Burgundy Travel Guide
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At the very heart of the country, Burgundy is one of France’s most prosperous regions. Its peaceful way of life, celebrated wine, delicous food and numerous outdoor activities all combine to make this region the ideal place to discover and appreciate la vie française. Wine is, of course, the region’s most obvious attraction, and devotees head straight for the great vineyards, whose produce has played the key role in the local economy since Louis XIV’s doctor prescribed wine as a palliative for the royal dyspepsia. Wine tasting is particularly big business around Chablis, Mâcon and Beaune.
For centuries Burgundy’s powerful dukes remained independent of the French crown, and during the Hundred Years' War they even sided with the English, selling them the captured Joan of Arc. By the fifteenth century their power extended over all of Franche-Comté, Alsace and Lorraine, Belgium, Holland, Picardy and Flanders, and their state was the best-organized and richest in Europe. Burgundy finally fell to the French kings when Duke Charles le Téméraire (the Bold) was killed besieging Nancy in 1477.
There’s evidence everywhere of this former wealth and power, both secular and religious: the dukes’ capital of Dijon, the great abbeys of Vézelay and Fontenay, the ruins of the monastery of Cluny (whose abbots’ influence was second only to the pope’s), and a large number of imposing châteaux. During the Middle Ages, Burgundy – along with Poitou and Provence – became one of the great church-building areas in France. Practically every village has its Romanesque church, especially in the country around Cluny and Paray-le-Monial, and where the Catholic Church built, so had the Romans before, with their legacy visible in the substantial Roman remains at Autun. There’s more history on show at Alésia, the scene of Julius Caesar’s epic victory over the Gauls in 52 BC.
Between bouts of gastronomic indulgence, you can engage in some moderate activity: for walkers there’s a wide range of hikes, from gentle walks in the Côte d’Or to relatively demanding treks in the Parc Régional du Morvan.
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.
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.
The 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.
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 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.
Tonnerre’s quirkiest claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of the great eighteenth-century cross-dresser, Chevalier d’Éon. Born in the Hôtel d’Uzès in 1728, still the most magnificent structure in Tonnerre, d’Éon went about his important diplomatic missions for King Louis XV dressed in women’s clothes. He fell out with the king, however, and, when he was in exile in London, wore a (male) dragoon’s uniform – yet still bookmakers took bets on his sex. When Louis XVI ascended to the throne he allowed d’Éon to return to France – but exiled in Tonnerre – and also recognized his claim to be a woman and to dress as such. After the Revolution, Chevalier d’Éon slowly slid into debt, and died penniless in London in 1810. An autopsy determined that he was undoubtedly a man. A museum in Tonnerre, at the Hôtel Chevalier d’Eon, 22 rue de Pont, features much of his correspondence as well as his lavish silk dresses and other personal effects.
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. 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. Another string to its bow is the local golden, fruity Chardonnay – the newest appellation contrôlée in Burgundy, recognized in 2006. 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. You don’t even have to worry about luggage: Bag Transfert will pick up your bags and take it to your next stop for €12 per piece.
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.
Burgundy – and in particular the area to the east and south of the Morvan – is one of the prime château regions in France. Whether still in the hands of old families like the Château de Vauban,whose current owner is related to Vauban, the great French fortification builder, or state-owned and state-maintained like the Château de Castellux, their remoteness and association with a feudal aristocratic class places them several steps above a simple stately mansion.
As the upkeep of such massive structures becomes more and more expensive, many château owners rent their properties to large families or groups. Depending on numbers, costs can be as low as £300 per week, but take note: wi-fi may not penetrate the thick stone walls, and you will almost invariably need your own car; some places come with a cook and a maid, and occasionally the owners may still live on the premises (though you might never even bump into them). The range of experiences is broad, however, and you should be able to find something to suit your tastes – from Château de Missery near Saulieu, who offer weekend cookery courses and wine tastings for about a dozen people, to Château de Tailly, which is split into three buildings and can accommodate smaller parties of guests.
