Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Burgundy France: My Must Visit Favorite Towns and Attractions



Now I will admit, I haven't seen all of Burgundy yet, and I have been twice already (once for over 3 weeks!). I have never visited Dijon, but I'm sure I will make it there someday. Since my family are so fortunate to have wonderful friends living in Moneteau, a smaller town just outside of Auxerre, most of my Burgundy travels have been in the surrounding area. There is much to see even in just this section of the Burgundy (or Bourgogne in French) region, and I thought today I would highlight some of my favorite towns and sights to visit in case any of you need to plan a lovely escape to the French countryside.

Perhaps a map, just a snap from Google maps... The red flag on the left shows where Auxerre is in relation to Paris, and on the right we can see the general area where I have traveled and will be talking about today.



So first, some general information and tips about traveling in Burgundy:


While you can catch a train down to the area from Paris of course, I would recommend just renting a car because you are going to want one! I'm not sure if there are bus routes from town to town and village to castle, but driving to me seems the best way to appreciate the gorgeous countryside anyway. We are lucky in that since we have friends in Moneteau they drive us around to all of the best places, but without such amazing hosts, a car of your own is the way to go.

As for communicating, most people do speak a small amount of English, but this isn't touristy Paris and French is of course the language of the land. Have your French to English phrase book handy, and perhaps try and learn some useful words before your visit. I know I have several French food terms memorized so that reading menus is at least half way possible.

Speaking of menus, while again we were lucky to have wonderful friends delighting us with excellent home cooked meals, I find eating out in the restaurants of Burgundy to often be even better than in Paris! In Paris it is so easy to fall into a place much too touristy with their menus already in English and hamburgers at the top of the list, but in Burgundy most everything is authentic, fresh, and delicious. Plus the local wines are of course some of the very best in the whole world, so you really can't go wrong there!

Now lets plan your trip by looking into some of the best cities, towns, and destinations of the area!





Auxerre


Even if you only can escape to Burgundy for two days, I recommend you stay in Auxerre. With three gorgeous gothic churches visible in the "skyline" (technically one is a cathedral and another an abbey), there is enough history in this one city to keep you busy for days. Along the Yonne river, Auxerre is between Paris and the another major city of Burgundy, Dijon. The clock tower as seen above is gorgeous, and the entire old part of town seems like the perfect setting for a Disney princess film. Plenty of interesting shops to pop into for a look around, and one could wander the streets for hours just admiring the half timbered buildings from centuries ago. This was my second visit to the area, and Auxerre was just and beautiful and mesmerizing as it was the first time I visited! Make sure to visit the crypt of the Abbey Saint-Germain d'Auxerre, some of the Abby still dates back to the 9th century! The stained glass windows of the nearby cathedral Saint-Étienne d'Auxerre are regarded to be some of the best in all of France. Try and sample some of the gougère from a boulangerie too, it's a local bread made with cheese and is super tasty!




Vézelay


Vézelay and it's famous abbey are must see stops for any art history lover on a tour of Burgundy. A UNESCO world heritage site, Vézelay Abbey is considered one of the masterpieces of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture despite hard years of neglect in the 17th and 18th centuries. While the beauty of the building is unquestionable, it is the absurd age and history of the place I find even more staggering. Just a taste of the history of the place from Wikipedia for example: "Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preached there in favor of a second crusade at Easter 1146, in front of King Louis VII. Richard I of England and Philip II of France met there and spent three months at the Abbey in 1190 before leaving for the Third Crusade. Thomas Becket in exile, chose Vézelay for his Whitsunday sermon in 1166, announcing the excommunication of the main supporters of his English King, Henry II, and threatening the King with excommunication too. The nave, which had burnt once, with great loss of life, burned again in 1165, after which it was rebuilt in its present form." There is nothing quite like standing in a building of such age! The hilltop town of Vézelay itself is also exceedingly charming, and provides excellent views over the surrounding green countryside.






Caves of Arcy-sur-Cure


Do forgive my sad attempt at photography inside the caves seen above, but do make sure to visit the caves of Arcy-sur-Cure! Now why am I telling you to visit a cave when there are so many beautiful towns and chateaus to visit above ground? Well because where else can you see neolithic cave paintings, that's why. " the paintings are 28,000 years old for the oldest, according to radiocarbon dating measures on charcoal remains discovered in these cave rooms in the corresponding strata. Thus they are the second oldest after the Chauvet Cave (31,000 years old), well before those of Lascaux (15,000 to 18,000 years old);...The paintings were executed with ochre and charcoal. One finds there at the same time some hands of men, women and children, and some representations of animals.The hands are 'negative hands': they are represented by outlines and not by their surface" (Wikipedia). And I thought standing in Vézelay felt like stepping back in time, but 28,000 years old its pretty hard to beat.



