We have been staying in the small city of Mâcon in southern Burgundy. Just down the road from our AirBnB, in Place de la Barre, is a statue of two workers carrying a huge basket of grapes. It was made by Pierre Alexandre Morlon. The sign under the statue describes Morlon (1878-1951) as “sculpteur, graveur, humaniste, Mâconnais”.
Provenance matters in France, never more so than with wine. Mâcon is the capital of the southern Burgundy region, and although its wines are less prestigious than the Grand Cru and Premiere Crus further north, the surrounding countryside is full of interesting wine villages. Most of the Caves that I visited were shut, not surprising given that it’s January, but there were still a few people working on the vineyard slopes.
Several other sculptures by Morlon are preserved around Mâcon, including a limestone bas-relief representing grape pickers in the press in the large hall of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Monument to the dead of the First World War. Morlon also redesigned the coins used in French currency.
The Historic Centre
Mâcon’s population is currently around 40,000 people. Despite being fairly small, it has been the principal city of the Saône-et-Loire region since 1790, when the department was created, and the Saône river runs right through the heart of the city. The island of St Laurent is to the east of the city centre, and is encircled by two branches of the Saône. The Pont du Saint Laurent provides easy access between the historic centre and the island, which initially I thought was a suburb of the main city. A footpath runs alongside the river.
The town has a rich history, and the Saone river has been important throughout. The first historical references to Mâcon are from the 1st century BC, when the town is mentioned by Julius Caesar. It is thought the town was originally an oppidum, a fortified town populated by Celtic people under Roman occupation. The town provided a port on the river network that still links many French cities, allowing it to flourish in the first few centuries of the Christian era. It was also on the important road known as the Voie d’Agrippa that ran from Lyon in the south all the way up into Germany and the Atlantic Ocean.
The river has also been a source of disaster, In 1602, the town suffered severe flooding when the Saône river broke its banks, after a period of continual heavy rain. This disaster was on a scale never before seen in the region, and the whole of the suburb of Saint Jean de Maiseau was so deep under the water that people took to boats to get about.
There are plenty of good restaurants in the historic centre, although many of these were shut during our visit, often with a sign that said “Fermeture Exceptionelle” that over time suggested that there was nothing at all exceptional about the closures. Those that were open seemed mostly to only serve dinner after seven in the evening.
Similarly, at this time of year, the shops seemed to enjoy even more limited hours than in the rest of France, opening in the afternoon and closing by six or seven in the evening.
The city centre is extremely accessible and easy to walk around. The main railway station was a couple of hundred yards from the comfy apartment in Rue Victor Hugo, just off the roundabout at the start of Rue Bigonnet. Place de la Barre is about 400 yards from the railway station, just after the Hotel de Bourgogne, and you then turn right down Rue de Barre to get to the centre.
The road forks into Rue Philibert Laguiche and Rue Sigorgne, but both have good shops and places to eat. Keep going and you reach the river and Quai Lamartine. Les Vins d’Anges is on Rue Franche, and Rue du Pont branches off that to the main bridge that leads to St Laurent.
The Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine is a big presence in the town, and Place Lamartine is just northeast of Place de la Barre. The poet was was born in Mâcon in 1790 and spent his childhood in Milly, north of Vergisson and close to the town of Solutré, above which is the Roche de Solutré. The most attractive of the Romantics was also a great politician who spoke out for universal suffrage, freedom of the press and against the death penalty. Lamartine was very attached to the land and its vineyards, and he returned to Solutré every year to the time of the harvest. He was buried in 1869, his funeral attended by huge crowds.
The main cathedral in Cathedral, Saint Vincent, is just opposite the Square de la Paix, and just a little further to the north of Place Lamartine. This is the new cathedral; the remains of the original are in the historic centre, closer to the river. Although the Cathedral doesn’t look that impressive from the outside, the interior is beautiful, with stained glass along either side of the church and wonderful arches dividing the nave from the side aisles.
The Second World War was a time of trauma and tragedy in Mâcon, and there is a monument to the victims of the German Occupation in the square de la Paix. The square has a mournful atmosphere, and although the monument to the fallen is impressive, it was pretty much empty when I visited.
Mâcon was a centre for resistance in the war, particularly after the German occupation of the city in November 1942, when 800 German soldiers crossed the line of demarcation and took over the Hôtel des Champs-Élysées as their centre of control. Various other buildings were also commandeered including the school at Place Carnot. Several Resistance fighters were killed by French collaborators in June 1944, and two months later the town was surrounded by guerrillas, prompting the Germans to destroy the railway station, the Pont de Genève, and one of the arches of the Pont Saint-Laurent. Soon after, a 1500 strong militia from Cluny took control of the city and liberated the city.
Even before the Second World War, Macon has been at the centre of the geopolitical intrigues that beset Europe.
The town’s cathedral St Vincent was built in the Middle Ages, when the town was deeply embroiled in regional geopolitics. Although early on the town was part of the royal domain, it gradually gained more independence in the 14th century, particularly after the battle of Crécy when the town was granted autonomy after supporting king Philippe VI. Tensions between the king and regional aristocracy flared up again in the 15th century, when Louis XI went to war with the Burgundian duke Charles le Téméraire.
Mâcon was also embroiled in the wars of religion in the 1500s. It was one of the first towns in France to have a printing press, when Michel Wenssler, originally from Basel in what is now Switzerland, set up in the town. Throughout this period, Mâcon’s strategic location between the kingdoms of France and Savoie allowed it to flourish as a commercial centre. The Swiss influence is still there; it takes less than two hours to drive to Geneva. Despite being regarded as a heresy, Calvinism was popular among the bourgeoisie and merchants of the town, spreading throughout the Mâconnais region but being subject to bouts of suppression.
The town’s geopolitical influence continued in the 19th century. In 1814, the town was invaded by the Austrian army, briefly liberated by the emperor Napoleon, and then taken again a year later.
The Musee des Ursulines is a regional history museum in the historic heart of the city, just a bit further along Rue de la Prefecture. The museum is situated in an ancient 17th Century convent, and houses more than 25,000 works that provide a panorama of Mâconnais history, culture and arts from Antiquity right up to the 20th century.
Despite the challenges, the town grew throughout the 1800s, with various neighbouring communes, most importantly that of Saint-Clément, being absorbed by the expanding city. This continued under the 3rd republic, and the town swelled to the point that it could build a substantial barracks big enough for 2,400 men. The Duhesme Barracks was an important landmark.
Mâcon’s telephone network was inaugurated in 1891, and by the turn of the century there were 100 subscribers. The telegraph line was initially laid in 1852 from Paris to Mâcon, and then extended to Lyons shortly after.
This process has continued in the 20th century with the formerly independent commune of Flacé becoming part of Mâcon in 1965, and several others being absorbed until 1972 when the district of Loché became part of Mâcon. This area is where Avis car hire have their office, located in the rail station for the TGV.