Alkmaar, the cheesiest tourist experience in the Netherlands?

My favourite Dutch cheese anecdote involves Edam, home of the eponymously named round balls of wax-covered rubber masquerading as cheese. In the 17th century, when they were competing with England and France for mastery of the seas, Dutch ships would carry Edam on board. The wax covering kept it fresh for months, and it was used for food or traded for spices in the Far East. In desperate times, balls of Edam were also used as makeshift cannonballs when Dutch ships ran out of ammunition in battle.

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Edam is a small relaxed town, proud of its cheese history, but not consumed by it. The Friday morning cheese market in Alkmaar, less than 30km away, is a very different story. It may be an authentic representation of the cheese market that’s been present in the town’s main square for over four centuries, but it also counts as one of the most touristy things you can do in the Netherlands. It’s almost as if the town descends into an act of collective cheese-related madness for half a day each week.

The cheesy experience begins almost as soon as you step off the train. A signpost to the market was embedded in a block of concrete painted to look like cheese. I followed the stream of people heading in that direction, but got a little distracted by some of the town’s incredible historic buildings. This would prove fateful for my chances of getting a good view of the cheese market. When I arrived the seating area was full, and at the barriers the crowds were standing two or three deep.

Luckily, most of the tourists weren’t Dutch. The last people you want to stand behind when trying to see something are citizens of the tallest nation on earth. I took up my spot and waited. People in traditional costume wandered around placing big rounds of wax-coated Gouda cheese on the floor, until the ancient Waagplein was covered in orange circles. Still nothing happened. Finally it was 10am, someone rang a bell and cheese carriers, cheese tasters, cheese officials and tourist cameras sprang into action.

The market was interesting and fun, but it felt a little like being in a cheese circus, everyone performing for the tourists. If it wasn’t for the tourist value that the market brings to Alkmaar, I imagine people would be buying and selling cheese in a modern air conditioned building and not running around under a hot sun in a shadeless square. At least the cheese bearers had cheerful hats to protect them from the sun. Some of us weren’t so lucky.

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Soon the cheese carriers were in full flow. Eight rounds of cheese are loaded onto each wooden barrow, which are then carried by two people on leather straps to be weighed in the Waag building. The shape and weight (120kg) of the barrow give the carriers a peculiar ‘waddle’ as they trot/run with their loads. They seem to have a lot of fun in the process, but a few of the cheese carriers looked like they’d eaten one cheese too many. As the hot sun bore down, I began to feel a little concerned for their welfare.

Once weighed, the cheese is ‘sold’ and taken to wheel barrows for transportation out of the square. To keep the crowds entertained, cheese tasters come around offering tastings and women dressed in clogs and splendid hats sell their cheesy wares for €10 a bag. All the while, the cheese carriers are running around in the background. The market lasts for two and a half hours, but after an hour I wandered off to explore Alkmaar’s lovely streets.

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Cheese-related sights can be found around the town, including men punting cheese-filled boats on the town’s canals, and there’s a wealth of history to explore. On a market day though, it’s too crowded to fully enjoy. I decided to come back when there were fewer people. I did pop into the cheese museum, which was small and offered an insight into Dutch cheese making. They give you a plastic-wrapped piece of rubbery cheese that, when eaten, will make you thankful that the French also make cheese.

That doesn’t prevent the average Dutch person eating 19kg of the stuff each and every year; or the rest of the world buying 650 million kilos of Dutch cheese annually. There’s no accounting for taste!

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Historic cheese market, Alkmaar, Netherlands

Hanseatic glories in ancient Elburg

Medieval Elburg is unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in the Netherlands. Sitting on the shores of the former Zuiderzee, it was a prosperous fishing village when, in 1390, it was redesigned along a grid system and surrounded by defensive walls and moat. The straight cobbled streets and narrow lanes are reminiscent of modern Manhattan*, only in miniature. At first glance, it’s presence in the middle of the Dutch countryside is a bit of a mystery, but this was cutting edge urban design in 14th century Europe and Elburg was major trading town thanks to its role in the Hanseatic League.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Cycling through peaceful Dutch countryside along the shores of the former Zuiderzee, I arrived in Elburg on a sunny Sunday morning. The Netherlands is not the busiest place on Sunday mornings but, even by Dutch standards, Elburg was unnaturally quiet. As I walked the beautiful, deserted streets, I marvelled at the tranquility and did begin to wonder where everyone was – it was a bit too quiet, like a zombie apocalypse may have happened. Then the church doors opened and – excuse the inappropriate pun – all Hell broke loose.

