The Burgundy region, with gentle rolling hills, boasts fine cuisine and even better wine.
Burgundy, in southeast France, had its last hurrah in the 15th century, when powerful Burgundian dukes controlled an immense area stretching north to Holland. Today, bucolic Burgundy is crisscrossed with canals and dotted with quiet farming villages, vineyards, and medieval abbeys. Visiting here is taking a trip to France’s fascinating past.
While only a small part of Burgundy is covered by vineyards, grapes are what they do best. From Chablis to Beaujolais, you’ll find great fruity reds, dry whites, and crisp roses. Every village produces its own distinctive wine, and local road maps read like fine-wine lists. Wineries with Degustation gratuite signs welcome you in for a free tasting.
Arrive in Burgundy hungry. Burgundian cuisine, considered by locals to be France’s best, is peasant cooking elevated to an art. France’s finest beef ends up in the namesake buf bourguignon.
Beaune is Burgundy’s prosperous, popular little wine capital. At the Marche aux Vins (wine market), you can sample regional wine as if you’re at a superior smorgasbord. You pay 9 euros (about $11) for a wine-tasting cup (yours to keep) and a scorecard. You then plunge into the labyrinth of candlelit caves dotted with 18 barrels, each offering a new tasting experience. Tips: The best reds are at the end. Smuggle in crackers to cleanse your palate. And carrying one of their little shopping baskets improves your image.
Beaune’s main sight is Hotel Dieu, a medieval charity hospital now made into a museum. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Black Death and Hundred Years’ War devastated Beaune, leaving three-quarters of its population destitute. A rich local chancellor built this hospital to care for the sick. The building, with its distinctively Flemish, colorfully patterned roof, is the city’s landmark.
Inside Hotel Dieu is the huge pauper’s ward, constructed like the upside-down hull of a ship. Delightfully carved monsters with stretched and individualized faces hold crossbeams in their mouths. The various medical instruments (amputation saws and pans for blood-letting) on display look scary and primitive, but the medical treatment was the best available at the time.
The highlight of Hotel Dieu is Roger van der Weyden’s intricate “Last Judgment,” with a dispassionate Jesus presiding over a cast of naughty and nice characters. In front of this large wall-sized painting is a mechanical, moveable magnifying glass, which focuses on various sections to show the Flemish artist’s astonishing detail.
To see more of medieval Burgundy, head to the Abbey of Fontenay, located just outside of Beaune. An ensemble of buildings, once an isolated abbey, survives here. Coming to Fontenay gives you perhaps the best picture of life in France during the Middle Ages. After the fall of Rome (A.D. 476), monasteries rose as refuges of peace and order. Industrious monks transformed this region by clearing forests and planting crops, including grapes. Their labor is reflected in the landscape and products that Burgundy is known for today.
The Abbey of Fontenay, one of the oldest Cistercian abbeys in France, was founded in 1118 by St. Bernard to exemplify his back-to-basics ideology. With its abbey church of pure Romanesque design – no fancy stained glass, decorated columns, or anything to distract from prayer – you’ll feel like you stepped into the 13th century. The light is ethereal. You can almost hear the brothers chanting. The abbey’s cloister is equally beautiful in its starkness. Monastic life was austere, but with a Burgundian twist: along with a loaf of bread, daily rations included a small allotment of wine.
Whether you’re enjoying the peaceful solitude of the Abbey of Fontenay, meditating on medieval medicine at Hotel Dieu, or savoring buf bourguignon with wine, you’ll find many simple pleasures in profoundly French Burgundy.
Rick Steves of Edmonds (425-771-8303, www.ricksteves.com) is the author of 30 European travel guidebooks including “Europe Through the Back Door” (published by Avalon), and is the host of the public television series “Rick Steves’ Europe,” airing weeknights at 7 p.m. on KCTS-TV. This week’s schedule:
Wednesday: The Italian Riviera
Thursday: Switzerland’s Berner Alps