NORTHERN BURGUNDY BALLADE

Drumroll … LET THE GREAT BURGUNDY BALLADE BEGIN

So here we are – on the road again. It seems to me that when you have been long hampered in your travels (by an adorable creature called Cupcake), the sweeter the freedom.

Travel pads out time in the most magical way. I feel I have been on the road months not weeks. It’s a great way of making life longer, travel. Longer and richer.

And so it is, that on a wet afternoon we hit the road and creep out of the Paris suburbs direction Burgundy. I’ve been dying to get back for a few years – this land of miraculous abbeys and chateaux, Celtic and Roman history – and wines.

There are good and bad things about night travels. You miss things. You see others. Heading down the D954 with an overactive GPS, suddenly a giant stalwart of a building looms up by our sides – and over a gaping moat – like a dinosaur in the night.

It appears the following day that the dazzling golden-stoned apparition was most likely the Château of Epoisses (a town equally famous for its drippingly fat, fondant cheese, which must walk out of dairies on its own legs in its lait cru state).

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History is at every turn (and gaze) in Burgundy. It had me gobsmacked seven years ago and it has me gobsmacked now.

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“In the middle of a double wall of fortifications, encircling the 15th century houses, church and colombier loft of 3000 squares, the castle is flanked by large towers and surrounded by moats,” says the chateau’s website.

In travels many things must drop by the wayside. And revisiting the cheesy Château by day is one of them. But short and sweet holds true. That vision of its mountainous fortifications has stayed etched on my mind since  – as sure as the taste of the Époisses cheese will stay engraved on your palate – and cholesterol count.

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At risk of extinction during the World Wars, the unctuous Époisses de Bourgogne is hand-ladled into molds then dry-salted before being cave matured. During the affinage process the cheese is washed with brine then wine or brandy to spark the growth of the bacterium that leads to the distinctive rusty rind and pongy odour! Apparently Napoleon had a bit of an Epoisses thing going on alongside the Josephine infatuation.

Unbelievable as it may seem, this is my first trip with a GPS (bar the internal one which works pretty well, and has been given a good workout over the years) …  The GPS initiation has it’s highs and lows.

Probably the all-time low hits in the first couple of hours of the trip. Unbeknown to me, travel-bud Joseph has programmed the machine to rue de la Liberté in Auxerre – rather than rue de la Liberté in Semur-en-Auxois … Just a slight semantic and logistical difference, which adds up to another hour on the road.

Of course it could have been much worse, and the GPS is not to blame – it was just doing what it was told.

But at already 10pm – neves are thinning – and bum rot setting in from too many hours seated. The. great irony of ‘travelling’ by car is that of finding oneself motionless for hours. It’s only the car that travels – not you. For me it’s a form of personal torment and a curse, yet a necessary evil for the convenience of the car journey.

Yawning all the way, we finally pull into the cosy little carpark right in front of the Hotel de la Côte d’Or around 11pm. Our first night’s bolthole could not be more aptly named, given we have within a couple of hundred kilometres of Paris, landed in the Burgundy department of that name – which will keep us captive for several days.

The Yonne, the Nièvre, the Loire and the Côte d’Or – slopes of gold – the reasons for whose name will quickly, if not already, become apparent to you as this journey progresses.

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Our first stop, Semur-en-Auxois, is 250 km/150 odd miles from Paris, and 80 km/50 miles west of Dijon – capital of both the Cote d’Or and Burgundy as a whole.

While the Celts and the Romans were there much earlier, it was a group of Baltic people – the Burgundians from the island of Bornholm – who gave Burgundy its name, on settling the area in 442. (Wine culture was already well and truly implanted thanks to the Romans!)

Later came Clovis then the famous Dukes and Duchy of Burgundy era through the Middle Ages, which left its mark most strongly on the Burgundy of today with its enduring abbaye and immense architectural riches.

Now here’s another first … We let ourselves in to the hotel by way of the automatic check-in machine, which has me feeling I’m withdrawing money from a bank rather than bedding down for the night!

Check-in-kiosks-at-YOTEL

These are indicative pictures of these machines though not the actual one. Very bankish as you can see.

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All too quick, the stay at this charming little hotel – which goes to prove how extraordinary a seemingly ordinary (Logis) chain hotel can be.

It distinguishes itself with as much panache and infrastructure as many much bigger establishments.

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The toiletries are organic and there are real glasses – not the horrid little plastic el-cheapo cups that are rapidly invading many midscale + hotels … Quel horreur!

