One train stop south of Montbard (or 3hr on the GR213) brings you to the dull little industrial town of VENAREY-LES-LAUMES. It was here, or rather behind and above the town, on the flat-topped hill of Mont Auxois, that the Gauls, united for once under the leadership of Vercingétorix, made their last stand against the military might of Rome at the Battle of Alésia in 52 BC. Julius Caesar himself commanded the Roman army, surrounding the hilltop town with a huge double ditch and earthworks and starving the Gauls out, bloodily defeating all attempts at escape. Vercingétorix surrendered to save his people, was imprisoned in Rome for six years until Caesar's formal triumph and then strangled. The battle was a great turning point in the fortunes of the region. Thereafter, Gaul remained under Roman rule for four hundred years. The site of Alésia, treeless and exposed, is back along the ridge 3km from the modern village of ALISE-STE-REINE, which overlooks Venarey from the top of Mont Auxois. Little more than the extensive layout can be seen today, and the interest of the area lies in imagined atmosphere rather than in anything concrete.
For many years, Alise-Ste-Reine has had a small museum of finds from the Gallic town of Alésia and Caesar's earthworks (the line of them still clearly visible in aerial photographs), but the contents are due to move to a new visitor centre at the actual battlefield; check at the tourist office. On the first weekend of September the martyrdom of St Reine is celebrated in a costume procession through the village, a custom that goes back to the year 866. St Reine was a young Christian girl who was put to death in 263 for refusing to marry the proconsul of the Gauls, Olibrius. The year of her martyrdom is held to mark the advent of Christianity in Alésia.
Directly above Alise-Ste-Reine, steps climb up to a great bronze statue of Vercingétorix. Erected by Napoléon III, whose influence popularized the rediscovery of France's pre-Roman roots, the statue represents Vercingétorix as a romantic Celt, half virginal Christ, half long-haired 1970s matinee idol. On the plinth is inscribed a quotation from Vercingétorix's address to the Gauls as imagined by Julius Caesar: "United and forming a single nation inspired by a single ideal, Gaul can defy the world." Napoléon signs his dedication, "Emperor of the French", inspired by a vain desire to gain legitimacy by linking his own name to that of a "legendary" Celt.
Pages in section ‘Alésia’: Practicalities.
Alternate spellings:: France, AlÚsia, Alésia, Alesia