Along for the ride
Elizabeth Thorold jumps on her bike and sets off to explore the highways and byways of rural Burgundy
Having just arrived in Beaune one Saturday evening in September, we ensconced ourselves in a lovely looking restaurant that had taken our fancy, La Ciboulette, and animatedly discussed what lay ahead: three days of cycling along Burgundy’s voie verte.
With its Tour de Bourgogne � V�lo, Burgundy is the first region in France to customise a whole network of routes and paths specifically for cyclists – currently some 800km – and we planned to cover a little over 100km of it and travel due south from Beaune to M�con.
Surveying the scene seated in La Ciboulette as Saturday night chatter filled the air, a glass of chilled ros� Cr�mant de Bourgogne was our first taste of Burgundy, soon followed by local speciality oeufs en meurette, or poached eggs in a red wine sauce. There is wine everywhere in Burgundy and this is surely one of its great attractions. We planned to take in a few d�gustations en route (as well as whatever else caught our eye as we flashed by on two wheels) and given that a particularly good lightly oaky Chardonnay accompanied our starter, and an even tastier light and smooth red was served with our melting Charolais steak, we certainly had a taste for it already.
We couldn’t leave Beaune though without a tour of the town and as we woke up to rather a grey day, a guided tour of the remarkable H�tel-Dieu was a welcome distraction. The instantly recognisable former hospital is famed particularly for its coloured roof tiles, although as these are only seen once you’re in the inner courtyard, it’s a huge sheet of sleek slate grey tiles that imposingly greets the visitor from the front.
The hospital was built in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of Philippe-le-Bon, the all-powerful Duke of Burgundy. At this time, Beaune was suffering from famine and poverty following the Hundred Years’ War and Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins founded the H�tel-Dieu as a hospital for the poor.
Extravagant architectureThe extravagant architecture of the hospital, inspired by Rolin’s forays into Flanders as much as the bright colours of central Europe, proved so popular that it was soon imitated elsewhere in Burgundy and is now considered to be typical of the area. Glazed tile roofs can be found in even the tiniest of Burgundian villages, perhaps on a town hall, a post office or a private dwelling.
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The rows of beds laid out end to end in the vast Salle des P�vres make you think the patients must not have been able to believe their luck; travelling through the other rooms and seeing the collection of crude surgeon’s tools however, is enough to make you think twice. There is certainly nothing sophisticated about the trepanning kit on show that surgeons of old would have used to make incisions through a skull. Set up as it is today to imitate medieval times, it is difficult to believe that it only stopped serving as the local hospital in 1971.
Also of note is the 15th-century polyptych by Flemish painter Roger van der Weyden. Formerly hanging in the chapel at the end of the Salle de P�vres, patients would have gazed upon it to receive subconscious instruction on right and wrong; one half depicts those souls beatific in heaven while the other half shows the desperate contorted faces of those helpless in hell. The work of art is now kept in a darkened room to protect the intricate paintwork and a giant suspended magnifying glass allows visitors to appreciate Van der Weyden’s skill at close quarters.
The town itself is a charming mishmash of different architectural styles, from half-timbered crooked houses to the stone inner courtyards of h�tels particuliers. Also worth making a detour for is the Romanesque Coll�giale Notre-Dame with its clean lines and soaring vaults as well as the 17th-century town hall at the other end of this compact town.
An exploration of Beaune reveals plenty of interesting asides and discoveries; chairs and tables spill out onto pavements that line lively places and the town’s warmth, atmosphere and exemplary heritage make it a great base for exploring Burgundy.
The time had come however to mount our trusty metal steeds – lovely new hybrid bikes complete with pannier and handlebar bag – and set off for Santenay. Disappointingly, the sky was still firmly leaden and while not raining as such, there was no doubt that it wasn’t far away. Even with imperfect weather however, the prettiness of the v�loroute out of Beaune is undeniable. Following the discreet little green-man-on-a-bicycle signs, within minutes we found ourselves in the heart of the C�tes-de-Beaune vineyards surrounded on all sides by the glorious vines.
The tiny little roads that weave in among the precision rows are barely the width of a car but come complete with central markings, and make you feel that bikes are the kings of the road. Which they essentially are; however, you may well encounter a long-legged tractor out for a day’s work or a rattling Renault pickup driven by a florid-faced man in overalls.
Exclusive vinesWe cycled out past walled parcelles of exclusive vines – it’s the walls that give the prefix clos before the domaine name that you often see on Burgundy’s wines – passing through the eponymous villages of such well known appellations as Pommard and Meursault. Stately ch�teaux are scattered along the way, often boasting a tower or two and given that we were right at the tail end of the harvest, the smell of fermenting grapes as we wheeled past winemakers’ caves was intoxicating – quite literally.
After a picnic lunch of delicious quiche, fougasse and pizza bought from Charcuterie Raillard back in Beaune, we stopped for a tasting at the Ch�teau de Santenay, once home to the Bugundian Duke Philip the Bold. The coloured geometric-patterned roof tiles of the impressive ch�teau are visible long before you actually get to it. This does mean that there is a short climb to reach it but a tour of the 11th-century castle, with its 12th and 16th century additions, gives you time to get your breath back in preparation for a tasting of its many wines. It concentrates its efforts on Mercurey but there is plenty of choice of other Pinot Gris appellations as well as Chardonnays.
