France: Gallic Days of Wine and Roses in Burgundy
Holidays in France
From handsome local guides to historic villages, Madeleine Keane is charmed by her trip to Burgundy.
As Audrey Hepburn once observed, "Paris is always a good idea."
So even though I've less than an hour as I zoom from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon, it's exhilarating as always to travel through Haussmann's elegant boulevards, past black-aproned waiters serving coffee to chic Parisiennes.
I've just, for the first time, taken the Eurostar from London: such joy to be whisked under the earth and emerge blinking into la belle France. I've eschewed the offer of hiking and biking in Spain in favour of a gastronomic tour of Burgundy (not a hard one!) and we're connecting with a TGV to whisk us to Dijon.
It's my first visit to this departement and the timing couldn't be better. Early September, not only are the days balmy (though they start with frosty dawns), but the vendange is on. So we travel past parcels (as the monks first named them) of serried vines, spotting clusters of workers with huge plastic bins attached to their backs as they harvest the grapes. Our handsome local guide painstakingly explains the four-tier hierarchy - there's generic Bourgogne (vin ordinaire), then village appellations, followed by premier cru and the great vintages or Grand Cru.
The vineyards of Burgundy stretch from Chablis in the north right down to Rhone's Beaujolais. We're in the Cote D'Or, on the section called the Route des Grands Crus (known too as the Champs-Elysees of Burgundy) and it's a thrill to pass through the little villages we've drunk (or dreamt of drinking) - Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Pommard, Nuits St Georges. Our erudite oenephile is full of fascinating facts; the rose bushes you frequently see in front of vineyards are deliberately planted there: the first sign of disease on the vines will be telegraphed by these blooms. With a yearly output of 200 million bottles, this terroir produces only 3pc of all French wines, yet they're so good they're among the most desired vintages in the world.
At the family-run Domaine Rion in Vosne-Romanee, the daughter of the house guides us through the wine-making process. All the relatives are involved in the business, she explains, telling us that earlier that day her octogenarian grandmere prepared lunch for over 40 hungry harvesters. Later we sample superb vintages over dinner in the exquisite Abbaye de la Bussiere. Founded in 1131 by an Englishman, Stephen Harding, the third Abbot of Citeaux, the riverside monastery was a place of prayer for the Cistercian monks for 650 years until the French revolution ended the idyll. A decade ago, the Cummings family were searching for a sister property for their English country house hotel, Amberley Castle. They fell instantly in love with Abbaye, purchasing it the same day. With its pretty chapel, an orangery and Michelin-starred food, it's hard to leave, but we're headed for the area's administrative capital Dijon, where we stroll along the elegant Rue to la Liberation past half-timbered townhouses, Renaissance mansions and the famous Maille mustard shop to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy which houses the city's impressive Musee Des Beaux Arts.
We've already spent a pleasant afternoon with Paul Day, a self-deprecating Sussex man who settled with his half-French wife in an inviting corner of the Ouche valley. He's official sculptor to Queen Elizabeth, and earlier that day we passed his giant, controversial sculpture of a kissing couple which dominates the Saint Pancras concourse. Later, Day emails me images of his latest oeuvre: outsized Charolais he's conceived in France and cast in China. They also feature in the rich repasts we enjoy along with the region's many specialities - ouefs en meurette (eggs poached in red wine - much more delectable than they sound on paper), escargots, their world famous mustard, and, obviously, boeuf Bourguignon. Though they aren't huge on puds, their pain d'epices - a particularly gorgeous type of gingerbread - is wonderful.
It's not all indulgent days of wine and roses. Indeed, I'm grateful, after all these epicurean riches, for a long bike ride. In the monastic town of Tournus, following a visit to its majestic Abbaye Saint Philibert (a noted and quietly lovely model of early Romanesque art), we collect our velos and take the Voie Bleue, cycling through corn-filled meadows past the swan-flecked river Saone to Fleurville - this is part of a route which stretches from Tournus to Macon. If biking doesn't appeal, the region, criss-crossed as it is by rivers and canals, offers over 600 miles of water for boating. In fact, they've ramped up activity-based holiday offerings considerably, and energetic families can chose anything from hot-air ballooning, to rock-climbing in an old quarry, mountain biking in the Morvan, eco-paddling or waterskiing on a lake in Maconnais.
Inevitably though, our Burgundian break ends with a glass. Policies may be decided in Dijon, but the region's wine capital is Beaune. And really it is all about the vine in this lovely city - teaching, drinking, buying, selling and tasting. First though, there's a tour of the stunning Hospices de Beaune. Its turrets and roofs emblazoned with dazzling Chinese tiles, this almshouse was built in medieval times and used until 1971 as a hospital: today, it's a museum furnished still with beds where patients slept, an 18th century pharmacy filled with potions and lotions, and a chapel with Rogier van der Weyden's Polyptych of the Last Judgement.
Finally, we visit Cave Patriarche for an intriguing tour underneath the city's streets. Millions of bottles line five kilometres of labyrinthine passages ending with a candle lit cellar where a final pinot noir frames our au revoir. Though we pack an immense amount into a short time, it's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Burgundy teems with Elysian medieval villages: Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where Chocolat was filmed, Noyers-sur-Serein (ace for truffles and markets), Vezelay with its wondrous Basilique Sainte Madeleine. This Madeleine will definitely go back.
After all, France is always a good idea.
Fly from Dublin to Paris CDG with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Air France (airfrance.com). Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin and Shannon to Paris Beauvais.
For trains from Paris to Burgundy, see voyages-sncf.com.
For information on Burgundy visit burgundy-tourism.com; for Dijon see visitdijon.com; for Beaune beaune-tourisme.fr and Tournus tournugeois.fr.
For more details on the hotels: Abbaye de la Bussiere (abbayedelabussiere.fr),Rotisserie du Chambertin (rotisserie-chambertin.com) and Château de Besseuil (chateaudebesseuil.com).
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