Discover Auxerre: Cathedral, Old Town, Wines & More...
The city of Auxerre, France, is a dwelling frozen in time. Visitors can walk its cobbled streets lined with pretty, wood-timbered buildings standing timelessly above the Canal de Nivernais and River Yonne. Whilst you’re wandering around, it’s easy to forget you’re in France, and think you’re in a fairy-tale!
Based 150 kilometres southeast of Paris, Auxerre is well-connected to local infrastructure via the Canal de Nivernais and River Yonne. Known for its beauty, the Yonne Valley stretches far and wide on every side of this picturesque city. With Dijon 120 kilometres to its northwest, the former capital city of Auxerre is the fourth largest city in Burgundy.
History of Auxerre
Originally founded as a Gallo-Romanic settlement, Auxerre became popular because of the main road that ran through it. Chosen to become a Bishop’s residence, by the 5th century, Auxerre was a thriving town and had its own cathedral called St Etienne’s, also known as Auxerre Cathedral.
During medieval times, Auxerre was encircled with walls to form a close community that kept outsiders from entering. The Old Town has been preserved to showcase Auxerre’s medieval architecture and clock tower. The city prospered during this period and had autonomy under the dukes of Burgundy until it became a part of France under Louis XI.
In the fourteenth century, Auxerre suffered greatly in the wars with England and then, again in the Wars of religion in the sixteenth century. In 1567, Protestant Huguenots captured Auxerre and fatally destroyed some of its Catholic architecture. Having fallen on difficult times, Auxerre was made great again in the late 1700s, through the building of the Canal de Nivernais which increased industry in the city.
What is Auxerre famous for?
Famous for its industry, Auxerre is a major production site for the Chablis wine that is produced in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region. Defined by its acidity and reduced fruitiness, Chablis is made from the chardonnay grape, and its tasting notes are shaped by the cool climates of northern Burgundy. Travellers to Auxerre shouldn’t miss an opportunity to try locally produced Chablis on board, at any of the local wine bars!
Auxerre was chosen to link the Canal de Nivernais to the River Yonne when the former was built in the eighteenth century. Created to transport firewood, the canal made it easier to travel through the area and increased trade and industry. With the invention of the railway, the use of the canal declined. The Canal de Nivernais is now no more than an attractive way to travel calmly through the city. Cruising sedately by hotel barge, you can experience Auxerre’s magnificent beauty from the water and view its port, lined with elegant buildings that shine in the summer sunlight.
What to do in Auxerre?
Located just two hours from Paris, Auxerre offers a rich tapestry of history in its Old Town, fascinating centuries-old viticulture, and picture-postcard scenery such as the famed Auxerre Cathedral along the waterways. Here are our top five recommendations on what to do in Auxerre, France…
1. Wander through Auxerre’s Old Town
Marvel in the medieval architecture of the protected Old Town of Auxerre. France enjoys an abundance of quaint villages peppered with medieval half-timbered buildings, but it’s Auxerre Old Town’s that particularly stand out as they flaunt dormer-windows and gabled rooves, in which the clusters of dwellings open out onto cobbled squares with fountains. Visitors can easily find their way around the Old Town in Auxerre by following the way-finding arrows on the ground, that direct travellers along the route of the Cadet Roussel trail.
2. Stand in the Shadows of Auxerre Clock Tower
Whatever you do, don’t miss an opportunity to take in Auxerre’s marvellous clock tower. Built in the fifteenth century, this incredible clock contains a mechanism that has worked since 1483! The scientific clock of Auxerre is particularly fascinating because it has two sets of hands: one set to tell the time, and one set to record the lunar phase of the moon. If you think the clock itself sounds interesting enough, then you’ll be stunned to see the turreted archway that displays it!
3. Visit the Carolingian Abbaye de Saint-Germain
Founded in the 5th century, the Carolingian Abbaye de Saint-Germain contains the oldest murals in France. Located outside the great walls of Auxerre, the historic monastic complex features dark crypts, classical-inspired cloisters and the tomb of St Germain, who died in the fifth century.
Built on the banks of the River Yonne, Auxerre’s Carolingian Abbey originated as a basilica over the tomb of St Germain. During medieval times, it experienced a surge in visits from Christian pilgrims and during the French Revolution, the nave was demolished so that the abbey could be used as a hospital. In 1927, its ninth century crypts were found to contain the oldest frescoes in France. These were revealed when work was carried out on the seventeenth century plaster in the crypt.
Built in the gothic style, this 1600-year-old complex is spectacular to behold. The Abbey of St Germain’s spires can be seen throughout Auxerre. Famous historic visitors include the Frankish Emperor, Charles the Bald; and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
4. Be in Awe of Auxerre Cathedral
Not to be missed is the imposing Cathedral of St Etienne. Originally built to observe the Romanesque architectural style, it was updated in the late medieval period in gothic brilliance. It is renowned as one of the greatest masterpieces of the gothic architectural period, making it well worth a visit.
Having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1862, Auxerre Cathedral occupies a site that has been a place of worship since the third century. Built mostly between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Auxerre cathedral also features stained glass windows from a later period and art from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.
Auxerre’s gothic cathedral is an impressive building that was designed to show the magnificence of God. The basilica has five naves and chapels that surround impressive choir stalls. The entrance door, known as the tympanum, features a carving of the Last Judgement and other examples of gothic art are featured on the screens.
5. Sample fine Burgundian wines
Heading away from the city and its Old Town, you’ll soon encounter some of the region’s finest vineyards producing popular wines including Crémant de Bourgogne, Saint-Bris and Chablis. Guests aboard L’Art de Vivre have the opportunity to sample Chablis and Petit Chablis on a private tour and tasting at the prestigious Domaine Laroche, Crémant de Bourgogne at Caves Bailly-Lapierre, and of course a number of fine regional wines back onboard the hotel barge.
Cruise Auxerre, France with European Waterways
For a lesser-experienced perspective of Auxerre, why not view the city by hotel barge aboard L’Art de Vivre? This transformed grain barge is now an outstanding floating hotel, which offers guests the opportunity to avoid the crowds and holiday in a luxury environment. Drift along the River Yonne and Canal de Nivernais to see the splendour of Auxerre from the water and spot the spires of St Germain Abbey and St Etienne Cathedral from afar.