Burgundy: Profoundly French
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.
This medieval charity hospital is now a museum, and the top sight in town. Its magnificently decorated exterior is lacy Flamboyand Gothic, with lots of decor — and boasts more weathervanes than any other building in France. Inside, original furnishings and the busts of real 15th-century townsfolk make it easier to picture this place in all its medieval-medicine misery.
Above the village of St-Romain is Burgundy's most important wine-barrel maker. While its workshop is closed to the public, discreet travelers can take quick peeks through its glass doors. Inside, well-stoked fires heat the oak staves to make them flexible, and sweaty workers use heavy hammers to pound iron rings around the barrels as they've done since medieval times.
Site of Cluny Abbey
People come from great distances to admire Cluny's great abbey…which is no more. The building was destroyed during the French Revolution, and, frankly, there's not a lot to see today. Still, the abbey makes a worthwhile visit for history buffs and pilgrims looking to get some idea of the scale of this vast complex, once the largest church in Christendom. It was almost two football fields long (555 feet) and crowned with five soaring naves; the whole complex (church plus monastery) covered 25 acres. Today, only one tower and part of the transept still stand. Information displays, however, help put the pieces of the ruined building back together.
The entire ensemble of buildings composing 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." Those arriving by car will still find Fontenay's secluded setting — blanketed in birdsong and with a garden lovingly used "as a stage set" — truly magical.
To experience the latest in European monasticism, drop by the booming Christian community of Taizé, a few miles north of Cluny on the road to Brancion. The normal, uncultlike ambience of this place — with thousands of mostly young, European pilgrims asking each other, "How's your soul today?" — is remarkable. Even if this sounds a little airy, you might find the 30 minutes it takes to stroll from one end of the compound to the other a worthwhile detour. A visit to Taizé can be a thought-provoking experience, particularly after a visit to Cluny. The community welcomes visitors who'd like to spend a few days getting close to God through meditation, singing, and simple living. Although designed primarily for youthful pilgrims in meditative retreat (there are about 5,000 here in a typical week), people of any age are welcome to pop in for a meal or church service.
Gîtes are usually rentable by the week, from Saturday to Saturday. They're best for drivers (they're usually rural, with little public-transport access) and ideal for families and small groups (since they can sleep many for the same price). Homes range in comfort from simple cottages and farmhouses to restored châteaux. Most have at least two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom or two. Sheets or linens may be included or provided for a bit extra.
Splendid both inside and out, this pint-size, very Burgundian castle rises above 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. Tour half on your own and the other half with a French guide (get the English handout; most guides speak some English and can answer questions).
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're enjoying the edible, drinkable, scenic, and floatable delights of one of my favorite corners of France: Burgundy. Thanks for joining us.
Burgundy is calm, cultivated, serene; where nature is as sophisticated as the people. The traditions are strong here. If you're looking for the quintessential French culture, you'll find it in Burgundy.
In this show we'll appreciate superb Burgundy wine, visit a medieval hospice, build a barrel, slurp escargot, ponder medieval monasticism, then drop in on a modern monastic community, and explore the Burgundian countryside.
France is the biggest country in western Europe. We'll head southeast of Paris to explore the region of Burgundy, using the town of Beaune as a home base to explore its canals, vineyards, and historic sites.
Burgundy, like much of France, is laced by canals dug in the early Industrial Age. Two hundred years ago, canals like these provided the cheapest way to transport cargo. With the help of locks, you could actually ship your goods clear across France, from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Today, trains and trucks do the heavy hauling, and canals are for relaxing...an art form in which the French excel.
Whether you're cruising in a big full-service luxury barge or a small captain-it-yourself boat, the basic experience is the same: a lazy glide by pastoral scenes.
This time I'm joined by my friend and co-author of my France guidebook, my favorite Francophile —Steve Smith.
Steve: I love slowing down. Cruising is the best way to see Burgundy. It forces to you to slow down.
And Steve's family is hitching a ride too, as we learn how the French, who invented our modern concept of a vacation, are on to something good with barging.
Steve: Oh my...
The canalside lane — built as an Industrial Age towpath — is ideal for jogging, strolling, or biking. Boats come with bikes, and the pace is relaxing enough to allow for excursions. Your ride is punctuated by a lock every mile or so. By going from lock to lock, boats can gently "climb," step by step, over the rolling terrain.
Each lock is a treat. Attendants, who live in the historic lock houses, are friendly and always ready to help out. Some locks are automated; others involve a little old-fashioned elbow grease.
Full-service barges can be hired with a captain and crew who do the navigating, cooking, and guiding. Boats have comfy staterooms, all the comforts you'd expect in a good hotel, and you'll invariably be eating and drinking some of the very best that Burgundy has to offer.
Our day on the canal was an ideal family vacation: three generations, the scenery coming to us, a capable skipper, and not a care in the world.
The city of Beaune makes a handy base for exploring Burgundy. The townscape, lassoed within its medieval walls, is as French as you'll find anywhere. You'll feel comfortable right away in this prosperous and popular little wine capital, where life centers on the production — and consumption — of the prestigious local wines. The medieval monks and powerful dukes of Burgundy laid the groundwork that established this town's prosperity. The monks cultivated wine...and the dukes cultivated wealth.
