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

Cutting the mustard in historic Dijon

Dijon, capital of France’s Côte-d’Or region, has an extraordinary history stretching back to before the Roman’s ruled Gaul. Yet it’s probably better known to the world as the epicentre of all things mustard. ‘Dijon’ is almost synonymous with ‘French’ when it comes to mustard and, of all the many brands of Dijon mustard, Maille is probably the most famous. The Maille ’boutique’ in the centre of Dijon has hundreds of different types of mustard, oil and vinegar. You can try them all.

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

L'Ours Blanc, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

L’Ours Blanc, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

The curious thing about the Maille boutique is that the normal yellow mustard that you can buy everywhere, is about four times more expensive than the same thing in … well everywhere. We sampled a few of their more exotic items – hazelnut, black chanterelle mushrooms and white wine mustard anyone? – and then walked up the road to another shop, where the largest jar of mustard I’ve ever owned was purchased for about a third of the price.

If that was disappointing, Dijon wasn’t. We’d arrived at night and were too tired to go out exploring. The next day dawned bright and clear as we set off in search of pain au chocolate and coffee. Dijon looked very inviting in the morning sunshine. It’s a city with a wealth of history, filled with architectural glories and pleasant public spaces. In the tranquil Jardin Darcy, we found an incongruous yet familiar looking polar bear. At least a statue of one.

The bear is L’Ours Blanc, a replica of an exquisite sculpture by François Pompon. A native of Burgundy and Dijon resident, Pompon studied fine art here before becoming a student of Rodin’s in Paris. The last time we’d seen this particular polar bear was in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It’s an imposing sculpture that put a spring in our step as we entered the Place Darcy and walked underneath Porte Guillaume, a mini Arc de Triomphe, into Dijon’s historic heart.

After a breakfast in the shadow of timber-framed buildings in the Place Francois Rude, we set off to explore the town proper. First stop was the beautiful 13th century Notre-Dame de Dijon, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that sits at the heart of Dijon’s old town. The cathedral’s crowning glory is its unusual western facade, which is home to fifty-one gargoyles. Legend has it that a money lender was killed on his wedding day by a falling gargoyle, a gargoyle of a money lender. Spooky!

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

The interior is home to one of France’s oldest statues of a Virgin, the 11th century Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir. She’s credited with saving the city from a siege by the Swiss in 1513 and, more ‘miraculously’, in 1944, as the Allies advanced across France, the Bishop publicly prayed for her to deliver the city from destruction. The next day the German forces retreated, meaning the Allies had no reason to attack. In reality, German forces were too weak to defend Dijon, and the withdrawal was tactical.

The superstition doesn’t end there. On Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street), is a well worn carving of a bird, thought to be an owl. It’s claimed that good things will happen to those who rub it with their left hand and make a wish. The owl has become the symbol of Dijon, but this didn’t stop some idiot from smashing it with a hammer in 2001. Today, it’s under 24 hour video surveillance and is firmly on the town’s La Chouette tourist trail, marked with brass plaques of an owl.

We walked around Dijon’s medieval streets, occasionally  following the owl trail, and unearthing some of its history. Many of the oldest buildings have lovely tiled roofs in green, gold and brown. We found our way to the glass and metal market designed by Gustave Eiffel, which was filled with market stalls selling a variety of local produce. It was tempting to buy a lot of food, but a long lunch in one of the many restaurants surrounding the market was too appealing.

Porte Guillaume, Dijon, France

Porte Guillaume, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Place Francois Rude, Dijon, France

Place Francois Rude, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

A town with a big heart, historic Troyes

Troyes was an absolute revelation. I knew little about it before going, and only when there did I learn of the designation that has been bestowed upon it: Ville d’Art et d’Histoire, City of Art and History. That, at least, gives an indication of the delights that await when you get there. Even then most tourists seem to stay further north in the heartlands of the champagne-making region, near Reims and Épernay. Troyes was completely underwhelmed by tourism.

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Heart-shaped sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Heart-shaped sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

The best way to discover Troyes’ art and history is to walk the compact medieval centre. Diving down narrow alleys between the timber-framed houses that are emblematic of the town. There are small courtyards and squares to discover, and 12th and 13th Century churches hidden amongst the tangle of streets to find. Amongst these pedestrianised streets the past seems to come alive.

Historic Troyes is said to be shaped like a champagne cork. A shape formed originally by defensive walls, and today by elegant boulevards and the River Seine as it twists around the town. The resemblance to a champagne cork can still be seen today despite the town’s expansion. Equally, it could be a mushroom or, if you’re a teenage boy, a more phallic object. I doubt the tourist board will adopt that interpretation any time soon though.

The stem of the cork is where the medieval old town is found. In the bulbous head of the cork can be found the early 13th Century Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, surrounded by a collection of timber-framed medieval houses. Next to the cathedral in former church buildings is the Musée d’Art Moderne with a pretty sculpture garden, and a treasure trove of works by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso.

