Cluny: conjuring up lost worlds

Breakfast at Tupinier
Breakfast at Tupinier

It once stood to rival Rome as the largest centre of Christian influence in western Europe and seemed a fitting start to our Vienna road trip.

Yet, imagining what Cluny must have been like in the 11th century is challenging. The huge monastery, whose church was larger than Notre Dame in Paris, fell victim to the 1789 revolutionary zeal and was systematically dismantled and quarried in the early years of the 19th century.

Today there is hardly anything left of it. Wandering around the pretty town you see enough remnants of the old religious complex to get a sense of its importance, including the rows of romanesque houses built by the stonemasons employed to work on the monastery.

Then and now: augmented reality points recreate the old monastery
Then and now: augmented reality points recreate the old monastery

Those in charge at the city’s cultural services have worked hard to give visitors a sense of how significant the place was, both in religious and economic terms, including some clever ‘augmented reality’ installations. But it feels, somehow, a bit contrived.

There are powerful connections at work, all the way up to Yorkshire, at a time when christendom was a key societal and political force. Yet, what lingers after an afternoon there is not so much the power that was but the even more potent effect of the counter-power that destroyed it. Change in ideologies, the passage of time.

Maybe we were a bit tired after our 500km drive, and the weather was hot and stormy. Inevitably Dr K and I had a tiresome domestic in the car over which route we should take following a road closure: could we trust the new satnav, or should we stick to the Michelin map, and what about my infallible instinct as a seasoned driver who is never ever wrong?

Wisely, Godfather P was staying out of this, pointing to possible  deflecting distractions outside.


So much so that we were initially a bit oblivious to the charms of Maison Tupinier, a 16th century house where we were staying the night.

It turned out that there was plenty in there to wonder at. It occasionally felt that it somehow belonged more to a home decoration magazine than a lived-in house but owner and former antiques dealer Luc Du Mesnil has made it his own deligthfully eccentric capsule. To the point that breakfast in front of a Zofany-style screen was perhaps the highlight of our stay in Cluny. Brioche and fresh fruit are presented in antique plates, we are surrounded by stuffed cormorants and pheasants, there is a pile of hats artfully arranged on a chair in one corner. It’s quaint, a bit unreal and lovely.

Hats off: Maison Tupinier's carefully designed atmosphere
Hats off: Maison Tupinier’s carefully designed atmosphere

After breakfast, we move on. Dr K keeps us to a tight schedule. It has started drizzling, so we trot through the market at a brisk pace, marvelling in passing at how good the fruit and vegetables look.

Then, a quick tour of Maison de Bourbon. Once part of the monastery set-up, it was bought by a local merchant in the early 19th century. Now it contains a few remnants of the monastery miraculously salvaged from oblivion.

It’s a further reminder, like an old-fashioned photo negative, of the monastery’s past grandeur.All that is left of that gigantic building are a few bas-reliefs.

Time to get in the car and motor on to Annecy, making the best of the sun in between showers.

VIENNA ROAD TRIP || Day Two: Annecy >>

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