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

Époisses, home of the smelliest cheese on earth*

A couple of decades ago, this headline ran in a British newspaper, “France in panic over killer soft cheese“. The people of France weren’t alone in their panic, the article was referring to one of my favourite cheeses, Époisses de Bourgogne. Two people had died from eating cheeses made illegally by an unlicensed company that contained harmful levels of the bacteria, listeria. Sales of several types of French soft cheese were badly affected and companies making Époisses were facing financial ruin.

This would have been a disaster for a cheese tradition that had almost been lost once before. The art of making Époisses cheese had largely been forgotten by the end of the Second World War. It was only revived by two farmers, Robert and Simone Berthaut, in the 1950s. Their dedication has slowly been built it into an international brand. The Fromagerie Berthaut can still be found in the village of Époisses, from where it sells its award winning products.

Époisses de Bourgogne, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses de Bourgogne, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses de Bourgogne, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses de Bourgogne, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

It was a group of monks – who clearly had time on their hands – from the Abbaye de Citeaux who invented Époisses early in the 16th century. Made from raw cow’s milk, it is washed in salty water and then put in a humid cellar for around a month. Afterwards, the rind is washed in Marc de Bourgogne, a brandy that imparts a strong odour of sour milk, two or three times a week for several weeks.

The result is a powerful flavour, salty and creamy with an extremely pungent smell. If that sounds like the sort of thing you’d cross the street to avoid, all I’ll say is that it tastes a lot better than it smells. The Emperor Napoleon was a fan, and he was a child of the Enlightenment. Not everyone has the same opinion, however. In 2004, it was reported that Époisses had been banned from public transport in France because of its overwhelming stench.

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

Château du Époisses, Époisses, Burgundy, France

After driving around with several ‘wheels’ of Époisses de Bourgogne from Fromagerie Berthaut in the back of the car for a few days, I can confirm that it has a smell that lingers. Banning it from public transport seems like a sensible precaution. We visited the Fromagerie Berthaut shortly after arriving in the village of Époisses. I got a little carried away with the amount of cheese I bought, but it felt like the end of a lifetime of cheesy pilgrimage.

We had a walk around the village – an activity that takes about ten minutes to complete – and discovered there is a group dedicated to the protection of this cheese: Syndicat De Défense De L’Epoisses. Here I learned that some 1,300 tonnes of Époisses is made every year using milk from forty-five approved farms. Around 30 percent of the cheese is exported, a certain amount of which ends up in the cheese shop at the end of my street in The Hague.

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Époisses, Burgundy, France

Countryside around Époisses, Burgundy, France

Countryside around Époisses, Burgundy, France

Countryside around Époisses, Burgundy, France

Countryside around Époisses, Burgundy, France

Having run out of cheese-related distractions, we wandered over to the second most interesting thing to be found in Époisses: the Château du Époisses. Owned by the same family since 1661, there has been a castle here since the 6th century. The outer walls and moat enclose a village within the village, with a church and several houses. It’s a beautiful building and picturesque setting, but sadly only the grounds were open the day we were there.

The building that you can see from the other side of the moat, is literally only half the building that was once there. During the French Revolution, the owners were first arrested, only to discover upon their return that most of the chateau’s rooms had been ransacked. In 1793, the revolutionary Committee for Public Safety ordered the chateau to be demolished, eventually deciding only half needed destroying. It’s that half, spared revolutionary fervour, that remains today.

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* The debate on what is the smelliest cheese on earth is a lively one, and has not yet been successfully concluded. Époisses is, however, very stinky.

The medieval fortress of Semur-en-Auxois

Evidence of Burgundy’s wealth of history is scattered liberally throughout its beautiful countryside. Extraordinary medieval towns, fortified hilltop villages, glorious chateaux, and ancient monasteries seem to have been perfectly preserved in an historic vacuum. It’s a remarkable region, its history reflecting the wealth of the Dukes of Burgundy in medieval Europe. Until the mid-15th century the Burgundians were more powerful than the Kings of France, ruling vast areas of France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

That legacy is writ large across the region. Even more remarkable, once you get off the main roads onto narrow country lanes, you have the vast landscapes of Burgundy almost to yourself. We drove for hours through the area between Dijon and Auxerre and barely saw any other people. We didn’t really have an itinerary, stopping when we arrived in attractive villages, or to follow a signpost to a monastery or chateau. That’s how we came across Semur-en-Auxois.

Close your eyes to signs of modernity and, as you wander around this picturesque town, it is all too easy to imagine you’ve been transported back to medieval Burgundy. The town  sits majestically on a rocky hill in a loop of the Armançon River, the massive defensive towers and high walls making it one of the most dramatic sights in the region. The fortifications are a legacy of the Hundred Years’ War, when armies criss-crossed this region in the medieval power struggle between England and France.

