We spent our first two weeks in France traveling through the Burgundy region (by train, bus, and occasionally rental car) visiting small villages and mid-size towns. The scenery in this area is pretty but not dramatic. There are rolling green fields full of corn, sunflowers past their prime, or white cows with calves. Sometimes it looks a bit like the Midwestern United States.
But then in certain areas, the crops give way to hillsides full of grape vines, and you pass through towns and villages whose names sound familiar from wine labels (Chablis, Chardonnay, Macon, Pouilly). And you glimpse a big chateau or an abbey on a hilltop—or see a hamlet of honey- or sand-colored stone houses with tiled roofs nestled by a stream—and you know you’re in the very heart of France. When you take your first bite in a restaurant or pastry shop, it’s confirmed: This is a wonderful country.
Here’s a brief portrait of some of the places we’ve visited so far.
Troyes (pronounced “twa”): This old city of about 130,000 people—which is technically in the Champagne region, just north of Burgundy—was our first stop in France. We stayed for three nights with CouchSurfing hosts: a nice young French couple and their fairy-like 3-year-old daughter, who is all big eyes and blond hair. She woke us up in the morning to play with her petit lapin (little rag bunny) and bebe chou-chou (an ugly bald baby doll).
Since she was much given to sing-song repetition, Melissa picked up some French words from her, including regarde! (look!) and glace (ice cream). Troyes is a great town with some of the prettiest 16th-century half-timbered houses you can imagine. Our guide book describes it as one of the best places to picture yourself back in Shakespeare’s day, and it’s true. Troyes was also famous in the 1200s and 1300s for the art of painting stained-glass windows. Some gorgeous examples survive in the town’s churches.
Another highlight(?) of Troyes was the Museum of Tools and Traditional Trades. Sounds kind of interesting, right? Maybe in small doses, but the museum consists of room after room of large display cases, each containing 50 to 100 tools. Picture 100 different chisels or hammers, hung in artful patterns. A little of that goes a long way. Still, we can now recognize the particular kind of curved plane used to make Burgundian sabots (wooden shoes). That kind of knowledge has got to come in handy sometime.
Provins: While we were staying in Troyes, our hosts took us to see this well-preserved medieval village, about halfway between Troyes and Paris. Provins was famous for its market fairs. The local nobility courted commerce (and its revenues) by offering free armed escorts to merchants traveling to Provins with their wares on the dangerous roads of the period.
There’s a good little museum in town that, with an audioguide and life-size displays, explains how the Provins trade fairs operated and the roles that various people played. (Fans of Dorothy Dunnett will feel like they’ve landed in one of her novels.) Lording over the village is a great stone donjon (fortified tower) from the 12th century from which you can scan the countryside for miles around.
Auxerre (pronounced “o-sair”): This town of about 40,000 people, where we spent two nights, was an important port on the Yonne River since Roman days. Today, the river is still full of canal boats touring Burgundy at a leisurely pace. The old city, which winds uphill from the river, is like a miniature course in French architecture. It seems like there’s at least one building in every major style from the 13th century to the 20th century—including a clock tower from 1483 with a Disney-esque spire and an early Art Deco post office.
Two great Gothic churches dominate the skyline: an abbey and a cathedral. Both were built over much older churches, which are now basement crypts that you can visit. The one in the cathedral contains a fresco from the 9th century that is the only known depiction in Western art of Jesus on horseback. As if that weren’t enough, on one of the days we were there, the old town hosted a flea market and sidewalk sale. We had fun browsing through the same kind of junky knick-knacks that we’d never buy back home.
Vezelay: It’s hard to imagine a place with such a dense concentration of medieval history as this little Burgundian village. It used to be a famous pilgrimage site because the hilltop basilica supposedly houses the remains of Mary Magdelene. It was also a staging ground for Western Europeans heading for the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail in northern Spain. Saint Bernard (the monk, not the dog) gave a speech in Vezelay in 1146 before 100,000 spectators—including young king Louis of France and the queen, Eleanor of Acquitane—in which he called for the Second Crusade.
Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket took refuge here after he left England and pronounced the excommunication of King Henry II from this church. Henry’s son Richard the Lionheart visited Vezelay a bit later, on his way to another Crusade. And the chateau just outside town belonged to one Marshall Vauban, the 17th-century father of French military engineering and siege warfare, who oversaw the fortifying of hundreds of French towns from his living room. All that in a village that had 6,000 inhabitants at its peak and now numbers about 800 residents.
Flavigny-sur-Ozerain: We drove into this tiny gray stone village in the pouring rain with nowhere to stay, having rejected several larger towns along the way. The place looked deserted, though eventually we found a nice, inhabited B&B that was only a little above our price range. The rain never really abated during our 24 hours in the village.
However, we still managed to see some of Flavigny’s highlights: the medieval town walls; a ruined monastery that had been inhabited by monks for 1,000 years (from the late 700s until the French Revolution) and that for the past century has been a factory making an anis-flavored pastille candy that is famous throughout France; the old village church; and an amazing restaurant (The Grange) where local farmers cook up their produce for lunch each day—four kinds of quiches and tomato salad and fruit tarts that cost only a few euros and were among the best food we’ve eaten in France. That restaurant is reason enough for a detour. The rain kept us from taking photos of Flavigny, but if you want to see what it looks like, rent the movie Chocolat, which was filmed there.
