Travel Diaries – Auxerre, France

A wonderful old place is Auxerre. From the farther side of the river the town can be seen, stretching up on the high bank fanwise, to where above rise the Cathedral and the remains of the great Abbey of Saint-Germain, where most of the famous churchmen of the fifth and sixth centuries came to be educated.

It was dinner-time when we drew up at the Hotel de la Fontaine. It is a nice, clean, homely inn, with a pleasant landlady, and a delightful ” Maitre Jacques,” called, I think, Guillaume. He it was who saw after the bedrooms, brought up the hot water, filled the bath, took charge of the automobile, drove the omnibus backwards and forwards to the station, cleaned our boots, brushed our clothes, polished the floors and stairs, saw to the wine (you could tell that by his nose), and, in fact, with the assistance of the cook and the landlady, ran the hotel. This portly personage took a fancy to us; he told me that he always liked the English, they were so ” faciles it contenter.” During dinner, which we took in a sort of bar-parlour, with a window looking out on the stable-yard, the face of Guillaume more than once shone in upon us, like a great red sun, veiled in the purple mists of evening.

Later we started out to see what we could of the town. I have never seen any building which delighted me more than the Cathedral of Auxerre. Louis XIV used to call it the most beautiful church in his kingdom. It is of ancient brick-work, embellished and enriched by sculptured stone, such as one sees only once or twice in a lifetime. Even at that late hour a glow seemed to linger about it, a flush of rosy pink and amber, like the last memory of a sunset. And the sculptured portals! They are a whole Bible in themselves. There you may study the exact method in which Eve was taken from Adam’s side. She came out head foremost, rising up as straight as Venus from the waves. And there are the first couple regarding with surprise, as well they might, the serpent twined round the Tree of Knowledge; and the same pair trying on coats of skins, apparently with great satisfaction.

We were looking at these and other sculptures when the door opened, and an elderly priest came out. I asked him whether it was too late to look inside the church, and in answer he smiled, and held open the door for us to pass.

” You should be interested in Saint Germain,” said he; ” he was twice in England,” and, as we walked slowly up the dusky aisle, he went on to tell us the history of the Saint, the struggles with the wild passionate Senones over whom he ruled, the visits to England, the story of his converts being attacked by the Picts and Scots, when the martial Bishop, who had been a soldier before he was a saint, once more girded on his sword, and led the way to victory, pleased enough, no doubt, to find himself again in all the excitement of a battlefield. And I heard of his death, which took place in Rome; of the long, long journey back to Auxerre, and of the four mysterious Italian ladies who followed the body, and died one by one on the way. It was so solemn and convincing, told amid the stately beauty of this ancient Cathedral.

” I can almost feel him near me,” said I, and I could see the priest smile approvingly.

” Yes,” he said, ” I, too, feel him here at this hour; but he seems still nearer in the crypt. That has remained almost untouched since the eleventh century. There are even parts of it which are older still: stones which the very feet of Saint Germain may have trodden. The sacristan will show it to you to-morrow. But you must also go to the old Abbey Church. There you will find the tomb of the Saint.”

We found this crypt of the Abbey Church most interesting. The great Ionic columns at the entrance mark it as a Roman monument. In the centre may still be seen the huge stone coffin where the body of Saint Germain lay, till it was destroyed by the Huguenots; while on every side are the tombs of the bishops and other holy men of the city who once slept their last sleep around the grave of their patron saint. It was here that, in 557, Merovee, son of Chilperic, King of Soissons, took refuge; remaining hidden in this gloomy place for two months, at the end of which time, growing desperate, he emerged from the crypt, only( to fall at the hands of his savage stepmother, Fredegonde.

All through the Middle Ages this crypt was a place of sanctuary, and many are the strange stories it could tell of tragedies and hairbreadth escapes. These pillars have looked down upon Dagobert and Charlemagne, and hosts of other great men.

That day we lunched at Nevers. But, alas! not a sight did we get of the ancient and magnificent castle, once the home of the Dukes of Nevers. Neither did we see the Cathedral, nor the great belfry. For rain had commenced early, and Nevers was a mere soaking quagmire, shrouded in a mist of pouring rain, and we were thankful to sit by a fire and warm ourselves till it was time to start once more. The weather had cleared, however, by the time we reached Vichy, and soon, far away on our right, we could see the mountains of Clermont, but shrouded as in heavy veils. Then, just as I was watching, the grey curtains of cloud parted, , so that I seemed to be looking into the mouth of a furnace; and all the sky flamed up purple and livid, as though the volcanoes were once more awake. Higher, higher rose the glory, till the whole western heaven was ablaze, and stray wisps of cloud, like rags of purple chiffon, flew hither and thither, recalling the wild gnomes and elves which are supposed to live in the hearts of these mountains of Auvergne.