Despite many motoring visits to France, Mike and Jill Hampshire had never been to Burgundy. With the prospect of beautiful countryside, medieval villages, quiet roads, waterways and renowned food and wine, they set off last August on an eight-day trip to correct the omission.
By way of an extra dimension to our Burgundy tour we were intrigued to see if we could find restaurants and hotels with delightful views and novel locations to enhance our experience.
The hilltop town of Vézelay with its long history of medieval pilgrims visiting the Basilica en route to Santiago de Compostela was our starting point. The early evening proved a peaceful time to absorb the atmosphere and listen to the service in the church conducted by the monks. Outside the church our high vantage point provided views across the patchwork of fields and woods, including down into the valley and the charming village of St Père where we were staying.
Our first culinary experience was an evening meal in the Hotel Crispol on a hillside ridge opposite Vézelay. The hotel’s restful atmosphere and excellent food and wine fitted perfectly with our window table overlooking the valley with the basilica dominating the horizon. We contentedly watched the lovely sunset, ending our meal with coffee and a tempting dish of chocolates. On reflection, perhaps a lunchtime visit with the sunlight playing directly on the hilltop buildings might have been even better.
A hiding place for the French Resistance
Our next notable foody stop was in Château Chinon, capital of the regional park area called the Morvan. It was here, before becoming president, François Mitterand was mayor. The drive south took us past stark granite outcrops and through thick forests. During WW2 this sparsely populated part of Burgundy had been a major stronghold of the French Resistance. It provided safe camps deep in the forests protected from discovery by the German occupying forces. There are several impressive châteaux in the region (in fact we visited Château de Bazoches on the drive down), but this bustling town has no obvious castle although was once a fortified location for both the Gauls and the Romans.
After an enjoyable walk above Château Chinon counting the local Charolais cattle, an essential part of the traditional boeuf bourgignione widely available on the menus, we headed for the Hotel Au Vieux Morvan. Their restaurant has fantastic distant views across farmland and forests. Here we sampled some regional specialities starting with a Kir apéritif (Aligote dry white wine and crème de cassis) followed by a light meal of oeufs en meurette (poached egg in red wine with mushrooms, onions and bacon) and jambon persillé.
Roman remains and a hill top hotel
Our journey then swung eastward to Autun with its numerous, impressive Roman remains; through many delightful villages with their ancient lavoir decorated with bright displays of geraniums; past golden corn fields and increasing numbers of vineyards around Beaune.
Finally we neared Châteauneuf-en-Auxois high on a hill above the picturesque Burgundy canal. We were booked into the Hostellerie du Château built right up against the imposing château walls. This castle is a truly medieval affair reflecting the time when it paid to have a strong defensive position.
Our hotel was much more homely and we were particularly taken by its small, colourful sunlit garden. Eating breakfast under the blue sky with the castle walls rising high above us gave yet another meal with a view. The charming village understandably attracts many tourists all fascinated by the ancient buildings and narrow streets with frequent glimpses of the farmland and lazy canal far below.
Our drive north, following the D905, frequently encountered the Burgundy canal and was probably the high spot of my tour through the region. The countryside is gentle, green and varied, with quiet roads and charming villages.
Striking west across country we spent an afternoon exploring the small fortified town of Noyers tucked into a tight meander of the river Serein. Cattle graze right up to the river and the town walls. Lizards dart out across the paths, and swallows swoop above the rooftops. Whilst medieval buildings decorated with intricate wood carvings lean at alarming angles, defensive towers designed for warfare now are graced by deep red hollyhocks and purple and white hibiscus.
The Abbaye de Reigny
Our final night’s accommodation in Burgundy was the most amazing of the tour. We had booked into the Abbaye de Reigny near Vermenton which has been sympathetically restored and offers a few chambre d’hôte rooms. It is set at the end of a long, tree lined driveway, peacefully by a river with a wooded hillside as backcloth.
To attract attention new arrivals pull on a 20’ chain to ring an outside bell. Guests receive a warm, informal welcome and are proudly shown round the ancient buildings and grounds. The bedrooms and common rooms are furnished with numerous antiques – a sedan chair sits at the bottom of a long sweeping staircase with miniature ironwork dragons watching over the scene.
It was easy to imagine the Cistercian monks going about their simple daily routine in centuries long past gathering in the truly magnificent refectory for their silent meal-time listening to readings from the Bible.
Our communal meal time was more convivial as we breakfasted with fellow guests of all nationalities. Once the language differences had been overcome the conversation turned naturally to the impressive breakfast room and the delightful outlook into the grounds of the abbey.
And so it was goodbye Burgundy. We took a leisurely two days to cover the drive to Caen where we boarded the Brittany Ferries Normandie for the crossing to Portsmouth. On board we joined fellow travellers in the comfortable and relaxed à la carte restaurant. We ate an asparagus omelette and lemon sole, and whilst watching the English Channel slip by toasted all those other memorable meals with a view.