In Celtic times, Dijon held a strategic position on the tin merchants’ route from Britain to the Adriatic. It became the capital of the dukes of Burgundy around 1000 AD, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, under the auspices of dukes Philippe le Hardi (the Bold – as a boy, he had fought the English at Poitiers), Jean sans Peur (the Fearless), Philippe le Bon (the Good – he sold Joan of Arc to the English), and Charles le Téméraire (also the Bold), Dijon flourished. The dukes used their tremendous wealth and power – especially their control of Flanders, the dominant manufacturing region of the age – to make this one of the greatest centres of art, learning and science in Europe. It lost its capital status on incorporation into the kingdom of France in 1477, but has remained one of the country’s pre-eminent provincial cities. Today, it’s an affluent university city: elegant, modern and dynamic, especially when the students are around.
Dijon is not enormous and the area you’ll want to see is confined to the eminently walkable centre. The two tram lines that started service in the winter of 2012/13 have transformed the place, with cars being forced out onto the outskirts; if you have driven to Dijon, you are advised to leave the car at your hotel and forget about it until you leave. Rue de la Liberté forms the spine of the city, running east from the wide, attractive place Darcy and the eighteenth-century triumphal arch of Porte Guillaume – once a city gate – past the palace of the dukes of Burgundy on the semicircular place de la Libération.
The focus of a visit to Dijon is inevitably the seat of its former rulers, the Palais des Ducs, which stands at the hub of the city. Facing the main courtyard is the relaxed place de la Libération, built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, one of the architects of Versailles, towards the end of the seventeenth century. It’s now something of a suntrap on a good day, and the decision to close it to traffic has stimulated a boom in café trade. The fourteenth-century Tour de Bar dominates the courtyard in front of the east wing, and now houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which houses an interesting collection of works from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century; among the highlights are the Flemish paintings, particularly the Nativity by the so-called Master of Flémalle, a shadowy figure who ranks with van Eyck as one of the first artists to break from the chilly stranglehold of International Gothic, Burgundy’s homespun phase of Gothic art.
Visiting the museum also provides the opportunity to see the surviving portions of the original ducal palace, including the vast kitchen and the magnificent Salle des Gardes. Displayed here are the lavish, almost decadent, tombs of Philippe le Hardi and Jean sans Peur and his wife, Marguerite de Bavière, with their startling, painted effigies of the dead, surrounded by gold-plated angels.
Architecturally more interesting than the dukes’ palace, and much more suggestive of the city’s former glories, are the lavish townhouses of the rich burghers. These abound in the streets behind the duke’s palace, most notably on rue de la Chouette. Some are half-timbered, with storeys projecting over the street, others are in more formal and imposing Renaissance stone. Particularly fine are the Renaissance Hôtel de Vogüé, 8 rue de la Chouette, the Hôtel Aubriot at no.40 rue des Forges, plus the Hôtel Benigne Malyot and the Maison des Cariatides at no. 1 and 28 rue Chaudronnière respectively.
The richness of Burgundy’s cuisine is largely due to two factors: the region’s wines and its possession of one of the world’s finest breeds of beef cattle, the Charolais. Wines are often used in the preparation of sauces, especially à la bourguignon. Essentially, this means that the dish is cooked in a red wine sauce to which baby onions, mushrooms and lardons (pieces of bacon) are added. The classic Burgundy dishes cooked in this manner are bœuf bourguignon and coq au vin. Another term that frequently appears on menus is meurette, which is also a red wine sauce but made without mushrooms and flambéed with a touch of marc brandy. It’s used with eggs, fish and poultry as well as red meat.
Snails (escargots) are hard to avoid in Burgundy, and the local style of cooking involves stewing them for several hours in white wine with shallots, carrots and onions, then stuffing them with garlic and parsley butter and finishing them off in the oven. Other specialities include the parsley-flavoured ham (jambon persillé); calf’s head (tête de veau, or sansiot); and a pauchouse of river fish (that is, poached in white wine with onions, butter, garlic and lardons).
Like other regions of France, Burgundy produces a variety of cheeses. The best known are the creamy white Chaource, the soft St-Florentin from the Yonne valley, the orange-skinned Époisses and the delicious goat’s cheeses from the Morvan. And then there is gougère, a savoury pastry made with cheese, best eaten warm with a glass of Chablis.
