In the very heart of the city, high on the hill and not far from where the first Cathedral of Auxerre once stood, the Tour de l’Horloge d’Auxerre is easily one of the most beautiful timepieces in France. And, at the risk of sounding like a cliché, with the exception of a small piece of scaffolding, wandering along the cobbled lane and passing under the 15th-century Auxerre Clock tower truly felt akin to step back in time…
Tour de l’Horloge d’Auxerre (Auxerre Clock Tower)
Dating all the way back to the Middle Ages and reminiscent of the similarly beautiful clock tower of Rouen, that of Auxerre is surrounded by small streets and plenty of timber-framed houses. In fact, if you’re heading to the city, be sure to ditch the map for a little while and wander around, allowing your feet to lead the way.
After all, you’ll soon discover that the sloping hill leading down towards the River Yonne allows you to orientate yourself fairly well at all times! There are three districts in Auxerre that form the city centre; the Marine District, Saint Peter District, and the Clock District, named for the Medieval timepiece that so dominates its pedestrianised centre.
The history of the city dates all the way back to Roman times. And so, as it turns out, the clock tower of today actually stands in the very spot where a Gallo-Roman door would have marked the entryway to the Castrum. To see an example of a similar Gallo-Roman entrance that’s still in existence today, you simply must visit the Green City of Besançon in Franche-Comté.
The fortified tower in Auxerre dates back to 1483. At this time, a clock was installed at the behest of a Count of Auxerre, who announced that his city simply needed to have a bell tower and a clock. During the Middle Ages, bells would generally have been rung throughout the day to signal various prayer and working times. Installing a public clock was a sign of a city’s prosperity and wealth, not to mention that the tower also likely served as a prison!
Contrary to many other such double-faced clocks, both sides are relatively similar in appearance. They were installed to serve as a symbol of freedom in the city and have basic astronomical functions; one hand points to the movements of the sun and the other of the moon.
The clock motion was probably a later addition during the 18th-century by clockmaker Étienne Noblet, who hailed from Seignelay. Now, although the clock tower of Auxerre is free to admire from the exterior, I sadly couldn’t find any information as to how you might actually get inside and climb the tower!
Nevertheless, if you speak French and you are interested in partaking in a historical tour, then I highly recommend heading to the Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre and taking one of their guided tours. I paid €7,50 for the 1.5-hour tour (that ended up well over two hours) and was delighted to hear the history of the city, catch a glimpse of some of the oldest religious Frescoes in France, and see the location where St Germanus was once buried.