The southernmost tip of Burgundy is a sweet town on the banks of the Saône, an area where glass-roofed and timber-framed buildings are replaced by flat-roofed pastel houses in the south.
Suddenly you feel that you are approaching the Mediterranean at Mâcon, and despite its small size, there is a lot to grab your attention for a day or two.
You may not know this place, but you probably know its name because Mâcon is home to many of Burgundy’s finest Chardonnays.
Wine lovers won’t be short of inspiration for a few days just because there’s a whole bunch of wineries nearby.
This is also a sign of the richness of the Saône Valley, and none of the natural landmarks or heritage sites in this article are more than 30 minutes from town.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Macon:
1. Ursuline Museum
The former Ursuline Abbey was chosen as the town’s museum in the 1960s, and it sheds light on the history of Macon.
The first floor is dedicated to archaeology, displaying tools, bones and weapons from the prehistoric sites of Solute, as well as Gallo-Roman artifacts such as coins and ceramics unearthed in the Macon necropolis.
On the upper floor is the Department of Ethnography, showcasing the techniques of local potters, winemakers and fishermen on the Saône.
Then you’ll see art exhibits, from the 1500s to the present, passing Titian, Charles le Brun and Monet.
2. L’Apothicairerie de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Mâcon
The Macon Hospital dates back to the 1770s, and while the facilities have kept pace with the times, since 1775 one of the rooms has been frozen like a time capsule. The Apothecary takes you to a room from the reign of Luyi XV, complete with antique stills, parquet floors and professional walnut cabinets, drawers and panelling.
The cabinets are stocked with fine ceramic jars of silk powder, borax, ground bone, ivory and opium, all with their names painted on the sides.
3. Maison de Bois
The oldest house in Mâcon is also the most unusual: the Maison de Bois was built at the turn of the 16th century and its upper three floors are made entirely of wood under the cantilevered roof.
Spend a few minutes at the corner of Place aux Herbes and be fascinated by the carvings on the second-floor façade and don’t be surprised.
There is an odd cast of characters with odd expressions on their faces, in various states of undress, some holding real and mythical animals, and others depicted as figures with wings.
Take a stroll along the banks of the Saône and you’ll see why they say Macon has a Mediterranean vibe.
This has to do with the long terraces of the Italian-style houses in pastel colours by the river.
The main way to cross is the Pont Saint Laurent, a ferry crossing in Roman times.
After their conquest, the Romans provided a wooden bridge for the crossroads with a wooden bridge, which was eventually replaced by a stone bridge in the 1000s.
This is pretty much the structure that still exists today, unless additional arches were added in the 1400s to avoid changes from flooding.
The conceited 19th-century artist Camille Corot stopped in 1835 to paint the Saint-Laurent Bridge and the Riverside.
5. Old St Vincent
The old cathedral of Mâcon was demolished during the Revolution, the only remaining buildings are the tower and the narthex (portico area). But these alone make the building valuable, as they are a striking piece of the town’s Romanesque and Gothic heritage.
The Gothic South Tower with its unique viewing platform is a recognized symbol of Mâcon.
See if you can stick your head out through the opening on the facade and see the oldest remaining part of the church, dating back to the 1000s, with sculptures in its capital.
6. Église Saint-Pierre de Mâcon
Looking at its towers and portals, you might not realize that the church of Saint-Pierre is actually quite new and not yet another medieval Romanesque wonder in Burgundy.
Completed in 1865, it is the work of André Berthier, a disciple of Viollet-le-Duc, the architect and historian who renovated many of France’s medieval monuments in the 19th century.
The church is in Roman Revival style, with two imposing towers, 53 meters high.
See the frescoes, the organ, the rose window and the striking pulpit with two staircases.
7. Solut’s Rock
A short excursion to the west and the massive Solutré rock comes into view.
This rugged limestone cliff bursts through the grapevine countryside of Puyfusse.
This rock is a precious site, not only because of its unique geological conditions, but also because of its significance to prehistoric cultures.
This is a landmark for hunters who used to butcher and suck their prey (mammoths, etc.) here, some of which belonged to humans, as evidenced by the abundance of bones found in the soil.
After learning about the rock’s distant history at the museum, you can replicate François Mitterrand, who climbed the rock once a year during his presidency of France in the 80s.
8. Cluny Abbey
A short trip west of Macon will take you to one of the greatest monasteries of the Middle Ages.
