Most travellers to Burgundy arrive in Auxerre, the chief population and industrial centre in the north of Burgundy – and with good reason. A very pretty and historic town of narrow lanes and lovely open squares, it looks its best from Pont Paul-Bert over the river Yonne and the riverside quays. From here you get a lovely view of moored houseboats and barges, with churches soaring dramatically and harmoniously above the surrounding rooftops. To enjoy some local colour, and pick up some local produce, try the market in place de l’Arquebuse (Tues & Fri morning).
The most interesting of Auxerre’s many churches is the airy, light abbey church of St-Germain, famous for its ten-ribbed vaults, containing three of only five in existence worldwide. The monks’ former dormitories, around a classical cloister, now house a historical and archeological museum, but the real highlight is the crypt where the tomb of St Germain, fourth bishop of Auxerre (378–448), was the epicentre of the bishops’ burial catacombs. The tomb is empty – St Germain’s remains were used for various reliquaries and what was left was desecrated by Huguenots in 1567. The crypt is one of the few surviving examples of Carolingian architecture, with its plain barrel vaults still resting on their thousand-year-old oak beams. Its wonderfully vivid and expressive ochre frescoes are the oldest in France, dating back to around 850 AD.