Château de Saint-Fargeau


Saint-Fargeau castle does indeed look like it's come straight out of a fairy tale. Perhaps it is the pink-ish hue of the brick, the many towers, or the gorgeous parkland beyond the windows, but once again I found myself feeling I had landed in a Disney film. When we arrived the town outside the castle gates was having a morning market, and what could possibly seem more Beauty and the Beast than an adorable morning market with a big castle just beyond? Saint-Fargeau castle was originally built in 980 as a fortified hunting residence by Héribert, bishop of  nearby and aforementioned Auxerre. Renovated several times throughout the centuries, a large fire in 1752 destroyed nearly everything. The family who owned Saint-Fargeau at the time restored the castle rather than abandoning it, though most of the castle's original interiors were lost. Saint-Fargeau was bought by enterprising brothers Michel and Jacques Guyot in 1979 who made it their goal to restore the castle! First the roof had to be replaced, then, most of the rooms being bare brick, each had to be completely restored. Room by room the project is still on going and we found a freshly plastered white hallway with work tables still set up as if the volunteer restoration team had only just stepped out. Your (totally reasonable, comparable to a movie ticket price) entry fee goes directly to restoring the castle. The beautiful parkland behind the chateau is worthy of a long rambling as well. Also the crepes restaurant in town is great, my potato and ham savory crepe was divine!





Avallon


The town of Avallon is completely charming, the italian resturant we had lunch at was wonderful, and the old 12th century church is empty of tourists and features lovely if time worn paintings on the walls, but none of these qualities are why Avallon truly is one of my favorite places, umm, well ever. In Avallon, there is an amazing, transporting, and wickedly wondrous musee du costume. Run by adorable women who will give you a tour and turn the lights on in each jam packed room as you go, wandering through the small labyrinth mansion that is the museum is a unique delight. Each room of this inexplicably old but surprisingly luxurious French mansion is positively oozing with antiques, paintings, etchings, porcelain, lace, furniture, you name it! There is simply a mind-boggling amount of stuff in each room, and the rooms are just the setting for an amazing collection of historic dress. Populated with antique mannequins, from the 1950's and 60's mostly, all clad in the most beautiful historic garments, each room covers part of the theme for that years exhibition. The exhibit is changed over every year by the women who run the museum, and it is just crazy to think they have even more amazing costumes in storage. Now museum studies minded visitors beware, other than keeping everything in the dark, it does seem like little is done by way of conservation at least in the museum itself. I'm not sure what their storage facility is like, but let us all hope that it is full of climate controlled acid free everything. If and when I ever become a millionaire out of nowhere, I want to build these ladies a state of the art facility and photograph and catalog every one of their amazing pieces. Lots of French couture, and even more historic gems. An absolutely must see museum!





Joigny


Another delightful town just north of Auxerre is Joigny. Visit on a market day, either Wednesday or Saturday, to peruse the indoor market building full of local produce, honey, wine, cheese, meats, and fish. Grab the supplies for a picnic or visit the restaurant La Fontaine de la Rive Droite along the river for a most excellent lunch. I had stuffed potatoes with cheese and a side salad, and then a delicious lemon tart! You can see my friend (and our wonderful Burgundy tour guide and host) Martine's desert of red fruits and sorbet above. After the market, wander up the hill from the river to visit Joiny's deserted old churches and enjoy the atmosphere, nothing like truly being able to admire history without hundreds of other tourists blocking your view. Look out for the beautifully carved timber framed buildings, and note like most towns in Burgundy there is a small tourist office where maps and more information are available.





Other Highlights...


The wine of course (spot some vines above). Visit Chablis, home of some of the worlds best white wine. In the US, I never drink white wine, but in France, oh goodness, in France it is so heavenly good! Chablis are made from Chardonnay gapes, and while we were there the threat of frost was threatening this year's grapes already. Sometimes they light special torches in between the vines at light to try and save them from frosts, such care for these famous grapes! The reds of Burgundy are just as delicious, and the region is essentially candyland for wine lovers.

Besides the grapes, other crops seem to exist in dual function to beautify the landscape. Huge fields of bright yellow colza (rapeseed oil plants) pattern the vistas interspersed with wheat and of course vineyards. The green countryside is gorgeous and serene, but it was the forests that I found even more beautiful. Pull off the road (or explore behind Saint-Fargeau) and admire moss covered everything (bit humid I guess) and glowing green canopies. Look out for huge Chestnut trees too, I hadn't noticed them last time somehow, and while we were visiting the trees were flowering!

Other historic villages and medieval towns to stop in dot the area seemingly without end. We stopped to admire and walk around both Toucy and the picturesque Noyers-sur-Serein. The later being the more fairy tale of the two, the architecture and rampart towers along the water were lovely even if the towns castle has completely disappeared somewhere lost to time. It's strange that something as large and important as the castle of a town could be the one thing lost to time while other old houses and guard towers remain, but I suppose nobles, governors, and rulers come and go, always in and out of favor, whereas townsfolk are constant in comparison!


Well I hope I have inspired some of you to include Burgundy on your bucket list, as the region is ever so charming and beautiful, and so full of wonderful history and kind people! This isn't a very specific or trendy travel guide I suppose, but nonetheless I wanted to pass on my recommendations for the Yonne region. I must say I can't wait to visit again someday, and I could really go for another one of those savory crepes aright about now...


2 comments:

  1. It wasn't on my list before, but it sure is now!!! Thank you for this helpful overview of Burgundy's highlights. France isn't so far from us, a trip is very possible. X

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    Replies
    1. Hooray! It is a wonderful place to visit :)

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