Art Nouveau glories at the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy

Nancy is famous for may things but, perhaps above all else, it was a renowned centre for the art nouveau movement. Art nouveau flourished here after France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by a newly unified Germany. An event little short of a national tragedy, French citizens in German occupied Alsace-Lorraine were given a terrible choice: become German or become refugees. Tens of thousands chose to leave their homes and migrate across the new border.

"France!! Ou l’Alsace et la Lorraine désespérées" by Jean-Joseph Weerts, Nancy, France

“France!! Ou l’Alsace et la Lorraine désespérées” by Jean-Joseph Weerts, Nancy, France

Nancy was the destination of choice for many writers, artists, designers, architects and entrepreneurs fleeing the occupation. This sparked a remarkable artistic and cultural flourishing, and its effect is seen throughout the town. There are art nouveau buildings all over the centre, shop and restaurant interiors are gracefully decorated in the art nouveau style, including furniture, parks are also laid out in the style. Art nouveau was both a movement of “Art in All” and “Art for All”, and Nancy is a true expression of this philosophy.

You can walk the streets as if Nancy is an open air museum, but the heart and soul of art nouveau in Nancy is the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. Once the private house of Eugène Corbin, one of the movement’s most important patrons and collectors, today it houses a museum that tells the story of this region’s love affair with art nouveau. The house was completely designed in the art nouveau style, including the gardens, and is the perfect backdrop for the museum.

The house is in an upmarket suburb – the movement may have been “Art for All” but it gets its finest expression in the homes of the wealthy – and the walk there took us past a number of other art nouveau buildings. The sky was blue and the sun was shining as we entered the gardens of the museum. We strolled around before plunging into the extraordinary interior of the house. It is filled with art nouveau stained-glass, furniture, ceramics, glassware, textiles and sculpture. It’s overwhelming, totally impractical to the modern eye, and utterly mesmerising.

While inside the epicentre of Nancy’s art nouveau movement, blue skies had become bruised with rain clouds and, as we headed back into town, it started to rain. Our plan to walk the town’s art nouveau trails was going to have to wait. Luckily, it was early afternoon and we had a back up plan for a long lunch at Nancy’s fabulous art nouveau Excelsior Brasserie. The exterior is obviously art nouveau, but it gives only a hint of the artistic splendour that awaits inside this Nancy institution.

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau stairway, Musée de Beaux Arts, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau stairway, Musée de Beaux Arts, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

The service might be a little ‘brusque’, to put it mildly, but the traditional Loraine food and excellent wine is accompanied by a ceiling that looks like a whipped meringue, and the furniture is designed by Louis Majorelle, one of the leading designers of France’s art nouveau movement. It was the Easter weekend, and the atmosphere was electric with a holiday crowd. We started chatting to our neighbours on the next table, one of whom was an English teacher from a nearby town.

Her husband was a wine connoisseur, and we shared a glass of the Chablis premier cru we’d ordered under the influence of our indulgent art nouveau surroundings. He took a sip and was horrified. This fine wine from Burgundy was too cold. He called the waiter over, admonishing him for allowing such a tragedy to happen. This started an animated discussion amongst several nearby tables about how awful this was. People actually apologised to us for the waiter’s indiscretion. It felt like we’d wandered into a Jacques Tati movie.

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau building, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau building, Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy, France

Art Nouveau, Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy, France

You might say, “it was just a glass of wine”, but that misses the point. The warmth and friendliness of our fellow diners, their obvious pride in their cuisine, and in wanting us to experience it at its very best, encapsulates something about France that is rare in the rest of the world. It’s a lunch that will stay long in the memory as a result.

Nancy, France’s eighteenth century masterpiece

Despite the decidedly un-French name, Nancy’s central Place Stanislas is one of the most exquisite city squares in France. It’s named after a former Polish King, Stanislas Leszczynski, who fleetingly sat on the throne of Poland between 1704 – 1709, before being deposed and fleeing to the Lorraine region of France. A man of vast wealth, not only did his daughter become Queen of France through marriage to King Louis XV, he held the title of Duke of Loraine for 30 years.

