Rob’s bit –
After Alsace, our next destination was the village of Vincelottes, just south of Auxerre in Burgundy, where one of Lesley’s former colleagues had a house. We crossed the vastness of eastern France in one go, on provincial main roads, and although we got a brief impression of an interesting old town here or short range of hills there, it was mostly quietly, unspectacularly agricultural.
Lesley’s bit –
Before we’d bought the van, before we’d planned this big trip, my May half term week had been set aside for a girls’ week at Jill’s house in Burgundy. We’d all been looking forward to it greatly – pastime with good company, to quote Bluff King Hal from the Tudor topic all four of us have taught for many years. As it turned out it was a girls’ week plus a dog – oh, and a husband for a bit, but he didn’t cramp our style!
Vincelottes is on the River Yonne and was once a collection point for logs which were then sent in massive flotillas on to Paris. The house faces the river frontage, though no boats traverse this stretch, instead by-passing the weir and the still working flour mill and going on the canal just 100m over the bridge. It’s a lovely setting though and typically French with very private gates at the front and an inner courtyard. There is not much to the village, but it does boast a Michelin star restaurant, a French take on an “English” bar, where you apparently invited to play either darts or dominos, and some lovely walks and views. Across the river and the canal is the larger village of Vincelles where there is a boat stop-off point, a couple of boulangeries, a supermarket, a tiny weekly market (Wednesday), a campsite and the usual well equipped sporting facilities which seem to be enjoyed by many small French towns and larger villages (in this case there’s even a crazy golf).
The landscape in this area is very much shaped to the needs of the largely Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes which seem to like the stoniest, sunniest slopes. Villages nestle in valleys, while the hillsides are left uninhabited to be dotted with vines on small parcels of land in just the right places. There’s a great deal of science in where those places are, and where they are not seems to be planted with rows of cherry trees. The next village along the Yonne to Vincellottes, Bailly, is home to the production of the local Crémant de Bourgogne, a tasty sparkling wine, in the extensive cave system of what was once an underground quarry. Pontigny Abbey acquired the quarry in the 12th century and its limestone supplied some of France’s greatest works of architechture – Chartres Cathedral, and the Panthéon and Notre-Dame in Paris. In the first half of the 20th century the caves became a mushroom farm and since 1972 it has been used for wine, with accompanying tastings and tours, which take in the many works of art sculpted into the limestone walls as part of annual competitions held from 1993 to 2002.
The Chablis Landscape
A foray into the village of Bailly provided us with the opportunity to visit the gallery of local artist Georges Hosotte in a converted chapel. His watercolours and oils of local villages and landscapes really captured the colours of this area, with soft creamy yellow stone and a hundred different greens among the hillsides. A print would set you back between €150 to €300, with an original going up to the sort of prices you might pay for a new car.
On Sunday we all went to nearby Chablis where there was a substantial market. Lots of charcuterie, with local speciality andouillette – a tripe sausage delicacy for those who have a liking for a wider range of meaty products. Another regional speciality which could be seen on the bread stalls and in all the local bakers is gougère, a kind choux pastry bun which is flavoured with cheese, ham or even andouillette. Then, of course, there’s the Chablis, which you can pick up for close to €9 a bottle at the cheapest end, though you might want to try other whites, such as nearby Chitry, which (unless you have a spectacularly fine palate) you will think very similar for only half the price. Chablis also has some very interesting buildings, including a mediaeval synagogue in Jew’s Street and a fine stone washing building which is typically Bergundian.
On Monday we visited Auxerre. We had a quick tour of Jill’s barge and then had a very leisurely breakfast catching up on all the gossip from school. The centre of Auxerre looked impressive from the marina on the Yonne, with its cathedral and two large churches dominating the hill above the river, and we eventually tore ourselves away from the cafe and made our way up the narrow streets lined with mediaeval buildings, passing under the old city gate, the Tour de l’Horloge, with its restored painted clock face, to reach the newer commercial centre.
Tuesday was castle day, of one kind or another, the first being Guédelon, the pet project of a chap called Michel Guyot, who, in 1998, decided that he wanted to build a mediaeval castle from scratch using the same techniques and materials that would have been available in the Middle Ages. The project is based on archaeological studies of the castle at St Fargeau and draws on illuminated manuscripts for much of the knowledge about past artisan skills. As a piece of historical research it has shed light on the work of mediaeval stonemasons, carpenters, tilers, blacksmiths, dyers and ropemakers, to name but a very few of the crafts going on there. The stone to build the castle, the wood for scaffolding and even the clay for the tiles is all found in situ, and although they have to make some concessions to modern health and safety laws, the techniques by and large replicate those used in the 13th century. As a business enterprise it must have gone beyond what was originally intended as it was obviously thriving, with about twenty coaches from visiting school parties plus many cars, so I guess that once completion is reached in about 2023, it will continue to develop.