We arrived on market day, and the cobbled streets at the heart of the old town were filled with stalls selling local delicacies – cheeses, meat, fruit and vegetables. It was early, so we grabbed a coffee and a croissant before setting off to explore this fabulous town. We passed the gothic church, La Collégiale Notre-Dame, and popped inside to take a look. The current building dates from the 1220s, but there has been a church here since at least the 9th century. It has some lovely medieval stained glass windows.

Soon we found ourselves heading downhill on winding streets towards the river. From here you get a dramatic view back over the town. It’s extraordinarily pretty. We walked along the river for a while, before clambering up steep stairs and through a narrow gateway in the defensive walls to re-enter the town. From here we were able to walk along the battlements, and through pleasant gardens, to get tremendous views over the surrounding countryside.

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France

Through more pretty cobbled streets, we found our way back into the town centre. After the quiet streets, the centre was a hubbub of noise and activity. People were shopping at the market stalls and most of the inhabitants of the town seemed to be having an aperitif and a snack in the town’s cafes and restaurants. We visited the tourist office to pick up some literature on nearby attractions, and then found a table in a cafe while we decided what to do next.

Looking at the map we spotted a very familiar name, Époisses. This tiny village lends its name to one of my favourite (and one the world’s smelliest) cheeses … and it was less than 10km away. Our next destination had chosen itself.

The Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune

The Cote de Beaune, the southern extension of the Route des Grand Crus that runs from Dijon to legendary villages Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet, is a majestic sweep of Burgundy’s glorious countryside. It contains some of the finest and most valuable vineyards anywhere on earth. Not for the first time on our trip, villages we passed through – Pommard, Meursault, St. Aubin – seemed incongruously small given their global reputation.

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

If Greek God Bacchus (properly known as Dionysus) was to take a holiday in France, I suspect he’d choose the Cote de Beaune. We drove down through Pommard, a picture perfect Burgundian village with a lovely chateau that produces some of the region’s finest wines. We visited Orches, a small village set on a limestone escarpment with tremendous views, before passing Château de La Rochepot on our way to the village of Chassagne-Montrachet.

We arrived at the Domaine Bader-Mimeur, a family run estate who have owned vines in Chassagne-Montrachet for 300 years, and produce about 30,000 bottles a year. We were shown around the cellars by the family’s son-in-law and learned the history of the estate. Emerging from the cellars we went for a tasting along with an Austrian couple who were on a cycling holiday. The chardonnay was so delicious it’s hard to describe. The rich pinot noir reds were equally fabulous. It felt a little like being a child in a candy store.

Our tasting over, an hilarious exchange ensued between our friendly host and the two Austrian cyclists. Our host, fully aware that there was little chance of a sale, started: “Would you like to buy any wines?” “We’d like to, but we don’t have space on our bikes.” “You have a car in the village though?” “Yes, we can come back in the morning.” “Why not buy it now and I’ll keep it safe for you?” Embarrassed silence. We loaded up with a half dozen bottles of buttery chardonnay and headed to Puligny-Montrachet.

The tiny, affluent, village of Puligny-Montrachet must be one of the most picturesque in this whole region. Stone-built houses surrounded by a sea of vines. We arrived late in the afternoon and were worried everything would be closed. Luckily, many of the wine producers were reopening after a mid-afternoon rest. We walked around the village and found a cellar that looked ideal for yet another tasting – is it possible to have too many?

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

By chance we’d stumbled upon a small producer who made only organic wines and who nurtured her vines personally. She talked of the land and grapes as if they were family members. In a small cellar we tasted half a dozen wines and were given a blow-by-blow account of how each one was produced, which parcel of land the grapes came from, and the growing conditions of the year of production. 2017 has been a very difficult year, apparently. It was fascinating.

Looking at the map, I asked how one parcel of land could be so different to the land next to it. She told us a extraordinary story. Land is intensely scrutinised here, and with good reason. The difference in value between a parcel of Grand Cru land and that of a lesser piece of land is millions of euros. An expert wine taster came to the village and was tasting a Puligny-Montrachet. To the surprise of everyone he announced that the wine he was drinking was, in fact, from neighbouring Meursault.

Orches, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Orches, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Orches, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Orches, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

This sort of thing can start fights in this part of the world. The boundary between the two areas was a single track road. The vines on the Puligny-Montrachet side had grown their roots into the terroir of Meursault on the other side. I’m not sure how you find a solution to this peculiar situation. Even more importantly though, somewhere on this planet, there’s a person who can tell that the roots of some vines have transgressed into another wine area just by tasting a glass of wine.

Suitably impressed, we loaded up the car with another dozen bottles of deliciousness and set off towards Meursault. Perhaps we could spot the difference from above ground? We could not.

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Pommard, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France