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Stanislas Leszczynski street art, Nancy, France

Stanislas Leszczynski street art, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

Place Stanislas, Nancy, France

It is Stanislas who’s responsible for the town’s 18th century architectural centrepiece, and I would defy anyone not to feel a sense of amazement upon seeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site for the first time. It’s a masterpiece of urban design, intended to unite Nancy’s old medieval quarter with the ‘modern’ 18th century city. Originally the seat of government for the Duchy of Lorraine, the square is surrounded by magnificent buildings. This includes the City Hall, Opera House, the truly excellent Musée de Beaux Arts, and several restaurants.

We’d arrived late the previous evening after a long drive from the Netherlands, but were keen to explore so skipped breakfast in the hotel. We strolled along a pleasant canal in the early morning sun before heading into Place Stanislas. The town was quiet with only a few people on the streets – it was Easter weekend and everything felt a little sleepy. For the first time in a long time, it was warm enough to sit outside one of the square’s restaurants for breakfast. We relaxed and admired our surroundings.

Afterwards, we strolled around the square before walking underneath the Arc Héré, a mini-Arc de Triumphe, into the grand Place Carriere, at the end of which sits the Palais du Gouvernement and the former palace of the Dukes of Lorraine, now a museum. We made a quick visit to the museum as most of it was closed for renovation, but the lovely Parc de la Pépinière is next door and we walked through it back to Place Stanislas. The sun had disappeared and it started to rain, luckily the Musée de Beaux Arts is a fine indoor alternative to exploring the town.

Inside the magnificent 18th century building, the museum houses a superb collection of Baroque and Rococo art, as well as a more modern collection on the ground floor. In the basement, excavated around the foundations of the town’s medieval fortifications, is a wondrous collection of Daum glassware. One of France’s most prestigious glass makers, Daum was founded in 1878 and was central to the art nouveau movement for which Nancy is renowned. The museum has over 600 items on display, all hand made.

The weather was hit-and-miss throughout our stay, but the rain had stopped by the time we re-emerged. We walked through interesting streets past the cathedral, a vast but plainly decorated building, until we reached the covered market. It was a busy day in the market and we had a lot of fun ‘window shopping’ around the food stalls. Across the Place Charles III outside the market, and backed by some of the ugliest high-rises ever imagined by an architect, sits the 16th century church of Saint-Sébastien, worth a visit for its lovely interior.

Nancy is known as “little Paris” and, while that might be a stretch of the imagination, it is certainly an attractive place. Night was falling as we found a small cosy bar to try a selection of regional beers (a big deal in Nancy) and some regional foods, including the most famous of all, Pâté Lorrain (a delicious savoury pie). We wandered back into the Place Stanislas, which was now beautifully illuminated, before returning along the quiet canal to our hotel.

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

Covered market, Nancy, France

2017, a year of travel in the rear view mirror

One exception not withstanding, 2017 has been a European year. It’s been a lot of fun exploring new destinations – Burgundy in France, Fruska Gora in Serbia and Granada’s Islamic heritage in Spain; but it’s been even more fun revisiting places I last visited many years ago – the Czech Republic’s Prague, Sweden’s glorious Stockholm, not to mention that one exception, Argentina. In between there have been trips to England and Scotland, as well as around the Netherlands – a country that really punches above its weight.

It’s been a fun year, thanks for joining me on the journey, and I wish you all the best of travels for 2018.

The cheesiest of Dutch towns, Alkmaar

Alkmaar is an attractive and historic town that has thrived on cheese production. The town’s famed cheese market has been around for over 400 years and, provided there’s a steady supply of tourists, it seems unlikely to end any time soon. It’s definitely one of the more touristy things you can do in the Netherlands, but a little bit of ‘cheese’ never did anyone any harm.

Summer and Winter in the English Lake District

I headed across the North Sea with my bike for company to take take part in the Fred Whitton Cycle Sportive in May, and took the opportunity to hike the Vale of Grasmere while the Bluebells were in full bloom. More recently, winter hikes across frozen winter landscapes have included The Old Man of Coniston and Crinkle Crags. Proof that the Lake District is best at any time of year.

Revisiting the delights of Stockholm

It’s taken me over a decade to make the short journey to Stockholm. One long weekend later and all I could think was “Why?” This is, without any doubt, one of Europe’s finest cities. Built across several islands and surrounded by water on all side, crossing from one neighbourhood to another feels like you’re entering a different city. Once famed for high prices, the costs no longer seem so prohibitive and the food has been through a revolution.