This is traditional Netherlands, a place as far removed from the dubious delights of Amsterdam only an hour away by car. In another nod to the similarities with the United States, this part of the Netherlands is De Bijbelgordel, the Bible Belt, an area populated by a higher than average percentage of conservative Dutch Calvinists. Elburg is right in the middle of De Bijbelgordel and on a Sunday morning it shows.

Hundreds of people flooded onto the streets. Friendly chatter shattered the peace, as whole families in their ‘Sunday Best’ poured into the town centre in a scene that has been played out in this historic town for centuries. Dozens of people cycled past, and small traffic jams formed as cars and bikes crammed into the streets at the same time. As luck would have it, I was standing near the Reformed Dutch Grote Kerk, the largest church in Elburg and epicentre of all this action.

As the crowds dispersed, I wandered into the church and a vicar (if that’s what they’re called in the Netherlands) told me that I had five minutes before they closed. It wasn’t long before one of the congregation had started chatting to me though, and the vicar joined us to discuss the history of the church and town. Outside, the hubbub had died down, the good people of Elburg had vanished again. I set off to explore the once more empty streets and to uncover the town’s interesting history.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Unfortunately, Sunday may not be the best time to visit Elburg. It has a town museum and, intriguingly, a Jewish museum. None were open, because in De Bijbelgordel very little is open on a Sunday – not even the Jewish museum. That was a shame because Elburg once had a small but thriving Jewish community, that traced its origins back to the mid-17th century arrival of Ashkhazian Jews from Eastern Europe. Their story is fascinating.

Different from the earlier migration of Sefardian Jews who came from Portugal and Spain and settled in cities, the Ashkhazian Jews were often poor and settled in rural areas. By the mid-18th century the Jewish community was fully integrated into the life of Elburg. The Second World War saw most of Elburg’s Jewish population rounded up and sent first to Westerbork transit camp and then to Auschwitz. Only one member of the community who was transported to the death camps survived the war.

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

The Hanseatic town of Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Countryside around Elburg, Netherlands

Disappointed that I couldn’t visit the museums, I had a snack in a cafe and walked down to the old harbour passing through the only remaining city gate, the 16th century Vischpoort (Fish Gate). As part of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of towns and guilds trading across Europe, it was from here that Elburg’s boats made the town rich from trade across Europe. This was Elburg’s peak of influence, before it became a sleepy backwater.

The town saw little 19th century industrialisation and the railway, which provided a big boost to neighbouring towns, bypassed Elburg. From its once mighty position in the Hanseatic League, the town came to depend upon fishing for its living. While Elburg has had some rough times, it feels prosperous again today. Seemingly little changed from medieval times, it now attracts increasing numbers of tourists – just don’t visit on a Sunday if you want to visit any museums.

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* The very fact of the existence of a Dutch-inspired grid system, lends extra weight to my theory that the Dutch have left a far greater imprint on the modern United States than anyone might imagine. New York was first New Amsterdam, before the turbulent 17th century wars in Europe saw it ceded to the English. Two centuries of English rule did little to undo early Dutch influence, apparently. While we’re on the subject, if you think apple pie is an All-American treat, think again.

The impossibly fun Voorlinden Museum

I shouldn’t have been surprised, the Voorlinden Museum came highly recommended by several people. Even then, I can’t remember the last time I had even close to this much fun in a museum. It turns out that you can be an adult in a museum and end up feeling like a child in a candy store. The museum is owned by a wealthy Dutch industrialist and many of the works on display are from his private collection. That seemed a bit 19th century, and I was prepared to resent paying the entrance fee.

That's Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

That’s Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Ron Mueck's Couple under an umbrella, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Ron Mueck’s Couple under an umbrella, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Instead, it’s probably the best €15 that I’ll spend all year. The museum is less than a year old and has already established itself in the art world of the Netherlands – not a country lacking in great art collections. There has clearly been a significant investment in the museum. The story goes that owner, Joop Van Caldenborgh, couldn’t find a suitable gallery for his collection in Rotterdam or The Hague so decided to create his own.

In a nod to the size of his bank account, he didn’t just build a gallery, he bought an estate in Wassenaar, a very affluent suburb of The Hague. For your entry fee you can walk through the grounds to nearby dunes on the coast. The building that houses the collection and temporary exhibitions is essentially a large white box, subdivided into smaller white boxes. Constructing it from the ground up has meant some of the art has been built into the fabric of the structure.