The Morvan region lies in the middle of Burgundy between the valleys of the Loire and the Saône, stretching roughly from Clamecy, Vézelay and Avallon in the north to Autun in the south. It’s a land of wooded hills and, with poor soil and pastures only good for a few cattle, villages and farms are few and far between. In the nineteenth century, supplying firewood and charcoal to Paris was the main business and large tracts of hillside are still covered in coniferous plantations.
Carpeted with forest and etched by cascading streams, the Parc Régional du Morvan was officially created in 1970, when 170,000 hectares of hilly countryside were set aside in an attempt to protect the local cultural and physical environment with a series of nature trails, animal reserves, museums and local craft shops. It’s an excellent place for outdoor activities, especially cycling and walking, with a good network of simple accommodation.
With its Gothic spire rising against the backdrop of the Morvan hills, Autun is scarcely bigger than the circumference of its walls; most of the enclosure still consists of Roman fortifications that have been maintained through the centuries. The emperor Augustus founded the town in about 10 BC as part of a massive and, ultimately, highly successful campaign to pacify the brooding Celts of defeated Vercingétorix. The splendour of Augustodunum, as it was called, was designed to eclipse the memory of Bibracte, the neighbouring capital of the powerful tribe of the Aedui. Autun did indeed become one of the leading cities of Roman Gaul until it was sacked by the Arabs in 725 AD. Today, it is a picturesque provincial town, and an excellent base for exploring the surrounding countryside, particularly the Parc du Morvan. This town’s past remains very tangible, and two of its four Roman gates survive – Porte St-André, spanning rue de la Croix-Blanche in the northeast, and Porte d’Arroux in the northwest – while a number of other remains are dotted about the town.
The tourist buses winding their way up the steep incline to Vézelay should not deter you from visiting this attractive hilltop hamlet, which is surrounded by ramparts and has some of the most picturesque, winding streets and crumbling buildings in Burgundy. While the main draw is undeniably the Basilica of Ste-Mary La Madeleine – one of the first UNESCO-inscribed sites in France – Vézelay is also a popular destination for art-lovers, with many small galleries and antique shops on rue St-Pierre, and an impressive art collection in the Musée Zervos.
Some 60km west of the Parc du Morvan, Nevers, on the confluence of the rivers Loire and Nièvre, is a strange place, where motorbikers and boy racers drawn to the Formula One racing ring at nearby Magny-Cours mingle in the streets with religious pilgrims come to pay their respects to Bernadette of Lourdes, gourmands attracted by the local nougatine sweets, and shoppers out to buy fine hand-painted pottery. Faïence, as it’s called, has been a hallmark of Nevers since the seventeenth century, and is painted in the deep colour known as bleue de Nevers; there’s a stunning new museum – the Musée de la Faïence et des Beaux Arts – celebrating the renowned earthenware, housed in the restored Abbaye de Notre Dame at 15 rue St-Genest.
Place Carnot is the hub of the centre; nearby, just above the tourist office you’ll find the fifteenth-century Palais Ducal, former home of the dukes of Nevers, which has octagonal turrets and a central tower adorned with elegantly carved hunting scenes. That aside, Nevers’ main attractions are its religious monuments, including the Cathédrale de St-Cyr and the late eleventh-century church of St-Étienne.
South of Dijon, the attractive countryside of the Côte d’Or is characterized by the steep scarp of the côte, wooded along the top and cut by sheer little valleys called combes, where local rock climbers hone their skills. Spring is a good time to visit this region; you can avoid the crowds and the landscape is a dramatic symphony of browns – trees, earth and vines – punctuated by millions of bone-coloured vine stakes, standing like crosses in a vast war cemetery. The main administrative and shopping centre is the beautiful city of Beaune, south of which is the Great Wine Route, which checks off the big names in Burgundy winemaking.
