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Burgundy uncorked

PUBLISHED: 09:06 22 March 2013 | UPDATED: 09:06 22 March 2013

Market day in Louhans

Market day in Louhans

Archant

With its glorious scenery, fine wines and rich gastronomic tradition, it is easy to understand the allure of this affluent region, as Jill Shearer discovers

There is something extremely seductive about the Burgundian landscape, with its softly sloping vineyards, gentle rolling pastures, picture-postcard hamlets built in the distinctive pale honey-coloured stone of the Yonne valley, and lush rolling pastures dotted with contented plump, stocky Charolais cattle of almost exactly the same creamy hue. This really feels like the beating heart of France, and quintessentially French dishes such as bœuf bourguignon, coq au vin and escargots de Bourgogne all originated here, along with robust red wines with legendary names like Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, and even Beaujolais Nouveau, if you happen to be that way inclined.

And yet, it is perhaps surprising to realise that for much of its history, Burgundy was not actually French. Until the late 15th century, the Dukes of Burgundy were locked in mortal combat with the Kings of France, and it was not until 1477 that the powerful Duchy of Burgundy was completely absorbed into France.

The region comprises four departments: the rolling, largely agricultural Yonne in the north – a fertile land dotted with lovely Romanesque churches and pretty villages; the hilly Nièvre to the west, home to much of the Morvan National Park – an unspoiled wilderness of dense forests punctuated by shimmering lakes; the affluent Côte-d’Or with its fertile vineyards, historic seat of the powerful Duchy of Burgundy and home to some of the world’s most prestigious wines; and the lush plains of Saône-et-Loire that stretch away to the south between the banks of the Loire to the west and the primordial foothills of the Jura mountains to the east.

The region’s proximity to the Swiss border and the gateway to the rest of Europe has meant that it has long been a melting pot for influences both culinary and cultural from far and wide. There is also a huge sense of history and heritage here, with an abundance of beautifully preserved Romanesque and early Gothic architecture across the entire region. The historic capital, Dijon, stood at the crossroads of medieval trading routes and became the administrative hub of the Dukedom of Burgundy, which extended over a wide area of eastern France and included almost half of what is now Switzerland, challenging the power of the French monarchy itself at its zenith in the 15th century. The Church was hugely powerful here, too. The monastery at Cluny was the most important in medieval France, while the abbey at Vézelay to the north of the region was one of the great pilgrimage centres of the Middle Ages. Despite having so much to offer, Burgundy has a lower percentage of expats living here than other parts of the country.

The Canal de Bourgogne bisects the region diagonally from north-west to south-east; a masterpiece of pre-Industrial Revolution engineering, with its vertiginous stretches of stacked locks where the water levels rise to the summit at Pouilly-en-Auxois. Here a 3,333-metre tunnel links the two sections of the canal between the rivers Yonne and Saône. Originally built to facilitate trade between the fertile plains in the east and the thriving cities further north and west, the canal was soon superseded by the coming of the railway. Now, the canal is one of the region’s foremost attractions, offering visitors a beguiling way to experience the beauty and variety of this rich and diverse part of France.

As one might expect in a landlocked region several hundred miles from the nearest coast, the climate is largely continental, with chilly winters and hot, sunny summers. However, the proximity of the Jura mountains to the east ensures frequent dramatic late-afternoon thunderstorms in summer, which clear the air following hot spells as the atmospheric pressure mounts. The seductive stirrings of a gentle, warm Mediterranean climate can be felt in the south of the region; and winters, while cold – last year temperatures plummeted to minus 17ºC in places – are generally crisp and clear. One of the reasons many of the resident Brits say they like the region is that there are four distinct seasons here: a proper spring, summer, autumn and winter, which reinforce the cyclical pace of life in tune with the rhythms of nature.

Steve and Lesley Flockton, who are both retired and originally from Yorkshire, have been living in a small village in the rural north of Yonne since 2008. “We love the countryside and the wildlife here,” Steve explains. “We get wild boar, deer, hare and rabbits in the nearby fields and there are always birds of prey in the skies as well as migrating storks in spring and autumn. When we feel in need of some culture or shopping, Dijon is only an hour away by train.”