The walk between the two areas takes you through lovely squares flanked by 17th and 18th Century buildings, and over the Canal des Trevois. The route is dotted with public art, statues and fountains. On a warm sunny day, Troyes is a fantastic place to stroll around. When you’re done strolling, my advice is to head to Le Millésimé on Place Saint-Rémy, near the food market. Relax with a glass of local champagne and watch the world go by.

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Musée d'Art Moderne, Troyes, Champagne, France

Musée d’Art Moderne, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

The historic wealth of art and culture can be traced back well over two thousand years, to when Troyes was founded by Celtic tribes. It became a centre of trade between Northern France and Italy following the Roman conquest of Gaul. Trade links made Troyes wealthy and, in the medieval period, famous for its great trade fairs which established it as an international trading centre.

The decline of Troyes began with the persecution of the many Protestants who had founded industries there, particularly cloth making industries based first on the wool trade and later cotton. A massacre of Calvinist Huguenots in 1572, and a century of occasional persecution, culminated in Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Sculpture, Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Cathedral, Troyes, Champagne, France

Cathedral, Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

Troyes, Champagne, France

By guaranteeing Protestants equal rights the Edit of Nantes brought an end to the French Wars of Religion. The ending of religious, civil and legal protections saw a wave of persecution unleashed on the Huguenots, and a flood of skilled Huguenot workers leave the city. Many of the refugees established themselves in Protestant England and the Netherlands, both of which benefitted economically while the economy of Troyes, and France, was severely damaged.

Troyes went from being a centre of trade to a relative backwater. Something modern visitors should should be grateful for: it’s one of the reasons why its collection of medieval buildings has made it into the 21st Century.

Brexit is just English humour, Troyes, Champagne, France

Brexit is just English humour, Troyes, Champagne, France

The ancient capital of Champagne, Medieval Troyes

Troyes is graced with dozens of beautiful half timbered buildings, narrow medieval lanes, wonderful public spaces filled with statues, and is towered over by its crowning glory, the magnificent Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul. To say it came as a surprise is a gross understatement. It’s not only the fantastic history on display, Troyes is a lively and cultured town with good restaurants and an excellent food market.

There are even champagne vineyards in the surrounding countryside, and tasting opportunities in the town. Despite this, Troyes is pretty much unknown to the world. It seems to be most famous for its singular contribution to France’s culinary reputation: the andouillette sausage, made from the small intestines of pigs. It’s undoubtedly an acquired taste, prompting one BBC food writer to comment that “it absolutely stinks and we’re not talking good stink.”

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, Troyes, France

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, Troyes, France

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, Troyes, France

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, Troyes, France

It’s not exactly a glowing recommendation for visiting the town, but the andouillette is famous across France and on every menu in Troyes. Thankfully, ever since a rather unfortunate incident with an extremely unpleasant pigs’ ear stew in Spain, I’ve learned to be a bit more circumspect about local delicacies when travelling.

Troyes is just about as “off the beaten path” as it gets in the Champagne region. We saw hardly any other foreigners. Given its treasure trove of historical buildings, good museums and easy-going friendliness, it deserves to be more popular. After all, there was a time when Troyes was the capital of Champagne, playing host to royalty and claiming centre stage for the dynastic feud between England and France.

Here, in 1420, during the Hundred Years’ War, King Henry V of England married Catherine of Valois, cementing his claim on the throne of France following the signing of the Treaty of Troyes. The Treaty not only made Henry V King of France upon the death of King Charles VI, but the title was to be passed down to Henry’s heirs to unite the two countries under one crown.

This was a claim that would be quickly and bitterly disputed. Eventually, English claims to France were ended by the intervention of Joan of Arc. Following her dramatic capture of Orléans, French forces took Troyes from English control in 1429 while en route to Reims for the coronation of the French Dauphin.

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

Medieval wood-framed houses, Troyes, France

The town was severely damaged by a fire in 1524, over 1,000 houses burned to the ground, but its medieval centre still evokes those turbulent days. Leaning houses almost touch each other along narrow alleyways, their wooden frames painted jolly colours. The Ruelle des Chats, which is fun to walk down, is named because cats were able to jump from one rooftop to another to cross the street.

Walk the maze of streets and you’ll discover several medieval churches with beautiful stained glass windows, a legacy of a time when some of Europe’s finest master glassmakers worked in Troyes’ once famous glass industry. Many of the streets in the central medieval quarter are pedestrianised, making it the perfect place for outdoor restaurant tables and people watching. Just avoid ordering the andouillette.

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

Saint Madeleine Church, Troyes, France

When we were there over a summer weekend, there were musicians playing live in the square and a busy outdoor market. All of which makes it even more remarkable that one of the main activities recommended for tourists is to visit outlet stores. Quite why anyone would bother with shopping when there’s so much else to enjoy is beyond my comprehension.