Beaune, the principal town of the Côte d’Or, manages to maintain its attractively ancient air, despite a near-constant stream of wine aficionados using the place as their base. Narrow cobbled streets and sunny squares dotted with cafés make it a lovely, albeit expensive, spot to sample the region’s wine. Beaune’s chief attraction is the fifteenth-century hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu, founded in 1443 by chancellor of Burgundy, Nicholas Rolin. As grateful ex-patients or their families donated vine plots to the hospital, the town prospered quickly to become the centre of the local wine trade. The cobbled courtyard is surrounded by a wooden gallery overhung by a massive roof patterned with diamonds of variegated tiles – green, burnt sienna, black and yellow – and similarly multicoloured steep-pitched dormers and turrets. Inside is a vast paved hall with a glorious arched timber roof, the Grande Salle des Malades, with the original enclosed wooden beds. Passing through two smaller, furnished wards, one with some stunning seventeenth-century frescoes, then the kitchen and the pharmacy, you reach a dark chamber housing the splendid fifteenth-century altarpiece of the Last Judgement by Rogier van der Weyden and the tapestry of St Eloi, which is comparable to the Lady and the Unicorn in the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris.
The place names that line the legendary Great Wine Route National 74 – Gevrey-Chambertin, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée, Nuits-St-Georges, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault – are music to the ears of wine buffs. These prosperous villages are full of wine cellars where you can get good advice on different vintages; you can taste and buy direct from the source at most of the vineyards by just turning up and asking.
If you’re interested in French wine culture, it’s worth visiting the Château du Clos-de-Vougeot to see the winemaking process. Particularly impressive are the mammoth thirteenth-century winepresses installed by the Cistercian monks who owned these vineyards for nearly seven hundred years. The land now belongs to more than eighty different owners, each growing and marketing their own wine.
The Saône valley south from Chalon-sur-Saône via Tournus all the way to Mâcon is prosperous and modern, nourished by tourism, industry (especially metalworking), and the wine trade. But turn your back on the river and head west and you immediately enter a different Burgundy, full of hilly pastures and woodland. This country is best known for its produce: the white wines of the Mâconnais are justly renowned, and the handsome white cattle that luxuriate in the green fields of the Charolais are an obvious sign that this is serious beef territory. In the past, the region was famed for its religious institutions; almost every village clusters under the tower of a Romanesque church, spawned by the authority of the great abbey at Cluny. Many large and powerful abbeys were established in the eleventh and twelfth centuries under the aegis of Cluny.
Chalon is a sizeable port and bustling town on a broad meander of the Saône. Its old riverside quarter has an easy charm, and the town itself makes a cheap and cheerful base for exploring the more expensive areas of the Côte d’Or. The highlight of the old town, set just back from the river, is the lively place St-Vincent, where you can sit outside a café and admire the twin towers of the Romanesque cathedral, surrounded by medieval timber-framed houses. The Saône quays, meanwhile, provide some nice, though not always shaded, walking opportunities.
You may be tempted to visit Chalon during the pre-Lent carnival (Feb or March), which features a parade of giant masks and a confetti battle, or for one of the most remarkable festivals in Burgundy, the three-day Montgolifiades, which has a display and a race of dozens of multicoloured hot-air balloons; it takes place in the last weekend of May. As most of the sponsors are wine producers, the event is a great excuse to drink and be merry.
Scattered among the houses of the attractive modern-day town, the abbey of Cluny is the Saône Valley’s major tourist destination. The monastery was founded in 910 in response to the corruption of the existing church, and it took only a couple of vigorous early abbots to transform the power of Cluny into a veritable empire. Second only to that of the pope, the abbot’s power in the Christian world made even monarchs tremble. However, Cluny’s spiritual influence gradually declined and the abbey became a royal gift in the twelfth century. Centuries later, in the wake of the Revolution, Hugues de Semur’s vast and influential eleventh-century church, which had been the largest building in Christendom until the construction of St Peter’s in Rome, was dismantled. The most exciting thing that has happened since has been the burial of Mme Danielle Mitterrand, the President’s wife, in the town cemetery; her grave attracts many visitors.
What you see of the former abbey today is an octagonal belfry and the huge south transept. Standing amid these fragments of a once huge construction gives a tangible and poignant insight into the Revolution’s enormous powers of transformation. Access to the belfry is through the Grand École des Ingénieurs, one of France’s elite higher-education institutions, and you can often see the students in their grey lab coats.