Richard Serra’s sculpture Open Ended is the largest piece in the collection. A vast steel maze-like sculpture, like Doctor Who’s Tardis it seems bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. It’s one of many pieces that are both interactive and fun. Leandro Erlich’s Swimming Pool, is another example. From above, shadowy figures move beneath the water. Downstairs, through a bright blue opening, you become the shadowy figure beneath the water. It’s a fully immersive experience, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Ron Mueck’s Couple Under an Umbrella reminded me of his extraordinary sculpture, Ghost, which I saw at the Tate in Liverpool. Both sculptures have the power to unsettle and unnerve the viewer. Ghost is an oversized teenage girl in a swimming costume, she looks self conscious and uncomfortable … and that’s how you feel looking at her. Couple Under an Umbrella is more touching, the two figures clearly loving. Yet it still makes you feel voyeuristic. The massive size and hyperrealism are a powerful combination.

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

That's Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

That’s Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

I’d never seen Rodney Graham’s work before, where the artist adopts various disguises and takes centre stage in giant back-lit photographic installations. In That’s Not Me he takes on various identities: a chef smoking a cigarette, a lighthouse keeper reading a book, or an artist painting. It’s not the scenarios in the photographs that are most interesting though, it’s more the technique he uses to make them. The images almost literally leap off the wall.

Amongst other fun pieces is a table filled with alarm clocks. Their soft ticking turns to a jarring cacophony of noise as alarms go off simultaneously, a reminder that our modern relationship with time is not always healthy. Elsewhere, a Buddhist statue stares at itself in a mirror, a dandelion weed grows in a crack between floor and wall, a full-sized wooden shack has water pouring through its roof. Not to forget Skyspace, a room with a hole in the roof and LED lights that change your perception of the sky outside.

A visit to Voorlinden might cost €15, but I’ll be going back.

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

That's Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

That’s Not Me, Rodney Graham, Voorlinden Museum, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Voorlinden Museum, The Hague, Netherlands

Painting the town red, blue and yellow – 100 years of De Stijl

Something unusual has been happening in The Hague this year. I’m not sure when I first noticed the red, blue and yellow blocks of colour that have appeared around the city, but the whole place is covered in them. It’s a bit like state-sponsored graffiti. They can be found on the side of buildings and on mannequins in shop windows. Even the piano that sits in the middle of Den Haag Centraal train station is decorated in red, yellow and blue. It’s like a secret code written in full public view.

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

This is not the work of a very determined street artist though. Instead, it’s a cunning and eye-catching promotional campaign by the city government of the instantly recognisable work of Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian. His famous straight black lines and red, yellow and blue blocks of colour have been splashed across the city as part of a year-long celebration of De Stijl – The Style – artistic movement, which Mondrian co-founded along with several others in 1917.

The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum is displaying more than 300 artworks in a blockbuster Discovery of Mondrian exhibition; itself part of a nation-wide exploration of the artist and De Stijl, Mondrian to Dutch Design: 100 years of de Stijl. The whole city appears to be participating in the celebration, and trademark Mondrian designs can be spotted on almost every street. The most striking of which can be found on the Stadhuis towering over cyclists and pedestrians below.

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

De Stijl and Mondrian exhibition, The Hague, Netherlands

De Stijl and Mondrian exhibition, The Hague, Netherlands

De Stijl and Mondrian exhibition, The Hague, Netherlands

De Stijl and Mondrian exhibition, The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian is considered to be one of the most important modern artists, his later work capturing the zeitgeist of an era.  In the exhibition though, the most interesting thing was seeing his progression from pretty traditional figurative paintings of farms, boats on canals and Dutch landscapes, to the blinding colours of the fantastically abstract work which now adorns buildings around The Hague.

Mondrian moved to Paris in the early 20th century, where he rubbed shoulders with Picasso and was exposed to Cubism. Paris was clearly influential, but it was being stuck in the Netherlands in 1914 that proved decisive. Unable to return to Paris because of the outbreak of war, he joined other Dutch artists and designers to found one of the most important artistic movements in history, De Stijl. The movement is credited with creating what came to be considered ‘modern’. The Nazis’ considered it ‘degenerate’.

De Stijl was born not of the horror and suffering inflicted on Europe during the First World War, but instead from the peace of the neutral Netherlands. Mondrian and fellow Dutch artist, Theo van Doesburg, were the driving force behind De Stijl, which would become the first step of the abstract art revolution. The two were best friends, then they had an explosive disagreement over Doesburg’s use of diagonal lines in his paintings. Strange but true.

The exhibition (until 14 September, 2017)  shines a fascinating light on the influence of Mondrian and De Stijl, especially the influence they’ve had on architecture, graphic design, interior design and fashion. A hundred years after its founding, De Stijl is still influencing our lives. Thanks to the Mondrianisation of The Hague, reminders of it are dotted all around. It’s not exactly subtle, but it is a lot of fun.

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Mondrian-inspired blocks of colour in The Hague, Netherlands

Here’s a good article on Mondrian and the exhibition from the BBC

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