Ledbury, Medieval market town with the ‘most photographed alleyway in England’

‘Quaint verging on twee’, instantly springs to mind when wandering around Ledbury. Its probably not fair to pigeon-hole a town of 10,000 people that way, but it seems appropriate. After all, it was here that a man from New York informed me I was standing in the most photographed alleyway in England. What he really meant to say, but was too polite to do so, was that I was standing in the middle of his photo of the most photographed alleyway in England. I removed myself immediately.

The most photographed alleyway in England, Butchers Row, Ledbury, England

The most photographed alleyway in England, Butchers Row, Ledbury, England

Ledbury feels ‘twee’ because it has managed to preserve a magnificent collection of historic buildings – something to be applauded. It feels like you’ve been transported back in time, with lots of other tourists along for the ride. Whether it is the glorious 12th century St. Michael and All Angels Church or the 17th century timber-framed Market House, Ledbury is a town with a rich history writ large. I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger collection of timber-framed houses anywhere in England. Chester, perhaps?

The 17th century Market House, Ledbury, England

The 17th century Market House, Ledbury, England

The 17th century Ledbury Park, Ledbury, England

The 17th century Ledbury Park, Ledbury, England

17th century buildings on Butchers Row, Ledbury, England

17th century buildings on Butchers Row, Ledbury, England

Ledbury’s origins are Saxon – part of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, but ruled as a fiefdom by a Saxon knight, Edwin of Magonsaete. On his deathbed he bequeathed Ledbury to the church. A new convert to Christianity, Edwin left his estate to the church so that they would intercede, through prayer, on his behalf to ensure he reached heaven. Nice work if you can get it.

Although Christianity had come to the British Isles with the Romans, it was never more than a minority cult amongst numerous Pagan beliefs. It truly arrived in England riding on the coat-tails of St. Augustine in the 6th century. This new and fashionable religion, with its emphasis on centralised authority and intolerance for Pagan beliefs, secured the patronage of King Aethelbert. When the Diocese of Hereford was founded in AD 676, Christianity was well on its way to being a ‘national religion’, thanks in large part to the sponsorship of the ruling classes.

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Once under the control of the church, Ledbury developed into a major ecclesiastical centre – its mentioned in the Doomsday Book as a rural manor owned by the Bishop of Hereford. It was the Bishop who established the town of Ledbury, and his layout for the town remained largely unchanged until the Victorian-era, when the arrival of the canal and railway led to significant growth.

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

The outstanding ecclesiastical feature remaining from that time is St. Michael and All Angels Church. Its a massive church for the size of the town, and dates from AD1140, although it has been added to throughout the centuries. The oddity about the church is that the tower, with a spire added in the 18th century, is separate from the church. No one seems to know why.

The interior of St. Michael and All Angels is wonderful. Full of tombs underneath the floor, and ancient memorials on the walls. It also has some beautiful stained glass windows dating from different periods, some Medieval. One lovely memorial is to Captain Samuel Skynner, who, in 1725, bequeathed six pounds (£6) to be divided between the vicar and twenty poor housekeepers who weren’t receiving alms (poor relief).

St. Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

St. Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Tomb, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Tomb, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Memorial to Captain Skynner, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Memorial to Captain Skynner, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Stained glass window, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Stained glass window, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Memorial, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Memorial, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Tomb, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Tomb, St. Michael and All Angels Church, Ledbury, England

Detail from a tomb in St. Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Detail from a tomb in St. Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

After the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries, Ledbury fell under the control of several powerful families. Church buildings were converted to secular use and many have, remarkably, survived into the 21st century. It is a pleasant place to spend a few hours pottering around, occasionally cooling down with a glass of local cider – they love their apple-based beverages in this part of the world.

Cider shop, Ledbury, England

Cider shop, Ledbury, England

Shops, Ledbury, England

Shops, Ledbury, England

Shop, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Shop, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Alleyway, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Alleyway, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England

Sadly, St. Catherine’s Hospital, which dates from 1232 and is one of the few surviving hospitals from this period, wasn’t open when I was there. Its currently being restored and repaired, and will presumably reopen to the world sometime soon. Wish I’d been able to go inside, all the same.

Sign for St. Catherine's Hospital, Ledbury, England

Sign for St. Catherine’s Hospital, Ledbury, England

Pub sign, Ledbury, England

Pub sign, Ledbury, England

For all its history, time has not left Ledbury behind. It is now home to lovebirds Elizabeth Hurley (she of the dress) and Shane Warne (he of the wicked spin and even wickeder text message). Rubbing shoulders with scandalous celebrity probably makes Ledbury less twee, and possibly a little more glamourous.

Sing for train station, Ledbury, England

Sing for train station, Ledbury, England