Prague, a glorious city blighted by modern tourism

I loved Prague when I first ventured here a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is still one of the great cities of Europe, but the toll modern tourism is taking on the historic city centre and the Prague Castle area is eye-wateringly painful to observe. There are still pockets of calm away from the tour groups, but this visit clashed badly with my trip 25-years earlier.

Ghiga and Arran, Island hopping in Scotland

At 9.5 kilometres long and 2.5 kilometres wide, Gigha was a huge surprise. Rugged and wild, with a peculiarly warm microclimate that makes it very hospitable, I’d never even heard of it before going to a friends wedding on the island. Afterwards we explored the much bigger Arran Isle with it’s wealth of ancient history. The weather was even good, well until the final day.

Wine tasting along the Grand Cru Routes of Burgundy

France is an extraordinary country for many different reasons, none more so that the sheer diversity of its regions. We made a couple of trips to France this year, including to the marvellous cathedral town of Reims, but it was the beautiful and historic Burgundy, and its magnificent capital, Dijon, that really captivated us – the wine was just an added benefit.

Painting the town red, yellow and blue for De Stijl

To mark the anniversary of the De Stijl art movement, the best known proponent of which was Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, The Hague transformed itself into  an open air gallery that saw entire buildings become huge canvases for the familiar red, yellow and blue Mondrian designs. Even the piano in Central Station got a makeover.

Going back in time in Serbia’s Fruska Gora National Park

Serbia has a long and troubled history, no more so than in recent years after the fall of communism, but it is a surprising, fascinating and friendly country that deserves more international tourists. I visited the historic city of Novi Sad, but it was the landscape and cultural history of the nearby Fruska Gora National Park that made the trip special.

Seville, the beating heart of Andalusia

Spain is one of my favourite countries to visit, Andalusia one of my favourite regions and Seville my absolute favourite town (well, maybe tied for first place with Madrid). It’s almost cliche to say Seville is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, but there’s no denying there is something going on. A vast wealth of history, coupled with a fabulous cultural heritage and some of Spain’s best food. What’s not to love?

The gorgeous medieval town of Cesky Kumlov

I loved my travels in the Czech Republic, but the remarkably well-preserved town of Cesky Kumlov was a real highlight. Nestled between bends of the Vltava River, the town feels like it hasn’t changed much since the 15th century. It also boasts a dramatic castle, and is home to lots of good hotels and restaurants.

Exploring fjords from historic Bergen

Bergen is a gloriously historic town set in the most picturesque landscape imaginable. Venture outside the town and you can quickly find yourself walking on the roof of the world with vast panoramas over the surrounding mountains and fjords. Or, take a train, a bus and a boat, and another two trains, to explore the magical Nærøyfjord and the Flam railway.

Into the Andes, the Argentinian Lake District

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Argentina a few times now, but had never been to the renowned Lake District region. A visit to San Martin de los Andes and Bariloche made up for that oversight, and opened our eyes to this truly magnificent region. A broken big toe prevented much hiking but our tiny hire car took us to extraordinary places all the same.

Laon, medieval capital of France

It’s almost impossible to imagine today, but long before Paris became capital of France and went on to become one of the most famous cities on the planet, Laon, a little know and remarkably tourist-free town near the Belgian border, was the medieval capital of France. It gained this distinction during the reign of the Carolingian dynasty, the most famous member of which was Charlemagne. Power shifted to Paris in 987 AD when Hugues Capet claimed the crown and made it his capital.

Almost impossible to imagine that is, but for one thing: the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. Sitting like a vast crown over the city, the cathedral can be seen from kilometres away, and it gets more impressive the closer you get to it. It’s a building that lends a certain majesty to the city, even though when it was built in the 12th century, the city’s royal status had long gone. It’s a rival for any of the more famous churches we’d seen on our trip.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Laon, France

I knew nothing of Laon’s great history before arriving in the town. We stopped here only because a brief description in our guidebook said it was interesting, and it was a convenient spot to break the journey back to the Netherlands. We hadn’t booked a hotel and were lucky to get a room at Hotel Les Chevaliers, a converted 18th century house. The friendly manager gave us the low down on the city and a few suggestions of places to eat, and off we went to explore.