Leaving Santenay, the landscape changes dramatically as we picked up the tow path along the Canal du Centre and so the voie verte. Old men quietly fished and larger-than-life long boats ambled by as we sped along past deep locks and their corresponding lockkeepers’ cottages. The vines gave way to fields of crops and slivers of wild meadow which, on the approach to Chalon-sur-Sa�ne, in turn became scruffy but bountiful vegetable patches making use of the fertile soil.
The old town in Chalon makes for a nice little detour and a kir at the foot of the Cath�drale St-Vincent was a welcome way of introduction to the town. The majestic River Sa�ne flows through the town creating two islands and the town is proud of being the birthplace of the inventor of photography: Joseph Ni�pce.
Our route out of Chalon the next morning was on the old railway line and the mercifully flat path was to take us through the pretty wine villages of Givry, Buxy and St-Gengoux-le-National before arriving at the Ch�teau de Cormatin. We had been granted a spotless blue sky and a still-strong September sun so the shade sporadically offered by ancient oak trees or laden walnut trees along the way was a welcome sight.
We stopped at Buxy and climbed to the town for a tasting with independent vigneron, Laurent Cognard. A tattooed, vest-wearing rugby man, his warm welcome and obvious passion for his wines was in startling contrast. He spoke knowledgeably and even lovingly about his wines without pretension, breaking off from his work to offer us tastings on an impromptu table, an empty barrel. His white wines in particular were delicious and ready for drinking now so we certainly couldn’t leave without buying a bottle for the pannier.
One of the lovely things about this stretch of the voie verte is the old stations. Platforms still exist as do the stationmasters’ houses and the very stations themselves. St-Gengoux is a particularly well-preserved example of this and signs that read bagages greet cyclists as they sail through.
Our next stop was the Ch�teau de Cormatin, a wonderful bemoated structure dating from the 17th century that houses the finest Louis XIII apartments surviving in France. Visits are with a guide only; however, the beautiful gardens – complete with box-hedge maze – can be explored at will. The sumptuously decorated wood-panelled rooms are an insight into another era and the effect is breathtaking.
We stayed overnight in the tiny, tiny village of Malay, with its 30 inhabitants, at Le Clos Morelle, a chambres d’h�tes and g�te that signed the Bourgogne � V�lo charter. This means, among other things, that they are conveniently situated close to the voie verte and also that they are set up to receive intrepid cyclists with a bike shed and tools for minor repairs on hand. The village is typically Burgundian with its large-scale crumbling farmhouses and it proudly boasts a neat Romanesque church.
Setting off on the final morning, back on the voie verte, we had a planned stop at Cluny before arriving at our final destination, Priss�, just outside M�con. Up and out by 9am, the heavy autumn sun was slowly burning through a chiffon veil of cloud and we had the voie verte to ourselves. Winter white Charolais cattle silently ruminated in the fields, the low layer of mist and heavy morning dew were slowly dissipating to leave dripping gossamer and gorged retreating slugs and the only sounds were birdsong and the crunch of our tyres hitting acorns and the occasional walnut. It was idyllic.
Remarkable spotCluny is another remarkable spot en route and is unmissable – even though some would argue that there is nothing to see. Once the seat of the centre of Christendom second only to Rome, the gigantesque church known as Cluny III was built between 1088 and 1130 and measured a staggering 187 metres in length and 30 metres high. While very little remains today, there is still enough to appreciate its magnitude and significance and the groundbreaking technology that is gradually being incorporated into the site is making it even easier. Screens have been introduced at key points that use brand new technology developed specifically for Cluny; standing at adult height they can be moved and manipulated to show how the abbey would have looked in its 12th-century heyday complete with today’s modern context.
At the height of its fame and fortune, the order of Cluny was the seat of power for more than 1,000 monasteries and the greatest monastic order of the west. The abbey and town itself was at the time home to some 4,000 inhabitants and given that today Cluny houses approximately 4,500 people – and that’s over a bigger geographical area – it’s an effective indicator of the abbey’s importance. Outside the abbey’s former walls, there are still some finely preserved Romanesque dwellings too but for the best overall view of the abbey and the town, climb the Tour des Fromages.
Leaving Cluny, the old railway line climbed up to the impressive – if a little damp and cold – Tunnel des Bois Clair, a one-mile-long tunnel that cuts through the hillside to emerge into bright sunlight the other side and the rewarding site of Berz�-le-Chatel perched overhead. We couldn’t resist cycling up to see it but arrived panting profusely at its imposing entrance after the steep climb.
We took in one last d�gustation at the cooperative at Priss� known as Les Terres Secr�tes before checking into our B&B round the corner. Offering yet another view on the role of wine in everyday Burgundy life, these grapes produced by everyday farmers make fine everyday drinking wines, and obviously we couldn’t leave without getting a couple of bottles.
We arrived at Les Verpill�res maison d’h�tes in time for an ap�ritif on the terrace with owners Margot and Kenneth, a Swiss/Swedish couple who have lived in Burgundy for six years. The early-evening sun still held heat and as we looked out over their lovely gardens to toast our cycling success, it was easy to see why they had been so seduced by this exquisite part of France. With glorious countryside, clusters of rural stone communities as well as excellent wines and cuisine, they can’t imagine being anywhere else and, even after just three days, I am rather inclined to agree with them.
Office de tourisme de Cluny
6 rue Merci�re, 71250 Cluny
Elizabeth travelled from London to Beaune returning from M�con with Rail Europe. Fares start from �110.50. Call 0844 848 4070 or visit www.raileurope.co.uk