Burgundy begins just south of Fontainebleau, near where the river Yonne joins the Seine, and follows the Yonne valley through the historic towns of Sens and Joigny before it reaches Auxerre. Scattered in a broad corridor to the east and west in the riverbanks of the Yonne’s tributaries – the Armançon, Serein, Cure and Cousin – is a fascinating collection of abbeys, châteaux, towns, villages and other sites as ancient as the history of France. They all deserve a visit, for reasons ranging from architecture (Pontigny) and wine (Chablis) to sheer secluded beauty (Noyers sur Serein).
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Pontigny lies 25km east of Joigny, and has a beautifully preserved twelfth-century Cistercian abbey church, standing on the edge of the village. There’s no tower, no stained glass and no statuary to distract from its austere lines, though the sombre effect is somehow compensated for by the seventeenth-century choir that occupies much of the nave.
Three Englishmen played a major role in the abbey’s early history, all of them archbishops of Canterbury. Thomas Becket took refuge from Henry II in the abbey in 1164, before moving to Sens in 1166; Stephen Langton similarly hid here during an argument over his eligibility for the primacy from 1207 to 1213; finally, Saint Edmund of Abingdon retired here in 1240, after unsuccessfully trying to stand up to Henry III. Saint Edmund’s relics lie in a seventeenth-century tomb inside the abbey.
- Chablis and around
Around 23km southeast of Chablis – you’ll need to drive, or take a taxi (about €35 from Tonnerre or Montbard train stations) – you come to the beautiful little town of Noyers-sur-Serein (wnoyers-et-tourisme.com). Half-timbered and arcaded houses, ornamented with rustic carvings – particularly those on place de la Petite-Étape-aux-Vins and around place de l’Hôtel de Ville – are corralled inside a loop of the river and the town walls; you can pass a few pleasant hours wandering the path between the river and the irregular walls with their robust towers. The Serein here is as pretty as in Chablis, but Noyers, being remarkably free of commercialism, has more charm.