Arriving late in the day, and with ominous storm clouds gathering, we made straight for the cathedral down streets lined with ancient buildings. The cathedral was closed but as the sun set it was fantastically illuminated. We walked around this immense building and down some of the neighbouring streets, before returning to the Place du Parvis de Mortagne in front of the cathedral. We found a restaurant and ordered dinner.

It was a warm evening and we had front row seats of the cathedral’s facade. When the rain came, we moved under the umbrellas unwilling to lose our view of this magnificent building. A rainbow came out and crowned the entire scene. It was a great introduction to this historic place. Laon was occupied in both World Wars, but it and the cathedral survived without any serious damage. One of the reasons why, in 1940, Adolf Hitler visited it.

We went for a walk through the town, which is strung out along the hilltop. There was a bit of action in a couple of youthful bars but, to all intents and purposes, the town was fast asleep at 9.30pm on a Thursday night in summer. The next morning dawned grey and damp, the previous evening’s weather stubbornly refusing to improve. We set off to explore and to see if Laon had woken up from the previous evening’s slumber.

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Maybe it was the weather, maybe the urban neglect that we saw around us, but Laon began to make us a bit depressed. This wasn’t helped by being served the worst pain au chocolate I’ve ever eaten. Cardboard with something brown but not chocolate in the middle. Many historic buildings are not open to the public, and the 7th century Abbaye Saint-Vincent was burned down by teenagers in 2008 and is yet to be fixed. Those that are open seem to keep erratic hours. In desperation we went back to the cathedral.

In the cathedral, jaunty Christian pop music was blasting out as several hundred school children were ushered in. Their teachers were desperately trying to keep them quiet, which was a little like trying to hold water in a sieve. The futility of the situation at least made me smile. We wandered around in the vast interior space, before the music got the better of us. As we left the sun came out briefly, but we’d already decided the best thing to do in Loan on a damp and chilly Friday morning was to leave.

Abbey of St. Martin, Laon, France

Abbey of St. Martin, Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

Laon, France

For all its wealth of history, Laon seems unloved. There are many abandoned, decaying buildings, shops are closed with boarded up windows. No surprise then that the town’s population has been in slow decline from a peak in 1975. The traffic is a curse, beautiful medieval streets are little more than open air car parks. It’s an undignified state, for a once dignified place. All the more surprising because Laon is the capital of the region and has many qualities to recommend it.

The contrast between the city’s heritage and its seemingly parlous present reminded me of a New York Times article I’d read about Albi in southern France, often described as the jewel of the Midi-Pyrenees. The two towns have many similarities, including out of town shopping centres that seem to be draining life from the old town. As we drove towards Belgium we passed through this area. Hundreds of cars outside hypermarkets told their own story.

A stroll along the River Yonne in under-appreciated Auxerre

Arriving in Auxerre in the late afternoon in the middle of a thunderstorm didn’t seem very auspicious. Not for the first time in my life, I felt a little underdressed in shorts and flip flops. Luckily, the torrential rain didn’t last long, and we were soon heading into the lovely medieval town centre on freshly washed city streets. The old town is designed for exploration, with a maze of fascinating narrow winding streets that take you past a procession of half-timbered houses that have been here since medieval times.

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre, France

Abbey de Saint-Germain on the Yonne River, Auxerre, France

Abbey de Saint-Germain on the Yonne River, Auxerre, France

I haven’t seen this many timber-framed houses since I was in Troyes, an hour to the north. In population terms, the town is less than half the size of the town where I grew up. Yet it felt much the bigger, more cosmopolitan of the two. It has glorious churches, including the 5th century Abbey de Saint-Germain and the 13th century Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, as well as many other medieval buildings. The 15th century clocktower with a golden sundial and moondial is the most impressive.

After spending a few hours walking the streets it started raining again. We decided to go for dinner. I’d read that Auxerre didn’t have particularly good restaurants, but the Restaurant Poivretsel, tucked away on the Place des Cordeliers, is one of the nicest we visited on this trip. As I sipped a fine Chablis and nibbled some delicious cheese, I made a mental note to thank the receptionist at the hotel who’d recommended it. The next morning we’d explore Auxerre more, but this was a good final night in Burgundy.

