Burgundy: Profoundly French
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 501
Burgundy is a calm and cultivated corner of France, where fine living is intimately tied to nature and traditions run strong. We'll slow down to enjoy the region's edible, drinkable, scenic, and floatable delights. We'll travel on a canal barge, visit a medieval hospice and a modern monastery, build a barrel, appreciate fine Burgundy wine, slurp escargot, and eat very, very well. If you're looking for quintessential French culture, you'll find it in Burgundy.
- Read the script from the show.
Hospice de Beaune (Hôtel Dieu)
The hospice was not a place of hope. People came here to die. Care was more for the soul than the body. (Local guides are routinely instructed in writing by American tour companies not to use the word "hospice," because it turns off their clients. But this was a hospice, plain and simple, and back then, death was apparently less disturbing.) It's right in the center of Beaune, dominating place de la Halle.
Roger van der Weyden's Last Judgment: This exquisite painting, the treasure of the Hôtel Dieu, was commissioned by Rolin in 1450 for the altar of the Paupers' Ward. He spared no cost, hiring the leading Flemish artist of his time. The entire altarpiece survives. The back side (on right wall) was sliced off so everything could be viewed at the same time.
A short drive (or a level two-mile bike ride) from Beaune leads to this good cellar in Pommard. The ambience is good, tastings are free and easygoing, and the prices are reasonable. The young staff speaks English well enough and tries hard. From Beaune's ring road, follow signs for Chalon-sur-Saône, then Autun, to reach Pommard. The cellars are on the right, just after the Château de Pommard's long wall; park in the village and walk back (3 route de Beaune, tel. 03 80 24 99 00).
This very Burgundian castle rises above the trees and its village, eight miles from Beaune. It's accessible by car, bike (hilly), or infrequent bus. Cross the drawbridge under the Pot family coat of arms and knock three times with the ancient knocker to enter. If no one comes, knock harder, or find a log and ram the gate. This pint-size castle is splendid inside and out. Tour half on your own and the other half with a French guide. This castle's construction began during the end of the Middle Ages (when castles were built to defend) and was completed during the Renaissance (when castles were transformed into luxury homes). So it's neither a purely defensive structure (as in the Dordogne) nor a palace (as in the Loire) — it's a little of both.
The furnishings are surprisingly elaborate given the military look of the exterior. I could sleep like a baby in the Captain's Room, surrounded by nine-foot-thick walls. Don't miss the 15th-century alarmed safe. Paths outside lead around the castle and make a worthwhile walk. Don't leave without driving, walking, or pedaling up D-33 a few hundred yards toward St. Aubin (behind Hôtel Relais du Château) for a romantic view (tel. 03 80 21 71 37).
Abbey of Fontenay
The entire ensemble of buildings making up this isolated Cistercian abbey has survived, giving visitors perhaps the best picture of medieval abbey life in France. In the Middle Ages it was written, "To fully grasp the meaning of Fontenay and the power of its beauty, you must approach it trudging through the forest footpaths...through the brambles and bogs...in an October rain." But even if you use the parking lot, Fontenay's secluded setting, blanketed in birdsong with a garden lovingly used "as a stage set," is truly magical (tel. 03 80 92 15 00).
This abbey — one of the oldest Cistercian abbeys in France — was founded in 1118 by St. Bernard as a back-to-basics reaction to the excesses of Benedictine abbeys. The Cistercians worked to recapture the simplicity, solitude, and poverty of the early Church. Bernard created "a horrible vast solitude" in the forest, where his monks could live like the desert fathers of the Old Testament. They chose marshland ("Cistercian" is derived from "marshy bogs") and strove to be separate from the world (which required the industrious self-sufficiency these abbeys were so adept at). The movement spread, essentially colonizing Europe religiously. In 1200, there were more than 500 such monasteries and abbeys in Europe. Like the Cistercian movement in general, Fontenay flourished through the 13th to 15th centuries. A 14th-century proverb said, "Wherever the wind blows, to Fontenay money flows." Fontenay thrived as a prosperous "mini-city" for nearly 700 years, until the French Revolution, when it became the property of the nation and was eventually sold.
Getting There: The abbey is a 20-minute drive from Semur by way of Montbard. There's no bus service — take a taxi from Montbard's train station (taxi tel. 06 08 26 61 55 or 06 08 99 21 13).