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.

Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy

Dijon may be the sumptuous former capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, but tiny Beaune can lay claim to being the region’s wine capital. This is one of the best places in France to taste wine – and that’s saying something. Famed for the Les Trois Glorieuses, or the three glorious days, Beaune has hosted the most celebrated wine auction in the world since 1859. Every November, wine is sold to raise money for the Hospices de Beaune, a charitable hospital founded in 1443 as a home for poor invalids.

The wine sold at auction comes from the Hospices’ own vineyards, which are scattered around the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, an area that is home to some of the most prestigious vines in the world. The majority of the wine sold is classified as Grand Cru and Premier Cru, not for nothing does the auction raises sums of €7 – 8 million every year. The money supports charitable causes and the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, as the Hospices are also known.

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Today, the Hôtel-Dieu is a museum and the second most important attraction in town, wine being top of the list. It was founded by Nicolas Rolin, last Chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, a few years after the end of the Hundred Years’ War. The decades of war had left many of Burgundy’s inhabitants in a desperate state. Famine and malnutrition were common, as were injuries from combat. The hospice was opened in response. It’s the ‘must see’ thing in Beaune, unfortunately we didn’t get to see it.

We arrived in Beaune hungry after a morning of village-hopping and wine tasting in the Cote de Nuits. Not trusting any restaurants to be open after 2pm (this is France after all), we prioritised lunch over sightseeing. Finding a table proved to be a challenge, and it quickly became clear that there was something happening in Beaune. France was having a holiday weekend, and it seemed like most of the population of the country had descended on this small town.

We found a tiny bar in an ancient building and had an aperitif of cremant de bourgogne, the local fizz, and a snack while we weighed up our options. The jolly owner gave us some top tips and we eventually found somewhere to eat. The day was hot and walking the glorious ancient streets of Beaune was hard work after lunch. Dutifully, we headed to the Hôtel-Dieu only to discover a long queue of people running down the side of the building.

Deciding against an hour queuing in full sun, we wandered around the narrow streets of Beaune’s historic town centre instead. It’s a beautiful place, one that would make a great base for exploring the region, and away from the main streets it’s very peaceful. Through a warren of small alleyways, we found ourselves in the courtyard of the Hôtel des Ducs, the medieval residence of the Dukes of Burgundy. Now a wine museum, it has some enormous wine presses in one of the buildings.

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

Beaune, Burgundy, France

On the other side of the Hôtel des Ducs is the Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame, a 12th century church that sits on a lovely small square. The old town of Beaune is very compact and almost circular in shape. It’s ideal for walking, and as we meandered we came across remnants of the city’s medieval walls. Sadly, we didn’t have much time in Beaune, and soon we were heading to our final destination, two of the world’s most famous wine villages: Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.

The names of these tiny villages reverberate around the world, for here are to be found the finest chardonnay grapes known to humanity …

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

Hôtel des Ducs, Beaune, Burgundy, France

The Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits

Burgundy is world famous for the quality of both its red and white wine, and the names of its wine producing villages are renowned across the globe. The official, and well signposted, Route des Grand Crus runs on minor roads south of Dijon passing through one of the most prestigious areas of vineyards anywhere on earth. It takes in charming stone-built villages with steepled churches, and truly gorgeous landscapes dotted with magnificent chateau. It really has to be seen to be believed.

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

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

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

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

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

Marsannay la Cote, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Marsannay la Cote, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

There are plenty of opportunities to break the journey and to sample wines from the many small producers based in picturesque villages. We were on our way to the small historic town of Beaune and first passed through the northern part of the Route des Grand Crus, the Cote de Nuits. The remarkable thing about this region is how compact it is; vineyards cling to a narrow strip of limestone hills, the rows of vines tightly packed between villages only a kilometre or two apart.

It’s hard to square the region’s enormous reputation with its physical size. The two most important grape varieties in Burgundy are pinot noir and chardonnay, and most of the winegrowers have plots of ten hectares or less, from which they produce small quantities of high quality wine that commands a global audience. Amidst such beautiful surroundings, it’s easy to get carried away in the whole experience. We decided a walk around the village of Vougeot and a wine tasting would bring us down to earth.