Auxerre’s big draw is the ancient Abbey of Saint-Germain d’Auxerre. The extraordinary crypt, home to the tomb of Saint Germain, Bishop of Auxerre until 448 AD, is the main attraction. The Abbey’s history is reflected in the history of the crypt. Bishops from across the centuries are buried close to Saint Germain. Well they would be if his coffin wasn’t empty. Over the centuries, pieces of the former Bishop were dispersed as relics until, finally, there was nothing left.

The Abbey is now a museum and when we arrived early the next day two tourists were asking about a tour of the crypt. They were speaking in English and, when the woman selling tickets told them the tour was only in French, they decided not to bother. We bought tickets and she radioed that we were on our way. No one else was on the tour, so I asked the guide if he could speak slowly to accommodate my terrible French. To which he responded, “Why don’t I do the tour in English?” Such is life.

The crypt is famed for its ancient frescoes. In 1927, crumbling plaster walls covered in 17th century frescoes revealed other frescoes from the 9th century, some 800 years older. History is piled in layer-upon-layer in the crypt, it felt a bit like a scene from The Da Vinci Code. Sadly, photography isn’t allowed, but I can say with certainty that a tour of the crypt is unmissable. Afterwards, we wandered through quiet streets to the River Yonne and walked along the bank taking in views of the town.

In Auxerre, the Yonne is slow moving and busy with pleasure craft. From here you can easily sail to Paris or down to Lyon after linking up with the Canal de Bourgogne. We walked for a while as the sun dodged the clouds, before heading back into town to grab some lunch in one of Auxerre’s pleasant squares. Yet again, a small Burgundian town had managed to upend all our expectations. Auxerre is full of history and culture, and I wish we’d had more time to do it justice.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre, France

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Auxerre, France

Medieval clocktower, Auxerre, France

Medieval clocktower, Auxerre, France

Statue to poet Marie Rouget, Auxerre, France

Statue to poet Marie Rouget, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Timber-framed medieval houses, Auxerre, France

Lost amongst the Grand Cru in Chablis

It was the monks of Pontigny Abbey who realised that the soil and microclimate of the rolling hills that surround the village of Chablis were perfect for growing chardonnay grapes. They planted vines here in the 9th century, from which the current vineyards are descended. What the monks didn’t realise, was that this part of France was once a vast ocean. Proof of this are the millions of fossilised shells beneath the soil, creating ideal growing conditions for some of the most sought after grapes on earth.

The wines fall into four appellations: Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. All are made from 100% chardonnay grapes, and while Petit Chablis and Chablis are good wines, the Premier Cru and Grand Cru are some of the finest to be bottled in France. There are only 100 hectares of Chablis Grand Cru and they are all located just on the edge of the village. Cars whizz along the D965 towards Auxerre only a few metres from the billion dollar business planted next to the road.

Grand Cru trail, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru trail, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

The weather had been a bit hit-and-miss in Chablis, but finally grey cloud gave way to blue sky and it was possible to take a walk through the vineyards. There is a signposted route through the Grands Grus created by the Union de Grands Crus de Chablis. It takes you on small roads and dirt tracks over the hillside across the seven recognised Grands Crus areas: Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Preuses, Blanchots, Les Clos, Valmur and Bougros. Periodically, I’d come across an information board telling me where I was.

Five of these areas came into existence in 1919, two additional areas were selected in 1938. This was the same year a government decree defined the surface area of Chablis Grands Crus at 100 hectares – only 2% of all Chablis vineyards. When you realise this, tasting and even walking through the Grands Crus takes on special meaning. Although, not as special as the sweeping vistas you get over the village and valley below.

As I slogged uphill, occasionally passing a solitary figure tending to their vines, I had no idea of the views that were unfolding behind me. Only when I turned around did the true glory of the area come into focus. In front of me were row upon row of bright green chardonnay vines, the village of Chablis was illuminated in sunlight, and behind the village there seemed to be an endless patchwork of green and gold: vineyards and wheat side by side. It was beautiful.

This area, at the northern most tip of Burgundy, has a highly variable climate. The unpredictable rainfall and sunshine means the quality and quantity of grapes can’t be taken for granted. Severe frosts have led to the loss of entire crops. It’s said, that “the history of Chablis is lined with disastrous vintages”. In years gone by growers used to combat frosts by placing heaters between the vines. Today they are sprayed with water which, counterintuitively, protects the grapes from the worst of the cold.