It’s so nice within minutes of arriving to settle ourselves into our room – and to go online – rather than have to wait at a counter and zoom up silvery floors accompanied by a black-suited ‘hotel ambassador’.

A short lug of the bags from reception, along a colombaged corridor, we enter a stunning loft suite, carved into the high ceilings and solid woodpanelled walls of the old coaching inn.

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Very homely indeed … In no time we’ve made it look like home – as has Cupcake.

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All a girl needs … The simple homely things in life. Cupcake’s already cased out the place and settled for the night having assured for all of us there are no would-be assailers.

It’s as comforting as a bear hug, and not at all what I expected – a true design hotel on a mini scale splashed in bold Burgundy red and candy pink walls, with zany lighting and a high quality bathroom to add extra cheer.

It’s with some regret that we must whip ourselves away from both the hotel and the town so quickly the next morning. We have not a second to explore Semur-en-Auxois (it’s great to have a reason to return, and this will be high on the list) …

But no real time for regrets. There are just too many good things happening, and to be appreciative of. You can’t pack it all into one trip any more than into a suitcase.

Now we’re headed for Abbey-Land. A couple of very notable Abbeys – to which the almost delirious joy of returning has been accumulating for weeks.

I plan to savour each sip of Burgundy – no matter how sleep deprived I end up (unfortunately this is a foreseeable fate of such a trip with such an intensive schedule – and for those who are potentially envious of my travelling life, a little reality check of the heaven and hell of travel).

At least the wines and scenery will be there to mollify me. After all, as the French say, there are three rivers that run through this scenically blessed region – the Saône, the Rhône and Bourgogne. We’re about to get a drenching in all three.

PRACTICAL INFO

Hotel de la Côte d’Or 

Though breakfast is definitely 3-star, the historic cachet and contemporary style of the rooms is much closer to 4-star reality. This is my first experience in a hotel under the Logis brand umbrella – and I come out a convert (backed up by a couple more stays over coming weeks) … Small and cosy. Personal and friendly. That seems to be there style.

One of Europe’s most established groups of independent hotel-restaurants, it claims the “traditional values” that have long characterised them are fast being offset by a modern, high-tech edge (born out by the automised welcome, which oddly enough does nothing to detract from the warmth of the place).

Rooms from 95€. www.logishotels.com/hotel/bourgogne/cote-d-or/

Bienvenu Au Château

Époisses Château Website & Visits http://www.chateaux epoisses.com.
Open from April to October, you can kill two birds with one stone and book a cheese tasting session and chateau tour. Fortify yourself well ahead for cholesterol attacks! Then again this is France. If you stay long enough you might adopt the so called French paradox and be immune to such trifling health concerns.

Semur-en-Auxois (open on the contrary all year round – and it would seem incredibly enchanting and worth coming back to see under snow)
http://www.tourisme-semur.fr

Also in this neck of the woods …

The Pays d’Auxois (http://www.pays-auxois-morvan.fr) as it’s called overlaps with the Morvan in the forested heart of Burgundy – a region of farm fresh food including the famous Charolais beef, Celtic legends and scattered menhir standing stones in paddocks.

Within an hour’s drive of Semur you can scoop up many of France’s most beautiful villages – including Vezelay, up in the Morvan’s northwestern tip closest to Paris – and just south of Vezelay, the remarkable Château de Bazoche, once home to France’s 17th century architectural genius and military strategist Vauban. (Here’s a shot of it below that I took for the DK Eyewitness Backroads France guide back in 2009).

Further Reading

The aforementioned guidebook is still available in downloadable ebook form at the Dorling Kindersley website with my Côte d’Or itinerary (though I have long stopped drawing any benefit from that! Such is the writer’s life) …

Michelin I guess would be my more in-depth pick today  – The Green Guide to Burguimagendy & the Jura – with its travel practicalities and maps, plus historical and cultural background. Available on Amazon or condensed version online. I am a great fan of Michelin print out or save to phone drive itineraries and thus far my trackrecord with GPS compares poorly. Apart from the constant talking there’s the added and real danger of a big non virtual bungle!

Next stop the Fontenay Abbey – then a very special Abbey stay … five class celestialism!

Funny – I thought we would get much further today – but writing – like sifting through your travel memories – ends up far more knitty and complicated, as the full wonder of the trip reveals itself, stitch by stitch, and in fullblown colour, like a home knitted cardigan.

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