Mâcon is a lively, prosperous town on the banks of the River Saône, 58km south of Chalon and 68km north of Lyon, with excellent transport connections between the two. A centre for the wine trade, with a surprisingly relaxed, seaside atmosphere, thanks to its long café-lined riverbank and free outdoor concerts in late June, July and August, it also boasts the best nightlife between Dijon and Lyon. It is, however, a nightmare to drive around and parking is problematic, so it’s not recommended as a base for a regional wine-tasting tour for anyone renting a car.
Often compared to Lord Byron, Alphonse Lamartine (1790–1869) is one of the best-known of the French Romantic poets. He was born and grew up in Milly (now called Milly-Lamartine), about 15km west of Mâcon, and published his first poetic work, Méditations poétiques, in 1820. After the 1830 Revolution in Paris, he became involved in politics and was elected to the Chambre des Députés in 1833.
Lamartine, having acquired a reputation as a powerful orator on the weighty questions of the day, like the abolition of slavery and capital punishment, had his finest hour was as the leading figure in the provisional government of the Second Republic, which was proclaimed from the Hôtel de Ville in Paris on February 23, 1848. He withdrew from politics when reactionary forces let the army loose on the protesting workers of Paris and Marseille in June 1848. Retiring to St-Point, he continued to write and publish until his death in 1869.
The Charolais takes its name from the pretty little water-enclosed market town of Charolles, with its 32 bridges, on the main N79 road. In turn, it gives its name to one of the world’s most illustrious breeds of cattle: the white, curly-haired, stocky Charolais, bred for its lean meat. Throughout this region, scattered across the rich farmland, are dozens of small villages, all with Romanesque churches, the offspring of Cluny’s vigorous youth.
Some 14km west of Charolles, across countryside that becomes ever gentler and flatter as you approach the broad valley of the Loire, is Paray-le-Monial, whose major attraction is its Basilique du Sacré-Coeur. Not only is it an exquisite building in its own right, with a marvellously satisfying arrangement of apses and chapels stacking up in sturdy symmetry to a fine octagonal belfry, it’s the best place to get an idea of what the abbey of Cluny looked like, as it was built shortly afterwards in devoted imitation of the mother church.
The Mâconnais wine-producing country lies to the west of the Saône, a 20km-wide strip stretching from Tournus to just south of Mâcon. The region’s best white wines, including all the grands crus and some of the best white grands crus, labelled Pouilly-Fuissé, come from the southern part of this strip, around the pretty villages of Pouilly, Vinzelles and Fuissé.
The Chardonnay grape is the most popular, with around 80% of vineyards in the region growing it. The area, in general, specialises in high-quality wines, mostly whites but distinctive reds and roses also make an appearance in most places.
The Maconnais is 2 hours from Paris or Marseille by train and an hour from Lyon. If travelling by car, follow the A6 and exit and Tournus or Macon.
The Maconnais region, between Sennecey-le-Grand and Saint-Verand, has plenty of charming little towns and villages to explore.
Along the banks of the Saone River, lies Macon, the main city in the Maconnais region. Here you can explore the Old Cathedral of Saint Vincent and the New Cathedral of Saint Vincent. Simply strolling through the old town centre and walking down Quai Lamartine is pleasant enough, as with visiting the museum of Ursulines and the Church of Saint-Pierre.
Cluny, North-east of Macon, is home to Cluny Abbey, a national monument of France. Once the largest in Europe, Cluny Abbey has a museum with historical collections and stonework that you can't help but admire. Exploring the streets of Cluny is just a lovely, with pretty old buildings and cobblestone streets.
The national site of Solutre-Pouilly Vergisson is not just known for its vineyards but it's the classic landscape of limestone cliffs and lush green vegetation. Explore the area and look out for the infamous Solutre rock.
The Berze-le-Chatel is a castle made up of a fortress, 13 towers and beautiful terraced gardens providing views of the rolling vineyards and cliffs.