Fontenay Abbey: Like central Italy, Burgundy was full of monks. The landscape was dotted with monasteries and abbeys, some of them very large and influential. Often, towns and cities grew up around them. Many monasteries were sacked during the Catholic-Protestant wars that gripped France in late 1500s, and all were disbanded during the anticlerical French Revolution.
Very few are intact anymore, which is what makes Fontenay Abbey (near the town of Montbard) special. Founded in 1118, it is one of the oldest intact Cistercian abbeys around. Its founder, St. Bernard, was a strict reformer who believed that filling churches with art distracted worshipers’ minds from prayer. Thus, in the abbey church, you won’t find any of the intricately carved tops of columns that are common in 12th-century churches in central France. But the plain interior of the church and its adjoining structures (cloister, dormitories, chapter meeting room, “warming room”—the only heated area) are beautiful in their simplicity.
Besides praying, gardening, copying manuscripts, and other typical monkish duties, the residents of Fontenay worked iron ore from a nearby quarry in a big forge at the abbey. Around 1220, some of them figured out that the work would be more efficient if they harnessed water power. So they diverted a nearby stream into a channel next to the forge building and built a waterwheel (like those used in flour mills), which turned a wooden axle with teeth carved into it, which in turn pushed a large hammer up and down to crush the ore. According to a plaque, Fontenay Abbey has the distinction of being the first metallurgical factory in Europe, and the place where the hydraulic hammer—which became the basis for industrial manufacturing of iron in Europe—was invented. Not bad for a bunch of monks.
Noyers-sur-Serein: We spent a night in this village because it appears in a book that Melissa’s mother has of the most beautiful villages in France. Incessant rain damped Noyers’s charms a bit, as gray skies merged with gray stone buildings. But we could at least appreciate the village’s pretty setting next to a quiet river, the old walls and towers that encircle the village, and its many medieval half-timbered houses, some with intricate carvings.
Fosse Dionne: At the base of a hill in an otherwise unremarkable Burgundian town (Tonnerre) is an amazing geological wonder. It looks like a low, round stone pool with a covered arcade on one side and channels draining the pool, surrounded by tall medieval houses. At first glance, it resembles the old covered lavoirs (laundries) that you find all over Burgundy. But the water in this basin is a strange turquoise color, and part of the floor of the pool is a dark hole that disappears into the earth.
This is no mere water trough: It’s the spot where an underground river reaches the surface, pumping out 200 liters of water per second, even though not a ripple is visible in the pool. Early people thought the site was sacred, and later folks (who enclosed it the stone basin) used it for water-intensive trades such as cloth production.
In more recent times, divers started to explore the underground cavern through which the river flows. But the force of the current and the darkness and depth of the cavern made such dives very dangerous, and after several fatalities, further attempts were prohibited. Today, the site is a reminder that even in a mundane urban area, fascinating forces of nature are not far away.
Avallon: We took a detour to this walled town mainly so Chris could visit its clothing museum. As her eyes feasted on fancy dresses, men’s clothing, and accessories from the 18th century to the 1940s, Melissa wandered the streets looking for things to photograph. The old town felt strangely empty, though. There were plenty of flowers and historic buildings, but barely a person in sight. We found out why when we headed back to the parking lot.
In a large park, groups of folk dancers wearing traditional costumes of the region were performing for a large crowd. Now that was a photo opportunity! As we watched, we wondered: What kind of strange people would spend their weekends dressing up in clothes from earlier eras and putting on quasi-educational shows for the public? 🙂
Cluny: The grandaddy of French monasteries was the Benedictine abbey at Cluny, arguably the richest and most influential religious establishment in France. Many of its abbots were members of France’s royal families (such as the Bourbons and de Guises), ensuring the abbey a steady stream of money and attention from the Crown.
Cluny was the mother house for more than 1,000 monasteries throughout Europe; its medieval library of some 5,000 volumes was one of the biggest anywhere; and its great church, completed in 1130, was the largest in the Christian world until the building of St. Peter’s in Rome in 1626. Only a few fragments of the Cluny church remain (some side chapels, a bell tower, and the remnants of walls and pillars).
But with the help of a cool 3-D film that reconstructs the church based on drawings by old travelers, you can imagine how grandiose and imposing this place was in its heyday. Like weary pilgrims, we hiked into Cluny from a nearby village on an unusually hot day, so the trees in the gardens and the cool stones of the walls were especially welcome.
Brancion: This odd little hamlet north of Cluny isn’t so much as village as a dozen or so houses, a tiny church, and a covered market clustered next to a castle on a small plateau. Although some of the houses are clearly inhabited, Brancion feels quiet, windswept, and deserted, except for a sleepy restaurant and a few straggling tourists.
The castle, now partly ruined, was built between the 10th and 14th centuries and once belonged to the Dukes of Burgundy. Its tower offers a fabulous view of the rolling countryside all around the castle, and its surviving fortifications provide a good example of medieval military architecture. Too bad the English audioguide is so lame and long-winded.
Dijon: “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” The city of Dijon, Burgundy’s capital, is mecca for mustard lovers. Grey Poupon and at least 30 other kinds of mustard are produced here. We didn’t know so many kinds existed. There are herb mustards, wine mustards, even fruit mustards, one for every kind of salad dressing or meat dish you could want.
Dijon is also famous for old buildings with colored tile roofs (as opposed to the plain mossy terracotta roofs you see in most of Burgundy). And Dijon is where, at the urging of our very nice Couchsurfing hosts, we ate frog legs for the first time. Melissa especially liked them; they’re a bit like little chicken wings but with moister meat and crispier skin.