shows the street below.