Top Image: Vineyard in The Maconnais © Catalinka / Shutterstock
Graced by ancient, golden buildings, Tournus is a beautiful little town on the banks of the Saône, 28km south of Chalon. Its main attraction is the old abbey church of St-Philibert, one of the earliest and thus most influential Romanesque buildings in Burgundy. Its construction began around 900 AD but the present building dates back to the first half of the eleventh century. The facade, with its powerful towers and simple decoration of Lombard arcading, is somewhat reminiscent of a fortress.
Burgundy farmers have been growing grapes since Roman times, and Burgundy’s wines are some of the most renowned in the world. In recent years, though, Burgundy’s vineyards, and those in other regions of France, have suffered due to competition from the southern hemisphere. However, because of stringent legal restrictions banning watering and other interference, French wines, more than others, remain a faithful reflection of the terroir where they are produced, and Burgundy experts remain confident that the climate and soil of their region will fight off any temporary economic challenges.
Burgundy’s best wines come from a narrow strip of hillside called the Côte d’Or that runs southwest from Dijon to Santenay, and is divided into two regions, Côte de Nuits (the better reds) and Côte de Beaune (the better whites). High-quality wine is certainly produced further south as well though, in the Mâconnais and on the Côtes Chalonnaises. Reds from the region are made almost exclusively from the Pinot Noir grape, while whites are largely from Chardonnay. Fans of bubbly should look out for the often highly regarded sparkling whites, which crop up across the region and won’t set you back half as much as a bottle of Champagne.
The single most important factor determining the “character” of wines is the soil. In both the Côte d’Or and Chablis, its character varies over very short distances, making for an enormous variety of taste. Chalky soil makes a wine drier and more acidic – while clay brings more fruitiness and body to it.
For an apéritif in Burgundy, you should try kir, named after the man who was both mayor and MP for Dijon for many years after World War II – two parts dry white wine, traditionally aligoté, and one part cassis. To round the evening off there are many liqueurs to choose from, but Burgundy is particularly famous for its marcs, of which the best are matured for years in oak casks.
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).
Some 16km south of Pontigny, the pretty red-roofed village of Chablis is home to the region’s famous dry white wines. Lying in the valley of the River Serein, the town is surrounded by rows of vines, interspersed with yellow splashes of fields full of sunflowers. While wandering around the wealthy, modern village take a look at the side door of the church of St-Martin, which is decorated with ancient horseshoes belonging to sick horses left by visiting pilgrims – St-Martin being the protector of horsemen.
The wacky Corkscrew and Vineyard Museum at Beine, a ten minutes’ drive west of Chablis, is great fun; spot the phallic and occasionally X-rated bottle-openers and corkscrews, and indulge in a little wine tasting.
The combination of fossilized/limestone Jurassic soil, as well as a perfect vineyard climate with hard, wet winters and dry, sunny summers have made the village of Chablis one of the best-known names in dry white wines. Chablis follows the four Burgundy denominations in its own, particular way: the plots on a plateau are the cheapest, denominated as Petit-Chablis. The ones with a northern or eastern orientation (and thus limited sun exposure) are simply called Chablis. Those facing south or west are much more expensive and classified into 79 premiers crus. At the top of the pyramid are 103 hectares on the west side of the Serein facing south and comprising just seven Grand Crus that many believe produce the finest dry white wine in France: Blanchot, Bougros, Le Clos, Grenouilles, Preuses, Valmur and Vaudésirs. You can pick up a premier cru bottle in local cellars for €20 and a Grand Cru for less than €40.
For tastings try domain Jean-Marc Brocard in Préhy; they use a unique biodynamic model of viniculture which they are happy to explain to you (in English). Vititours offer English-speaking tours that end in tastings. They can pick you up from any hotel within a 35km radius of Chablis, which includes Auxerre. The hotel Du Vieux Moulin also offers tastings of its own domain Laroche.
The café terraces on place de la République are a great spot for a drink or light meal and are open quite late by French provincial standards.
Around 23km southeast of Chablis – you’ll need to drive, or take a taxi (about €35–40 from Tonnerre or Montbard train stations) – you come to the beautiful little town of Noyers-sur-Serein. 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.
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.