The first thing you learn in a Burgundy winery is that some bottles are more affordable than others. A good bottle from a village can be as little as €10, a decent premiere cru can cost €40 or €50. When you reach the grand cru category the sky is literally the limit. It’s not easy to decide which wine to taste or buy, but for €30 our wine tasting allowed us to taste several, including premiere and grand crus. We left happy and, not coincidentally, with a case of something delicious.

We headed further south towards Nuits-St-Georges. With a population of over 5,000 people, Nuits-St-Georges is a metropolis compared to most of the villages in this region, it’s also a name that resonates around the world as the epicentre of some of the finest pinot noir wines known to humanity. It’s not difficult to find bottles that cost €1000 or more from this most famous wine village. As a precaution, we didn’t stop here for long.

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

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

Château du Clos de Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Burgundy, France

Château du Clos de Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Leaving the temptations of Nuits-St-Georges behind, we drove on narrow roads empty of traffic through more picturesque villages. From the road we spotted the tiled roof of Château de Corton André and decided to investigate. Situated on a small hill in the grand cru village of Aloxe-Corton, the château is something of a landmark in the area. Yet more wine tasting was on offer, but by now we were getting hungry and decided to head the last few kilometres to the unofficial capital of the Côte d’Or, Beaune.

Château de Corton André, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Château de Corton André, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Marsannay la Cote, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Marsannay la Cote, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Château de Corton André, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Château de Corton André, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Aloxe-Corton, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Aloxe-Corton, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Vougeot, Route des Grand Crus, Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France

Dijon, home of the Dukes of Burgundy

Dijon may be famous for its mustard, and it may sit at the heart of one of the most prestigious wine growing regions anywhere in the world, but this glorious medieval city still feels like one of France’s most underrated cities. Even on a holiday weekend, when half of France seemed to be on the move, and almost everywhere we visited was packed with tourists, Dijon remained calm and peaceful. That’s all the more surprising because it has an incredible history, ancient buildings, great food and world-beating wines.

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Over a thousand years ago, Dijon became the capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, and for 500 years it flourished. The Burgundian Dukes were some of the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe. By the 15th century they owned vast tracts of France, much of Belgium, and most of the Netherlands, and rivalled the French Kings of the House of Valois for power. So much so, that they allied themselves with England against the French monarchy during the Hundred Years War.

Fluctuations in fortunes over the centuries did not prevent Dijon becoming fabulously wealthy under the patronage of the Dukes of Burgundy. It became a centre of learning and high art, and the city’s architecture reflected the preeminent position of its rulers. Even after the Dukedom was annexed by the King of France, Louis XI, it retained its importance. Spared the worst ravages of both World Wars, it has remained a treasure trove of history from the medieval to the modern day.

The town’s showstopper is the Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, which sits on the half moon shaped Place de la Libération. The former Ducal Palace is now a museum and home to the Musée des Beaux Arts, as well as the less glamorous Tourist Office. Parts of the museum were still closed due to extensive restoration, but the Salles des Gardes, where the magnificent tombs of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless can be found, was open.

The tombs tell you all you need to know about the power and wealth of Burgundy’s Dukes. Decorated with sculptures by Flemish masters and painted in gold leaf, the marble tombs have dozens of alabaster mourners carved into their sides and are topped by lions. These are tombs intended to make a statement, that even in death the glory of the Dukes of Burgundy was undimmed. This was just a taster of what the museum has to offer, and it’s a shame that parts of it weren’t open.

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Shadows, Dijon, France

Shadows, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Place de la Libération, Dijon, France

Place de la Libération, Dijon, France

We left the palace and walked into the truly splendid Place de la Libération where, on a hot day, small children played in the fountains and adults filled the surrounding cafes and restaurants. In the warren of nearby streets we found a shady restaurant for a long lunch, washed down with an excellent bottle of a local chardonnay. Afterwards we strolled through the sleepy streets, past historic buildings, imposing churches, little squares and picturesque gardens. It’s a stylish place.

At night the streets of Burgundy’s capital were calm and evocative of a different time in history. As we walked through the cobbled lanes, the ghosts of Burgundy’s medieval past seemed to echo around the historic buildings. We sat outside a cafe and sampled another glass of delicious Burgundian wine in the warm summer evening. In the morning we were heading south through the Côte de Nuits, where our wine had begun its short journey to our glasses. We couldn’t wait.

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France