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Grand Cru vineyards, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Church in vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Church in vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Vineyards near Chablis, Burgundy, France

Burgundy countryside near Chablis, France

Burgundy countryside near Chablis, France

I walked for a couple of hours before making my way back to the village. Soon we were back in the car and heading out into the Burgundian countryside. We set off as the rain began falling, creating an ominous contrast between the forbidding sky and the bright greens and yellows of the landscape. We drove past vineyards which featured in our tasting the previous day, and through picturesque villages, before heading to Auxerre, our final destination in Burgundy.

Chablis, a village at the centre of the wine world

Leaving medieval Noyers-sur-Serein behind, we followed the Serein River through lovely Burgundian countryside to one of France’s most renowned villages, Chablis. The chances are, people would visit Chablis even if it wasn’t world famous for the quality of its wines. The medieval stone-built village, set amongst rolling hills on the banks of the Serein, is a lovely place. It has plenty of ancient buildings, including the 13th century church of Saint-Martin.

Wine tasting, Chablis, Burgundy, France

Wine tasting, Chablis, Burgundy, France

The truth is though, people come here because Chablis sits amidst some of the most prestigious vineyards on earth, and lends its name to a wine that is drunk with both gusto and reverence around the world. As a result, the village is dominated by wine-related tourism. Even if you wanted to, it’s hard not to find yourself lured into various cellars for tastings. My excuse is that the weather wasn’t very good, forcing us to seek alternative, indoor activities, or risk getting wet.

On an impulse, we decided to stay in Chablis rather than press on to Auxerre. It was raining and, as we wandered around looking for a hotel, we came across the Hôtel du Vieux Moulin, a lovely hotel in a converted 18th century watermill. It certainly isn’t the cheapest option in Chablis, but it must certainly be one of the best. It also happens to be owned by a respected wine producer, Domaine Laroche, makers of ten premieres crus and four grands crus, amongst others.

We wandered off into the village centre in search of wine enlightenment. Chablis is home to fewer than 3,000 people and is not difficult to walk around in an hour, we strolled through some of the narrow lanes near the hotel, visited the church of Saint-Martin, and found ourselves on the main street quite quickly. The village was quiet, but when we arrived at the Laroche wine shop to do some tasting, there was a group of twenty Canadians sniffing, swirling and sipping.

We took a seat and waited for the group to finish and leave. Then we had the place to ourselves. Over the next half hour we were treated to a couple of Chablis cuvees, three premieres crus and two grands crus, with a blow-by-blow account of where they came from, the terroir the vines grew in, and the method of production. It was fascinating to see the map of where each bottle had originated, and to realise we’d driven past some of them on our way to Chablis. Needless to say, we left with a few bottles.

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

The rain had finally stopped and the sun was just breaking through as we left the wine shop and clanked our way back down the main street. After dropping the bottles off at the hotel we set off to explore a bit more of the village, and walk off the earlier tasting. Chablis is a pretty place, although there are few things to do other than wine tasting and wine buying. We hung out at a little bar on the main square, before realising that if we didn’t go for food soon everywhere would probably be closed.

The Hôtel du Vieux Moulin has a highly rated restaurant attached to it, but it was closed. Luckily, it has a sister restaurant next door to the Laroche wine shop, Les Trois Bourgeons. To say the food was good would be to do a disservice to the Japanese chefs who serve up miraculous French bistro food, paired with excellent Chablis wines. We were seated at the kitchen and watched fascinated as our food was prepared. It was the perfect end to a day in the heart of Chablis wine country.

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

Chablis, Burgundy, France

The medieval village of Noyers-sur-Serein

It’s with good reason that Noyers-sur-Serein has been officially recognised as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Sitting in a bend of the slow moving River Serein, the village is as picture-postcard-perfect as any I’ve ever seen. It retains many of its original medieval buildings, the cobbled streets running past half-timbered houses; once formidable walls, ramparts, town gates and defensive towers silently look out over the surrounding countryside; and the Gothic belfry of the 15th century L’Église Notre-Dame dominates the skyline.

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

There’s no doubt that tourism is making its presence felt in Noyers, but the village feels authentic and has lots of charm. Many houses are decorated with plants and flowers, adding a riot of colour to the streets, some of which are pedestrianised. As we walked around, most of the streets were empty of people. Only in the central squares of the village, the lovely Place de la Porte Étape aux Vins and Place du Marché au Blé, did we find any real activity.

