Looking for Avalon.
By Beebe Bahrami
It was near dusk on a May evening in 2012 when I climbed up the footworn cobblestone street that traces Avallon’s black granite spine. I passed through the town’s clock tower gate. I paused before Saint Lazarus church, founded in the ninth century when a monk brought the bones of Mary Magdalene’s brother here. Its engraved stone archway depicts the 12 labors of the agrarian year, symbols of balance and responsible living. May showed two lovers facing in a representation of the life-creating energies of late spring.
I pressed on to the top of the rising ridge on which the medieval town had been built—succeeding a Roman fort town, which had in turn been erected over a Celtic oppidum. On park benches, locals hashed over the day’s news. I stood, speechless: Avallon’s upper rampart wall gave way below to the expansive dark green canopy of the Morvan Forest. From the Celtic mar, black, and vand, mountain, the Morvan was a realm of jagged dark granite hills and a mixed forest of oak, beech, birch, and chestnut trees fed by streams and lakes. Wild animals, birds, fish, and all manner of undergrowth thrived there, protected from human development by its ruggedness.
Two women on a bench turned to say hello. I returned their greeting but cast my gaze quickly back to the forest. A soft mist began to slip across its treetops.
“It’s an enchanted place,” one woman said, “full of fairies, dotted with dolmens, et trés sauvage.” A thrill ran through my spine.
I’d come here for this, to walk through layers of enchantment and legend, from Avallon through the Morvan to the neighboring hilltop town of Vézelay some 20 kilometers away.
The name Avallon, like Avalon in English, came from the proto-Celtic word, aballo, apple. This place was one of at least three contenders for the shrouded land of legend where the mortally wounded King Arthur was last seen slipping through the mists. The other two were Glastonbury—Avalon in mythic time—and the Ile d’Aval in northern Brittany.
According to the sixth-century Goth scribe Jordanes, a ruler of the Britons and Bretons known as Riothamus came to Roman aid around AD 470 to help against invading Saxons and Visigoths in Gaul. He brought 12,000 men across the channel and initially succeeded, but as he waited for Roman reinforcements around Bourges, the Visigoths attacked and gutted Riothamus’ army. Injured, he rallied and led survivors into Burgundy. Some think that Riothamus found sanctuary in Avallon. Romantic lore suggests he was last seen ascending the slope into Avallon and disappearing behind the mists, taking on an aura of timelessness like Arthur, the once and future king.
Then, in the Middle Ages, when Avallon was devoted to Lazarus, Vézelay was dedicated to his sister, Mary Magdalene. The village to this day houses her remains, a rib at least, in its hilltop basilica, also founded in the ninth century. According to French lore, soon after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, Mary Magdalene, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, left the Holy Land and sailed to Provence to live out the rest of their days. Upon her death, she was buried in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, but then a monk—the same one who brought Lazarus’ bones to Avallon—smuggled her bones north to Burgundy and gave them to the new abbey in Vézelay. As with Avalon and Arthur, all this is contested; there are camps who believe that Mary Magdalene’s remains are still in Provence, and others in Turkey. The Gospels mention several women named Mary, and some identify Mary of Bethany as Lazarus’ sister, but none identify her as Mary Magdalene. Yet medieval Catholic commentary, combined with the popular extra-Biblical lore in France, gave rise to the belief that Mary Magdalene was one and the same as Lazarus’ sister. The relics turned these paired hilltop towns into pilgrimage destinations in their own right. They also became part of the wider network of pilgrim paths on the Way of Saint James. Before all this, Vézelay had been a shrine devoted to Bacchus, surrounded by Roman vineyards and fruit orchards, especially of cherry and aballo.
Early the next morning I climbed past Avallon’s rampart walls down to the westbound trailhead of the Morvan Forest. I turned to look back but Avallon, like Riothamus, had disappeared behind the mists. I stepped in. Trees quickly closed around me. Sound shifted. I felt as if I could hear every leaf rustling in the wind, every insect scouting the flowers, but not a single human sound, though there was a road nearby. I walked along a narrow, coffee-colored dirt trail edged with ferns unfurling their springtime fiddleheads. Colorful wildflowers dipped their heads near a burbling stream churned by leaping trout. Moss dripped from oak branches like shawls and carpeted stones like velvet. A red-breasted European robin belted out her territorial song. A hawk quietly took flight, rising up through a small opening in the trees.
At first, the trail markers were clear, but soon they became irregular and open to interpretation. I puzzled along creek-flooded paths. I arrived at rockface dead-ends and impassable thickets. I stepped around fox and deer scat. Once, I just caught the flitting form of a beech marten—its cat-sized, weasel-bodied, taupe-toned form slipping quickly across tree roots and disappearing behind the ferns with a whip of its fox-like tail. I scrambled across a slippery log over a wide creek, up a steep muddy bank, and along a narrow ridge above menacing black stones far below.
Three hours later the trail spat me out onto a patchwork of yellow mustard fields alternating with green hills dotted with cream-colored cows who stopped their munching to stare. I went over hill and dale toward Vézelay, which appeared as a dot, then grew like a golden stone ship approaching on an ocean of wavy green hills, the two towers of its crowning Romanesque basilica evoking masts. I finally arrived at the hill’s base and climbed up through spring grasses, wildflowers, and grapevines.
Famished and parched, I landed at the base of the central village street that led straight up to the basilica at the hill’s pinnacle. In what felt like mythic timing, I arrived as the white robed brothers and sisters of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem began their midday sung prayer. Chant ricocheted off the towering walls and striated black-and-white stone arches, all bathed in dappled sunlight. As in the forest, sound and light washed over me. I stood in the back pew as each harmonized wave plowed into me, first through my skin, then muscle, then organs and bones. They rattled and loosened anything I no longer needed and dropped them onto the floor where they dissolved. If Avallon cultivated mists, its sister hill obliterated them. The forest in between primed one for both sensations.
After the service, I took in the engraved capitals and arches, rich in folkloric and Biblical themes. I found the familiar labors of the year.
I then visited the crypt, a low arched gold stone cavern. At one end it held a reliquary containing a clear cylinder with what looked like a rib, Mary Magdalene’s rib, set within a gold stand flanked at each corner with angels, clergy, and kings. At the other end was an altar devoted to Jesus. I understood intuitively, reinforced by the wild hike, the carved stones, and the sung devotions above in the nave, that this place, the forest, Avallon, and their stories collectively were about balance and harmony in all things.
I lingered in Vézelay, enjoyed a celebratory glass of chardonnay made from the vines I’d climbed through, and then returned to Avallon. On the way, I met a man from a village nearby.
“What do you make of all these legends,” I had to ask, “of Arthur and Avallon, and the Magdalene and Vézelay?”
“There are a lot of places called Avalon-this and Avallon-that,” he replied. “The misty island could be any one of them.” He then flashed an impish smile. “But we do have lots of Celtic remains, magical forests and hills, plus good wine, so why not let Avalon be here?” We laughed.
“But,” he added, “why not let the other places have their fun with the legends too, including those places that also claim to have Mary Magdalene’s remains in Provence? There’s enough for everyone, and everyone needs these stories.”
He’d nailed it: Avalon wasn’t a single place out there; it was a destination within. But out there was also important. It seemed that the power of transformation embodied in the legends arrived at the threshold between the two, the inner worlds we carry and the wild outer ones we walk consciously into. And here, by walking into these ancient and mythic landscapes of northern Burgundy, and by letting them walk into me, I’d slipped across the invisible threshold and into Avalon.
Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 is the author of two memoirs on southwestern France, Café Oc and Café Neandertal.