Snail's Pace

22nd January 2010

Most people power through Burgundy on their way to the perennially popular south of France. Those who stop, though, find an enchanting region, where pretty villages and medieval towns nestle in the shelter of rolling hills, and vineyards dominate the horizon in all directions.

Jill Glenn discovers a slow, meditative way of life.

Semur-en-Auxois

I came to Burgundy by accident, wanting somewhere half-way from the coast to the Dordogne…

A random pin in the map offered the little medieval town of Semur-en-Auxois, about an hour west of Dijon; the website www.holiday-rentals.co.uk offered a three bedroom gite at the ridiculously cheap price of £350 a week – in August! – and even the Channel Tunnel could fit us in. (Actually that proved untrue, but that’s another story; this may turn into ‘what I did on my holiday', but we don’t need to begin with the overbooked train, the overburdened staff and three hours in an overheated queue…).

Burgundy is well-known, in an academic sort of way, for its wines, its fabulous gastronomic delights, and its medieval and Roman architecture – and yet surprisingly few British holidaymakers seem to have it on their radar. Arriving on a Saturday evening, it was half-way through Monday before we saw a British numberplate, and well into Wednesday before we overheard English being spoken in the street. That’s just how I like a French holiday. (The Dordogne, a week later, was absolutely beautiful, but there were just too many English people to make it feel like a real escape; we could have been in Islington instead of in Issigeac.).

The beauty of Burgundy lies both in its vastness – the rolling hills, where a tiny red dot on the horizon proves eventually to be a solo harvester, taller than a house, bringing home the wheat or the barley – and its intimacy – the tiny villages with one shop, a dusty church and a dog asleep in the shade. And yes, that’s a cliché, and yes, it’s also true.

In a surprisingly small corner of the region we found plenty to do. At a snail’s pace, of course. We punctuated our days with food and drink in that desultory sort of way that only France seems to permit… a coffee, a croissant, another coffee, wonderful pâté from a side street boucherie, warm bread from an artisan bakers; God, the French know how to get these things right.

Semur-en-Auxois has a delightful vibe. Built on a pink granite spur, it has a pedestrianised centre and pleasant, albeit rather hilly, rampart walk; if you manage the timing properly you can pause for lunch, by the river, at Les Minimes, a bistro situated in an original medieval Maison Dieu: simple rustic food, great wine and a low-key, let’s-not-try-too-hard atmosphere. The alarmingly cracked tower that dominates the skyline is also open for the occasional visitor; we had what amounted to a private tour from a student keen to practice his English, and not above resorting to a pocket dictionary to check his terminology.

Abbaye de Fontenay

A few miles away is the awe-inspiring Abbaye de Fontenay, a ‘Benedictine treasure’ as the guidebooks like to call it. Simple, beautiful, it offers a window into Cistercian life, and cannot fail to impress with its fundamental holiness; whatever your beliefs, this feels like a sacred space. Even passing children fell quiet.

Dijon, too, is worth a visit; we caught a train from Montbard, and treated ourselves to a whirlwind tour of the Cathedral, the old town and the Musée des Beaux Arts, plus lunch in the street at a delightful restaurant called Le Petit Roi de la Lune (‘the little king of the moon’); the food was as irresistible as the name. And it would have been simply rude not to purchase some of the local mustard for which the city is famous.

You could, of course, spend the entire week – an entire month, even – chasing the grape. Burgundy is home to the Côte d'Or and the Côte de Nuits, and the locals are fiercely proud and protective of the terroir and the product. There are vineyards and side street wineries everywhere, and tastings easily available. We opted for a trip to the little town of Chablis, an hour or so north of Semur, where on a ridiculously hot afternoon we shared a fascinating tour of the Laroche winery – some of the oldest cellars in the town (based in the blissfully cool sixteenth century monastery of l'Obédiencerie) – with a pair of Russian oligarchs and their young wives; actually, I don’t know that they were oligarchs, but as their wine purchasing criteria revolved around establishing the most expensive vintages and buying two of each, it seemed a fair assumption. “I don’t like to drink it,” said one. “I buy for my wife.” Lucky wife.

Prettier than Chablis (and knowing it) is Nevers, a tiny but atmospheric town, tucked into a bend of the Serein river. Cobbled streets, medieval gateways, riverside houses with half-open doors. Nevers knows its pretty, but tourism still seems modest. And idle. Just as it should be.

Beyond that there’s little more to say. If you like the sort of slow, meditative holiday that ripples from day to day, where the greatest excitement is the arrival of the morning bread van, then Burgundy – a duchy that dominated French affairs in the middle of the fifteenth century – has your name on it. It won’t give you much material for an essay on What I Did On Holiday, though.

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