If Noyers is a small, sleepy place today, it wasn’t always so. In the 12th century it was the seat of a powerful family led by Miles, Seigneur De Noyers, and was famous for having one of France’s mightiest castles. In 1217, the town and castle were under siege from the forces of France’s Spanish Queen, Blanche de Castille. The elaborate defences held out. The town survived the ravages of the Hundred Years’ War, by which time it was an important stronghold of the Dukes of Burgundy.

The town would not be so lucky during the 16th century Wars of Religion.

By then the castle, and town, had passed under the control of Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé and Count of Noyers. This was fateful for the town. Louis converted to Protestantism and became a principle leader of the Huguenot faction in the French aristocracy. This put the Bourbons, and Noyers, on a collision course with the Catholic House of Guise, and its feared matriarch, Catherine de’ Medici, the most powerful woman in Europe.

Louis was embroiled in the Huguenot-led Conspiracy of Amboise, an attempt in 1560 to abduct Francis II, the first of Catherine de’ Medici’s three sons to become French Kings. War broke out in 1562 and a few years later Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, took refuge in the now predominantly Protestant, Noyers. Besieged by Catherine de’ Medici’s forces, Noyers capitulated. The town’s Huguenots were evicted and the castle destroyed. Noyers sank into relative obscurity.

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

That obscurity has meant that the village has retained its medieval essence. Home to around seven hundred people today, it has an impressive seventy-eight registered national monuments. Small and friendly, the town has a couple of good restaurants and an artisanal boulangerie. Not to mention a good butchers, a couple of wine shops and art galleries. You wouldn’t get a similar number or quality of shops in a village this size in Britain or the Netherlands.

We’d arrived early, en route to Chablis. The weather had been wet as we drove through the lush Burgundian countryside, and it was still raining in Noyers. The forecast was for sun, so we decided to while-away some time in a cafe. The sun eventually came out and off we set to explore the rest of the village. We strolled along the banks of the Serein River next to the old defensive walls, climbing to the top of the village before coming back down through narrow lanes. Noyers may not take long to explore, but each step is drenched in history.

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

Noyers-sur-Serein, Burgundy, France

The magnificent Abbey de Fontenay

The glorious Abbey de Fontenay sits in a wide, lush valley surrounded by meadows and forests. Even today, a secluded location far from any centres of population make it an exceptionally peaceful place. Living here in the 12th century must have felt a little like living on another planet. We drove on single track roads through picturesque wooded hills to reach the Abbey, which is rightly famous for being the most well preserved Cistercian abbey in the world.

The Abbey de Fontenay was founded almost nine centuries ago in 1118 by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Monks first moved into the abbey in 1130. By the time of St. Bernard’s death in 1153, the Cistercian’s had spread all over Europe. This was clear in 1139 when the English Bishop of Norwich turned up seeking sanctuary. A wealthy individual, he helped financed the building of the abbey’s church. The church was consecrated in 1147 by Pope Eugene III.

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

By 1200 the complex was complete, with 300 monks were living here. There are no monks anymore, but everything else is as it would have been in 1200. The passing centuries weren’t always peaceful. During the Hundred Years’ War, English soldiers pillaged the abbey. The 16th century French Wars of Religion saw substantial damage, and monastic life finally came to an end in the French Revolution. The monks were thrown out of Fontenay, and it was turned into a paper mill. Ironically, this probably saved it from destruction.

Much like my own, severe asceticism was the Cistercian way of life. Collecting tithes and commercial transactions were banned. Rejecting the laxity of other monastic orders, a Cistercian monk was expected to divide his day between prayer, study and manual labor, living a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Manual labour became a principal feature of their life and a counterpoint to the great displays of wealth seen in the Catholic church.

The order’s strict monastic rules were intended to return it to a simpler religious life. This is reflected in Fontenay’s plain buildings. It’s not that they aren’t impressive, the Abbey church is utterly magnificent with its towering arches, but they are distinctive thanks to their lack of ornamentation. The number of tourists Fontenay attracts today would have horrified the Cistercians. While the Benedictines built guesthouses, the Cistercians discouraged visitors, preferring self-sufficient isolation.