Cluny Abbey was founded by monks who adhered to the rules of St. Benedict more strictly than anyone else, so it became an important center of Benedictine, affecting thousands of people in Western Europe.
During the Revolution, the status of the monastery made it a target for mobs, and most of the complex was destroyed, so now you’re starting to understand the meaning of the context, not the tangible history.
The abbey’s transept survived the looting, the 13th-century choir capital is intact, and a new 3D demo shows the complex in its full glory.
9. Main Chapel
In 1887, layers of white paint peeled off the interior of this former abbey church, revealing three stunning Romanesque frescoes from the early 12th century.
They are an important artistic document of the period, helping experts understand what the destroyed paintings of Cluny Abbey looked like, as they match the illustrations in illuminated manuscripts made at the abbey at the time.
They show Jesus illuminated by a mandala (luminous cloud) accompanied by his apostles.
10. Château Berzé le Châtel
From the country road of Chapelle-des-Moines, a castle dominates the Grosne valley from a ridge.
The first fort on this perch was built in the 900s and underwent three renovations by the 1800s.
The biggest change occurred in the 15th century under Louis XI, when the fort was considered unconquerable.
The two outer rings of the tower and curtain wall demonstrate this power (and offer breathtaking views), while the stately interior was renovated in the 19th century after the castle was abandoned in 1591 when it became outdated.
Look for the Carolingian Church, one of the earliest structures on the site.
The restored gardens are spectacular, with terraced vegetable fields, orchards and French flower beds.
11. Pierre Clos Castle
Another stronghold in the Grosne Valley is a castle, whose origins date back to the 1200s and is situated among vineyards.
The château does a great job of intriguing adults, and in the cellar you can taste five different wines produced by the vineyard.
Thanks to the vivid rendition of the life of the knights, the children are not neglected either: they can be locked in the dungeon (for only a moment!) and then try on chain mail and armor in the weapons room of the castle.
In the banquet halls, tables are prepared for court feasts, and each room has a game to attract smaller visitors.
12. Bleu Abbey
Margaret of Austria, the widow of Duke Philibert II of Savoy, built this splendid Gothic monastery in memory of her husband in the early 1500s.
You must see in the church the alabaster and marble tombs of Philibert and Margaret, designed by the German Gothic and Renaissance sculptor Konrad Mette.
He used the portrait of Philibert to create the portrait of the duke, and did the same for his mother, who died in 1483, 50 years before the convent was built.
The tombs of Margaret and Philibert differ from the medieval style in that they are shown alive in their youth rather than lying on their deathbeds.
The abbey building also contains the art collection of the town of Bourg-en-Bresse, including works from the 1200s to the 1900s.
13. Bresse Provincial Museum
Macon is located on the eastern border of the historic Bresse region, which had been an official province of France until the Revolution.
Surrounded by meadows, hedges and deciduous bushes is an old farmhouse that introduces visitors to the ancient way of life in this beautiful corner of France since the 1400s.
Beautifully enameled pieces and furniture made from walnut wood show you the craftsmanship of Brace, while you’ll see the peculiar pointed hats that country women used to wear in the traditional dress area.
The farm itself is a museum, with rustic wooden structures and reconstructed interiors to help you understand how farmers lived off the land in the 18th century.
14. Walking and cycling
If you have a decent pair of walking shows, you can easily walk to Solutré rock from the TGV station outside Mâcon.
The trail that winds through this landmark is actually an ancient pilgrimage route all the way to Compostela, Spain, on the Way of St. James.
The 17-kilometer stretch ends in Cenves, where you can meditate on the Saône valley, the Jura mountains and even the Alps.
Mâcon is connected to two long-distance cycle paths off the road: you can cycle to Lyon on a dirt road that ends at Genay 55 km south, or visit the wine villages of Solutré and Mâconnais on Voie Verte, along the An old railway runs through the vine-covered countryside.
15. Food and drink
With top Chardonnays from Saint Véran and Pouilly-Fuissé, Mâcon wines have a reputation far beyond France.
Across 7,000 hectares of vineyards, there are abundant caves, wineries to visit and cooperatives, all in fantastic countryside.
If you go to try these great wines, a Chardonnay or Pinot Noir might be paired with an AOC-labeled, soft, smooth Macon cheese.
The Saône is a great source of freshwater fish, where whitebait is deep-fried and served with lemon juice.
Finally, snails are part of Mâcon’s identity and are usually served as an appetizer cooked with garlic and parsley.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Macon, France
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