Mâcon is on the banks of the Saone river in the Saone-et-Loire department of France, to the south of the Burgundy region, north of Lyon and near Cluny. The town is the most southerly in Burgundy, and perhaps the first town that you come to when heading south through France that feels 'Mediterranean', with canal tile rooves and pastel painted buildings.
With a history dating back more than 2000 years, Macon prospered thanks to its historical position as an important border town to the east of France, and on an important trading route. The town and region, like many in Burgundy, are now very well known for the local wines produced nearby.
The agglomeration of Mâcon originates from the establishment of an oppidum and of a river port by the Celts from the Aedui, probably at the beginning of the first century BC. Known then under the name of Matisco, the town developed significantly during the age of the Roman Empire. This is demonstrated by the large Roman hoard, the Mâcon Treasure, that was discovered in the town in 1764, the remains of which is in the British Museum. During the 4th century, the town was fortified.
During the Middle Ages, Mâcon was the administrative center of a county belonging to the Duchy of Burgundy at the extremity of the bridge over the Saône leading to the Bresse territory belonging to the Duchy of Savoy. The town was controlling access to present-day Lamartinien Valley (Val Lamartinien), where the southern end of the Côte de Bourgogne joins the first foothills of the Beaujolais hills, opening the way to the rich plains of the Loire.
On 3 June 1564, Charles IX from Chalon, stopped in the town during his Royal Tour of France (1564–1566), accompanied by the Court and the nobles of his kingdom, including his brother the Duke of Anjou, Henry of Navarre, the cardinals of Bourbon and Lorraine. The town is strategically built: it was a possible entrance into the kingdom for the Swiss or German mercenaries during the French Wars of Religion. He was welcomed by the Queen Jeanne III of Navarre, nicknamed the “Queen of Protestants”, and 1,500 Huguenots.
On 21 October 1790, the matriarch of a prominent local family gave birth to a son who remains highly visible in his hometown, the Romantic poet and historian Alphonse de Lamartine.
In 1790, the Revolutionary government designated Mâcon as the capital (chef-lieu) of Saône-et-Loire, a newly created département within the radical restructuring of national administration.
In 1814, the town was invaded by Austrian troops and then liberated twice by French troops before being permanently occupied until the fall of the Empire. After Napoléon’s return and the subsequent Hundred Days, Mâcon and the Mâconnais were again captured by the Austrians.
During World War II, Mâcon was the first town in the unoccupied zone libre between Paris and Lyon. The town was liberated on 4 September by the troops who had landed in Provence.
The Old Cathedral of Saint-Vincent, built in the 11th century - 14th century, is the principal highlight, although much of the original structure is no longer standing - unfortunate because it was clearly an imposing structure. The remaining octagonal towers and the imposing entrance give a clue as to what the cathedral was once like, while inside there are models to help visitors visualise the original structure.
The old centre of the town, just back from the river and the esplanade Lamertine, has some interesting houses - see especially the carpentry work and carvings on the 15th century Maison de Bois.
The new Cathedral of Saint Vincent was built in the 19th century to replace the earlier cathedral of the same name. It is in the neoclassical style with the facade dominated by an entrance with four large stone columns.
You can see a third church, the Church of Saint-Pierre, opposite the town hall. At first glance this church appears romanesque in style but was actually built in the middle of the 19th century using the earlier style as inspiration. It is an attractive building with two large bell towers topped by stone spires and built in the neo-Romanesque style. Its front facade has three stone doorways surrounded by highly carved stonework, especially the larger central door.
The walk along the Quai Lamartine is very pleasant. The river is spanned by the Saint Laurent bridge dating back to the 11th century though it has been restored and widened since then. Facing the river is a street of brightly painted buildings making this walk along the quai very pleasant.