This didn’t mean isolation from ideas and technology though. The Cistercian’s were great innovators and at Fontenay they built a water-powered forge. The monks extracted iron ore near the monastery, and used the forge to make iron tools for their own use and for sale. It’s believed that this is one of the earliest metallurgical factories in Europe, it’s also where the hydraulic hammer was invented. A working replica was built in 2008.

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Church, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

The austerity didn’t last. The Cistercians were agricultural innovators, making land and animals more productive than in normal farms – helped by the fact the they had a free workforce. The accumulation of wealth led to a breakdown in the discipline that had been the hallmark of the movement. As Chaucer wrote in the Canterbury Tales, radix malorum est cupiditas, the love of money is the root of all evil.

The €10 entrance didn’t seem so bad when we saw how well preserved the monastery is, and a visit is well worth it. The grounds manicured, buildings radiating warmth in the sunlight. The church, cloister, magnificent whale-boned dormitory, forge, bakery and infirmary all offer a fascinating glimpse into medieval monastic life. A life that was highly regulated between all these buildings. Each day in the life of a monk followed the exact same pattern as the day before it, and the one before that, and before that…

…the physical and mental rigour required for such a life is hard to imagine today.

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Cloister, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Cloister, Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

Abbey de Fontenay, Burgundy, France

The scandalous Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin

Sitting on a hillside overlooking a picturesque valley that separates it from the village of Bussy-le-Grand, the Château de Bussy-Rabutin is a beautiful and dramatic sight. It’s a little off the beaten path, but it’s well worth a diversion to explore a unique piece of French history. Surrounded by moats, gardens and eighty-four acres of parkland, the chateau dates from the 12th century but the elegant building you see today is from the 16th century.

The harmonious exterior, with three wings and four round towers, is matched by the extraordinary decor of the interior. The splendour of the building and the glories of its setting fade almost to insignificance next to its most famous (perhaps ‘notorious’ is a better word) inhabitant, a man with a passion for scandal.

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Roger de Bussy-Rabutin was a man of his time, perfectly at home in the flamboyant and decadent age of Louis XIV, the Sun King. As a courtier in Louis’ court, he seems to have had a talent for trouble. He soon found himself disgraced for ridiculing the King’s mistress and neglecting his military duties. Worse was to come. In 1659, he was one of several participants in an orgy during Holy Week. The orgy caused a scandal at court and he fell into disgrace once again.

After the orgy, he was exiled to Château de Bussy-Rabutin. This doesn’t seem like much of a punishment, especially given that his mistress, Madame de Montglas, was allowed to accompany him. They put their exile to good use by exposing the love affairs of famous contemporaries in a book, Histoire Amoureuse des Gaules. The book was scurrilous, and painted an unflattering portrait of many at court, including members of the royal family. It caused outrage.

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Showing a leg, Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Showing a leg, Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

In an entirely predictable turn of events, the book did not go down well with the King. Louis XIV was furious, particularly as the book was quickly copied and was circulating widely in Paris and at court. As punishment, Bussy-Rabutin was sent to the Bastille for over a year. Upon his release he was again exiled to his estate at Château de Bussy-Rabutin, where he spent the next 28 years until his death in 1693.

Stuck in the Burgundian countryside, he distracted himself by managing his property and amassing a large collecting of portraits, mainly of the court and other famous people. This includes portraits of his 25 mistresses, now hanging in his bedchamber. In one wing of the chateau hang portraits of great leaders and generals. This includes Oliver Cromwell, a man who killed a king, and who died shortly before Bussy-Rabutin was sent to the Bastille. Cromwell hangs next to a portrait of Benjamin Franklin.

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

The warm sunny weather of earlier in the day had turned stormy but, as I arrived at the chateau, the sun shone brightly on the building and grounds. I wandered through the gardens while a gang of French school children were chaperoned around the building. Eventually, there was a clap of thunder and the heavens opened. The torrential rain had me running through the chateau courtyard to seek shelter inside. There are worse places to keep out of the rain.

Bussy-Rabutin described the interior as being “a singular beauty that cannot be seen anywhere else … you can find such wonderfully amusing things there“. The ground floor rooms were a little disappointing, but things got a lot more interesting upstairs (pardon the pun). The rooms are filled with portrait paintings, some hung from the walls, others painted on the walls. It’s a remarkable building. On my way out a peacock was walking around the grounds. A reincarnation of the chateau’s former owner perhaps?

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France

Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin, Burgundy, France