On Aug. 26, we landed in France, the final stop on this year’s European tour. France is a big place (one of the largest countries in Europe) and we can’t possibly see it all, so we decided to focus on the country’s mid-section. We plan to spend a couple of weeks in the Burgundy area, including the towns of Troyes just north of Burgundy and Lyon just south; three weeks volunteering at a horse farm near Poitiers, in exchange for room and board and maybe a chance to ride; a week in the Loire Valley; and a week in Paris. Then home to the United States to see friends and family again and plan our next adventures.
The landscape of the Champagne and northern Burgundy regions of France, where we’ve been for the past week, isn’t as dramatically beautiful as Ireland. But it feels much older and seeped in history.** The towns and villages are full of medieval half-timbered houses and Romanesque and Gothic churches.
Right now we’re in the little village of Vezelay, which used to be a famous pilgrimage site because the church here (supposedly) houses the remains of Mary Magdalene. Saint Bernard preached a sermon here in 1146 calling for the Second Crusade, the one that young King Louis and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine went on. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket also took refuge here after he left England; he pronounced the excommunication of Henry II from this church. Henry and Eleanor’s son, Richard the Lionheart (apparently not one to hold a grudge), came here a bit later. And the chateau just outside town belonged to Marshall Vauban, who was apparently the 17th-century father of French military engineering and siege warfare. All this in a village that at most had 6,000 inhabitants and now has about 800.
On top of the history, there is the food! When we mentioned the parts of France that we planned to visit to a French chef catering a dinner at our hotel in Donegal, he replied, “You have chosen the best places! The food, the food is wonderful!” And it is. We have been adoring the quality of the meals at even simple restaurants (although you can get a bad meal, it’s significantly harder here than anywhere we’ve been since Italy).
We’ve enjoyed fresh baguettes and pastries, amazing cheeses, good wines, escargot, crepes, quiches, and the ripest summer tomatoes. We also ate mouth-watering beef bourguignon that was so good we went back and ate it a second night at the same restaurant. (Melissa really wishes she could duplicate it.) We could bore you all to tears waxing lyrical about the food here!
**One of the things that surprised us about Ireland was the absence of the medieval villages and towns that we had gotten so used to on the continent—tangled webs of narrow lanes and ancient houses clustered around a little church. (We got talking to a young Italian guy at one of our B&Bs in Ireland and mentioned how old Europe feels to an American. He thought a bit and said that, yes, his family’s farmhouse was probably about 600 years old, but nobody thinks much about that. It’s normal in old villages there.) But in Ireland, there is a lot of new development and a lot of 18th- and 19th-century development, but little that really feels old (other than Bronze Age sites, a few small castles, and some medieval churches, almost all in ruins).