Berzé-la-Ville is a picturesque typically French (to my eyes) village near to Berzé-le-Châtel whose medieval fortress was built overlooking the Lamartine Valley to protect Cluny. Nearby is the Chapel des Moines, a Romanesque church with 12th century frescoes painted by the team of artists enlisted by St Hugues of Semur, Abbot from 1049-1109, to decorate Cluny Abbey.
There’s another attraction we have occasionally visited but always found closed, the old gypsum ovens in the centre of Berzé. The production of gypsum was a big industry abandoned in the late 19th century and in recent years the ovens and the mill have been restored.
The restored roof and ovens
A seam of gypsum 20m thick was accessed by galleries dug into the side of the hill. Nearby are the enormous ovens, 6 rectangular and 3 circular.
Looking into a circular oven
The rectangular ovens were filled, burned and allowed to cool before the gypsum was removed and the process begun again. The 3 circular ovens were more modern and could be used continuously with many layers of gypsum and wood. The bottom layers would burn, igniting the next layer then raked out to make room for a new layer on top. The burned gypsum was then ground into powder in the mill and could be used to make plaster or alabaster. Cluny alabaster was widely sought after. At the beginning of the 16th century it was used to sculpt the friezes of the Palais de Jacques d’Ambroise, now the Mairie in Cluny.
For the last thirty years the Friends of Berzé have been digging out the rubble and soil that filled the ovens. The mines were once used for growing mushrooms but are now closed to the public after a cave-in killed someone. Gypsum rock is quite soft so liable to collapse.
Yesterday was a lovely day to take the picturesque drive through the forests above Cluny to visit Berzé for an exhibition of work by Les Belles de Mai, a group of 14 local women artists.
Les Belles de Mai exhibit their work upstairs….
I’m afraid most of the time we investigated the ovens rather than admired the work. We were mightily impressed by the scale of the renovations. In comparison our little lime kiln up the road rather pales into insignificance!