Steve and Lesley purchased a holiday home in Burgundy – a renovation project – about 15 years ago and while both were still working, they spent their free time restoring the place. “At the back of our minds I think we always intended to move over here permanently,” admits Steve. “We sold our first house here to buy somewhere to retire to, but then our family circumstances changed so we had to put our long-term plans on the back-burner for a while and bought ourselves another holiday home. When we finally decided to up sticks and move here, we bought a caravan with the intention of travelling around France to choose a place to live, but by then we had developed some really strong friendships here and we loved the area, so the caravan never got used.”

“The local people here are fantastic and have really taken us into their hearts,” adds Steve, “but then we’ve always made an effort to be part of the village. There are very few tourist attractions around here and few Brits.”

Dijon, Burgundy’s first city has a population of approximately 150,000 and a bustling, purposeful feel. The modern and the historical co-exist comfortably in its beautifully preserved medieval centre, and the presence of the Université de Bourgogne here ensures a lively buzz and plenty of youngsters thronging the streets during term-time. Fine food is important to the Dijonnais and, as well as the world-famous mustard and the delicious crème de cassis liqueur – the essential ingredient of the aperitif, kir, named after a former mayor of the city – there are numerous excellent restaurants, three of which hold coveted Michelin stars.

Market days are particularly lively; an early shopping trip will bring you shoulder to shoulder with many of the chefs frequenting the fabulous metal-and-glass halles designed by Gustave Eiffel, the architect behind the iconic Parisian landmark. Dijon has excellent transport links with a TGV rail connection to Paris (just 100 minutes) and other major French and European cities, good motorway links and a small regional airport.

Much of the region’s economy revolves around tourism, with attractions such as the region’s idyllic and accessible countryside, its rich history evident in an abundance of beautifully preserved buildings. Then there is its reputation for gastronomy and the world-famous Burgundy vineyards, the majority of which cluster around a narrow strip of land stretching from just south of Dijon down through Beaune to Mâcon in the south. Both bring in summer visitors from abroad as well as other parts of France. Burgundy also has a buoyant agricultural sector renowned for its excellent beef, cheeses, poultry and snails, as well as hi-tech industry, which accounts for some 20% of the regional employment in fields such as metallurgy, pharmaceuticals and electronics, and ensures a wide demographic mix.

Tobias Yang and Marco Stockmeyer live in Mont-St-Jean, a picturesque hamlet perched high up overlooking the lush Serein valley on the edge of the Morvan National Park and about an hour’s drive from Dijon. They came here nine years ago having renovated a rather lovely turn-of-the-century château, which they now run as a B&B.

“We looked at different parts of France – the Loire Valley, Normandy and the Midi – but we liked Burgundy’s relaxed atmosphere, its rolling countryside and the fact that there are four distinct seasons here,” Tobias explains. “We didn’t really know the area initially, but we soon fell in love with the pace of life, the wine and the food. We think Côte-d’Or is the most beautiful part of the region – and it certainly has the best wines!”

The property needed a good deal of renovation work before they could move in. However, Tobias made the decision to engage a local building contractor who took charge of the work, ironing out any potential communication problems with local plumbers and electricians. “The workers were very reliable and patient with us, especially given our poor renovation vocabulary in the beginning,” Tobias laughs.

The legal and administrative aspects of buying the château and setting up their business were relatively straightforward, too, although Tobias suggests that their decision to find a good local accountant was an essential component. “He helped us with all the various administration and logistics issues which cropped up along the way, which saved us both time and money in the long run.”

Tobias and Marco have been warmly welcomed into the local community, where there’s a mixture of locals and a relatively high number of foreigners compared with other parts of the region. Americans, British, Canadians, Germans, Swedish and Australians all live here both part- and full-time.

“I think the locals were a little sceptical about having a B&B in the village at first, but we got involved with the community early on, offering to man the BBQ at the village fair, for example. The local mayor is very supportive, and now that we have been included in the main Michelin Guide and put Mont-St-Jean on the map, the locals even come to eat in our restaurant.”

For Tobias, who is originally from America, the best aspects of his decision to leave the corporate world are working from home in a beautiful location and leaving behind a life of commuting, business travel and many – often pointless – meetings. “Of course I work harder now – longer hours during the day and every day of the week during the summer. But I’m now working for myself – and I still find time to play golf once or twice a week.” LF

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