East of Joigny, and, conveniently close to the TGV stop of Laroche-Migennes, the Canal de Bourgogne branches off to the north of the River Yonne southeast towards Dijon. Along or close to the canal are several places of interest: the beautiful town of Tonnere, the Renaissance châteaux of Tanlay and Ancy-le-Franc, the Abbaye de Fontenay, and the site of Julius Caesar’s victory over the Gauls at Alésia. Just east of the canal, perched above the River Armançon, lies the picturesque town of Semur-en-Auxois. Further east the Canal encompasses the upper reaches of the River Seine: at Châtillon-sur-Seine is the famous Celtic Treasure of Vix.
More about France
Find out more
On the Paris–Sens–Dijon TGV train route, Tonnere is a great base for exploring this corner of the region, and far cheaper than Chablis, just 18km away; the local golden, fruity Chardonnay is the newest appellation contrôllée in Burgundy, recognized in 2006. Although not as prosperous as its world-renowned neighbour, it is much prettier, since it was not bombed during the war – unlike Chablis – and it has several sights well worth a look.
Tonnerre is also an excellent starting point for cycling along the Canal de Bourgogne; from here to Dijon it’s four or five days of easy cycling through some superb countryside.
Tonnerre’s most unlikely attraction sits at the foot of the steep hill crowned by the church of St-Pierre. The Fosse Dionne is a fascinating blue-green “mystic” pool encircled by a wash house that dates from 1758. A number of legends are attached to the spring (the name derives from Divona, Celtic goddess of water), including suggestions that it was a gateway to hell or the lair of a ferocious basilisk slain by bishop St-Jean de Réôme. Divers have penetrated 360m along a narrow underwater passageway and 61m in depth with no end in sight, but further exploration was banned in 1996, after several explorers died in these attempts.
Treasure of Vix
Treasure of Vix
For anyone interested in pre-Roman France, there is one compelling reason to visit Châtillon-sur-Seine, around 30km east of Tonnerre: the so-called Treasure of Vix, discovered in 1953 6km northwest of Châtillon. The finds, from the sixth-century BC tomb of a Celtic princess buried in a four-wheeled chariot, include the famous Vase of Vix, which, weighing 208kg and 1.64m high, is the largest bronze vase of Greek origin known from antiquity, with a superbly modelled high-relief frieze round its rim, and Gorgons’ heads for handles. The treasure is displayed in the Musée du Pays Châtillonnais, which also boasts an impressive collection of objects from Celtic, Gallo-Roman and medieval periods found in the Châtillonnais region.
Abbaye de Fontenay
Abbaye de FontenayThe UNESCO World Heritage Site of Abbaye de Fontenay is the biggest draw in the area. Founded in 1118, it’s the only Burgundian monastery to survive intact, despite conversion to a paper mill in the early nineteenth century. It was restored in the early 1900s to its original form, while the gardens were re-landscaped in 2008 in full harmony with its Romanesque structure. It is one of the world’s most complete monastic complexes, including a caretaker’s lodge, guesthouse and chapel, dormitory, hospital, prison, bakery, kennels and abbot’s house, as well as a church, cloister, chapterhouse and even a forge.
On top of all this, the abbey’s setting, at the head of a quiet stream-filled valley enclosed by woods of pine, fir, sycamore and beech, is superb. There’s a bucolic calm about the place, particularly in the graceful cloister, and in these surroundings the spartan simplicity of Cistercian life seems appealing. Hardly a scrap of decoration softens the church and there’s no direct lighting in the nave, just an otherworldly glow from the square-ended apse.
One base worth knowing about if you’re counting on public transport in the area is the rather unexciting hillside town of Montbard, on the main line between Dijon and Paris and where buses leave for both Chatillon and Semur. It may even be worth an overnight stop if you’re heading to the Abbaye de Fontenay and the site of Alésia.
A few kilometres south of Montbard, on Mont Auxois, above the village of Alise-Ste-Reine is Alésia (closed Dec & Jan). It was here in 52 BC that the Gauls, united under the leadership of Vercingétorix, made their last stand against the military might of Rome. Julius Caesar himself commanded the Roman army, which surrounded the final Gallic stronghold and starved 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 fundamental turning point in the fortunes of the region, as Gaul remained under Roman rule for four hundred years.
The modern Muséoparc d’Alésia, inaugurated in March 2012, brings the battle of Alésia to life with a visitor centre, a museum and a multimedia exhibition about Gallo-Roman life. You can also visit excavations, including the theatre and a Gallo-Roman house.
On the hilltop opposite the Muséoparc d’Alésia, and visible from far and wide, is a great bronze statue of Vercingétorix. Erected by Napoleon 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 heartthrob. 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.” Napoleon III 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.