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Beautiful Burgundy

Burgundy poppies

I had heard many a travellers tale of France; of the beautiful green countryside, fields of blooming sunflowers and red poppies, depending on when you travel, medieval buildings and ancient ruins, and produce as fresh as you will find anywhere; but after a few wonderful days in Paris, I have to admit I wondered would the French countryside reach the bar? We were heading to Chaudenay, a little village not far from Beaune, the regional capital of Burgundy, and we were in for a very pleasant surprise.

It wasn’t long after leaving the urban sprawl of Paris that rural France began to take its hold on us!  Yes, the countryside was green; yes, there were plenty of medieval castles and ruins atop hills; but there was also plenty more.

Travelling from Paris on the A6 motorway was the fastest route to Chaudenay and after taking the Beaune exit, we travelled the few extra kilometres to our accommodation.  We had chosen a self-contained apartment in a restored viticulteur outbuilding, and it turned out to be the perfect base for our Burgundian holiday.

Situated between Paris and Lyon, Beaune has long been an important centre in Burgundy.  Located near the famous Grands Crus Wine Road, and with vineyards growing right up to the town gates, Beaune is a medieval treasure.  Cobblestone streets line the town, enclosed by stone walls and medieval bastions, and make the perfect venue for a sidewalk café where you can sit and sample the local fare and, of course, the local wines.  Escargot (snails) in garlic butter and bouef burgundy (beef  burgundy) are two of the local specialties, and appear on just about every menu in town.

Beaune itself is home to Hotel-Dieu, a former charitable hospital built in 1443 that now houses a museum.  The gothic building has been perfectly preserved, with the brightly coloured roof tiles a major attraction .  Other historically significant buildings in Beaune include Musee du vin (the Burgundy Wine Museum) which once served as the home of the Dukes of Burgundy and Couvent des Cordeliers, the oldest cellar in Beaune, dating back to 1239.

Just outside the town, you’ll be tempted to try some of the famous Burgundy wines.  Vineyards tend to be small – generally a maximum of 10 acres – and only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varieties are grown in the region.  Most towns of a reasonable size offer Caves des Vines – wine tasting rooms – where you can sample the local product.  Take a day tour, by bus or bike, around a number of vineyards, and leave the driving to someone else!

If biking is your thing, you can ride along the Canal du Centre, the major canal that was the main route for river traffic for many years.  Well-made bike paths extend for over 250 kilometres in the region and the peaceful surrounds make for a very pleasant ride.  With villages only a few kilometres apart, you can easily ride from one to another, stopping as you please for a coffee or a meal.  Just don’t plan your arrival for the traditional lunch time break – in rural France you will rarely find anything open.  Packing a picnic is a good idea, and when the hunger pains hit, you can settle down beside the canal for a tranquil lunch.  Barges and canal boats still ply the Canal du Centre, mainly for leisure, but once it was the main transport route between the north and south of France.

With its history dating back so many centuries, you can expect to see your fair share of Chateaux and ruins in Burgundy.  One such example is the magnificent Chateau de Cormatin, about 70 km from Beaune.  Built in 1605, the Chateau is unique in France for its exceptionally well persevered interiors from the time of Louis XIII.  After wandering amongst the immaculately kept formal gardens, we joined a tour of the Chateau.  Unfortunately tours were only conducted in French on the day we visited, but our helpful guide spoke English and was happy to translate after she had delivered her spiel in the local language .

About 20 minutes up the road, we visited Brancion, a medieval village dating back to the 12th century.  Painstakingly restored over the past few years, Brancion gives you a real insight into what a medieval village looked like.  The views from the watch tower of the castle down over the valley are superb, and the Romanesque church is also worth a look.

Travelling in early Summer we were blessed with lush, green countryside and it wasn’t long until we saw field upon field of red poppies. Having pored over books about France for many years, I was secretly hoping to stumble across a field ablaze with red, and I was rewarded.  Many a photo was taken of the brilliant red blooms against their lush green backdrop.

One thing that surprised us about France, having wrongly believed the general consensus that the French are rude and arrogant, (how wrong we were!), was their pride in everything.  Houses and yards, towns & villages, were all immaculately kept.  Once outside of Paris’ suburbs, we saw no graffiti or rubbish lying about, and there was a general sense of caring about the surrounds.  Road signs welcomed us to many a Ville Fleurie– a beautiful village - and proudly advertised the area’s attractions. In rural towns and villages, the pride of the locals even extends to the packaging of goods.  Our bread arrived in paper bags printed with traditional motifs, and cakes purchased from the patisserie were presented in boxes trimmed with a ribbon!  The packaging was too nice to throw away!

Whilst holidaying in Burgundy, you will miss none of the conveniences of modern day living – supermarkets and shops selling everything you could possibly need are in good supply, yet you can’t help but notice how well the old blends with the new.  A mural painted in the attic window of a centuries old building in the heart of Beaune is so real you feel as if the man from hundreds of years ago is actually smiling at you!

If France is on your list of things to do, make sure you allow time for a visit to Burgundy, and the beautiful area around Beaune.  It is a stunning region that offers something for everyone.

Story and photos courtesy of Carolyn Schonafinger, founder of www.HolidaysToEurope.com.au, Australia's only specialist European travel directory.

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