Stepping back in time at Guédelon
We had lunch in a fabulous village restaurant in St Armand en Puissaye, which is to pottery what Hay on Wye is to books, although the claims to pottery fame can be traced back to the 14th century. The village also has a Renaissance chateaux which houses a museum of pottery and a tourist office which has been converted from the village wash stand. In the afternoon we visited our final castle of the day, the 13th century chateaux at Ratilly, which was like stumbling across something out of a fairy-tale, hidden, as it was, along narrow country lanes and behind high, ivy covered walls. It was delightful, with a country garden in its moat and a thriving pottery along one side of its inner courtyard, complete with house martins flitting in and out of the building. One interesting feature was the pigeon house, a circular building some twenty foot high with hundreds of holes in the walls for roosting birds. In order to collect the eggs, or the odd bird for pigeon pie, a flimsy ladder stretched up into the gaping space, which was attached to a central axis and could be pushed round the walls to help speed up the whole process.
You first – Ratilly’s would be egg collectors
Wednesday evening saw us in the next village along the Yonne, Cravant, passing by more caves beside the road which were used during the war for building aircraft. The village was the scene of an important battle in the Hundred Years War where the Scots, fighting on the French side, made a stand against the English and suffered massive losses. The village’s defences are evident in walls, gate towers and a large stone fortified tower. You can visit the latter for €5, which is worth it to glimpse the life of the 75 year old woman who lives there. She will explain its history as a prison, show you the oubliette, the carvings made by prisoners and take you into the roof space, and you will wonder how she manages on her own amongst the artefacts collected during a lifetime of fashion design with the lack of central heating, no obvious bathroom or kitchen facilities and a building in constant need of restoration funds. If you plan to visit in a motorhome there is parking for a night’s stop-over beside the tower and the wonderful stone washing building, but if you pop over the bridge you’ll find a much pleasanter place to spend the night in the car-park by the canal.
Cravant – Fortified Tower and Canal
Rob’s bike ride -
We’d always planned that, while Lesley caught up with her friends, I would take my bike and go off exploring for a few days, and this I eventually did on Tuesday 1st June. I headed first south to the Morvan natural park, which is an area of thickly wooded hills standing above the surrounding Burgundy countryside. No vineyards up here, but endless forest, both natural deciduous woodland and pine plantations, and isolated grey-stone villages that live off a mixture of logging and tourism. The landscape reminded me at many points of the English-Welsh borderlands in the UK, around say Clun or Welshpool.
The rain arrived on Tuesday evening, and I put up my new one-man tent for the first time in a pine wood near the village of St Agnan. Despite constant drizzle I had a comfortable and dry night, although the tree cover and dull sky combined to make for a very dark morning.
Rob’s new sleeping arrangements
On Wednesday I zigzagged south through the Morvan, under gradually brightening skies. It was in fact a fine day for cycling, until late in the day when I descended to the lower, more open country near Autun and suddenly rode into a north-easterly wind impeding my progress. My one other bugbear was my new saddle, which is clearly not adapting to me after several days of riding, nor I to it, and by late afternoon I was having to make regular pauses just to relieve the pressure. Something must be done!
I camped that night by a wood east of Autun, in an idyllic spot from where I could see the setting sun. I watched huge mayflies drifting in the mild twilight breeze, and learnt that deer can make a sort of muffled barking sound as they dart for the shelter of the trees in the evening gloom.
On my last day, Thursday 3rd June, I turned northwards to the Côte d’Or and finally Dijon. The Côte is a ridge of high ground, its western side covered in dense woodland and cut by steep-sided and cliff-topped valleys, but which hosts the most exclusive vineyards in Burgundy on its gentler eastern slopes. I saw both – the west made for more inspiring cycling but the east was a fine end to the trip, as I approached Dijon through the pristine fields of vines and well-maintained villages such as Gevrey-Chambertin and Couchey. I had only time for a lightning scoot round old Dijon, but it looked like a very attractive city and one to return to. My trip finished with a two-hour train ride back to Auxerre.
And the van -
Our week in Burgundy was more or less opened and closed by repairs to the van; on the Monday I (Rob) took it in to a Renault dealer in Auxerre to assess the damage to the wing mirror, after our scrape with the Dutch bus, and on the Friday I took it in again for the work to be carried out. We also needed a replacement motor for the window-raising mechanism in the passenger door, and the bill for both set us back by €570. There was not much alternative, as both repairs needed to be done.
The Burgundian countryside – up close and personal