To enjoy any small French town at its vibrant best, it's worth visiting on its market day. In Beaune that's Saturday, and the town's thriving. We're on a mission: to buy the goodies for a lunch at Steve's country home a little later, and here in Burgundy, it's got to include a pile of snails. You buy your snails at the charcuterie.
Steve: Bonjour, monsieur.
Vendor: Bonjour, monsieur.
Steve: So, hey, we're in a charcuterie now. This is the place you buy snails. Two ways of doing snails: The easy way — you buy them like you see them in the window there, already made, already stuffed, already to go — or...you do it yourself by buying a jar of snails and the shells separately, and you stuff them yourself.
Steve: €30, Rick. Fork it over. Voilà.
Vendor: Merci beaucoup.
Steve: Merci monsieur.
While Beaune's real charm is the colorful town itself, it does have one must-see sight, its Hospice de Beaune — a medieval charity hospital.
Six centuries ago Beaune was devastated by two terrible events: the Great Plague and the Hundred Years’ War — a drawn-out battle between France and England that embroiled all of Burgundy. In the early 1400s, three-quarters of Beaune's population was destitute. Amid all this squalor, the Dukes' right-hand man, Nicolas Rolin, grew filthy rich because he could tax the people. Concerned for the destiny of his own soul, Rolin attempted to buy a ticket to heaven by building this Palace for the Poor. It was completed in just eight years.
The colorful glazed tile roof established what became a style recognized as typically Burgundian. The tiles, which last 300 years, are fired three times: once to harden, then to burn in the color, and finally for the glaze.
This largest room was the ward for the poorest patients. Rolin, who believed every patient deserved dignity, provided each with a pewter jug, mug, bowl, and plate.
The hospice was not a place of hope. People came here to die. Care was more for the soul than the body. The far end of the ward was a chapel. Patients could attend Mass while in bed. And also from their beds they could ponder the powerful symbolism of a painting that stood upon the altar — now displayed in an adjacent room.
In Roger van der Weyden's exquisite painting of the Last Judgment, Jesus presides over Judgment Day flanked by the lily of mercy and the sword of judgment. The rainbow promises salvation, and the jeweled globe at Christ's feet symbolizes the universality of Christianity's message. As four angels blow their trumpets to wake the dead, Michael the archangel — very much in control — determines which souls are heavy with sin. Mary and the apostles pray for the souls of the dead as they emerge from their graves. But notice how both Michael and Jesus are expressionless — at this point, the cries of the damned and their loved ones are useless. The intricate detail is typical of Flemish art in the 15th century.
Study the faces of the damned; you can almost hear the screams and gnashing of teeth.
This smaller ward was for wealthy patients. Since they were more likely to get the best available treatment, they were more likely to survive. Tools of the trade looked like a carpenter's kit — amputation saws, pans for blood-letting, and syringes delicate as caulking guns. The decor in this room portrays themes of hope. A series of Baroque paintings show the Biblical miracles that Jesus performed. Patients filled these beds as late as 1982.
Back out on the street, it seems life is good and the focus is on the here and now. A common theme is the region's famous wine. Every other shop seems to be selling it. Even the town's historic chamber of commerce building is dedicated to the notion that developing a good nose is good for the economy. In this delightful sensory exhibit, the complex fragrances of a fine wine can be experienced: raspberries, citron, the forest, spices. In Burgundy a good nose is a life skill worth developing.
Your visit to Burgundy can include about every aspect of the wine trade...even traditional barrel making. At this cooperage, a time-honored craft is kept alive — crafting barrels with a mix of modern efficiency and traditional techniques. Workmen use steam and bands of iron to bend oak staves into a wine-tight cask. Vintners know the quality of the barrels and the characteristics of the wood contribute to the personality of their wine.
Burgundy is a big part of why France is famous for wine. The rolling hills of the Côte d'Or are blanketed by lovingly tended vineyards. To the connoisseur a visit here is a kind of pilgrimage. By car or bike you can be immersed in the lush countryside and immaculate vineyards. To those versed in this drinkable art form, road signs read like fine-wine lists.
From Beaune, you're just 10 minutes from the heart of the vineyards on a rental bike. Except for the rare farm vehicle, the service roads are the domain of happy bikers. A bike route laces together scenic villages — each which produces its own distinctive wine. And signs make it clear where visitors are welcome to drop in, enjoy a little tasting...and pick up a bottle or two.
In the village of Pommard, vineyards like La Cave de Pommard offer free tasting and an education in wine appreciation at the same time. Our hostess Colette is ready to demystify Burgundy's wines.
Rick: When you say “Burgundy,” what do you mean from a wine point of view?
Colette: I just mean a gift of nature, unique.
Colette: Why? Because we have this terroir, which is so exceptional, so complex.
Rick: What is “terroir”?
Colette: The terroir, this is the earth, the character of the earth, a combination, a perfect combination of the geology, the earth character, the exposure to the sun, the altitude on the slope. And each piece of land in this area has got a different terroir.
Rick: So, the quality of the wine can be different from here to 200 meters over there.
Colette: So different!
Rick: So, the soil looks actually quite bad here.
Colette: It’s so poor, but this is what the vine needs. It needs to suffer to produce grapes of character. Going down, fighting to survive among the stones, and the lime rock and as they fight they give a wonderful complexity of aromas to the grapes.
Rick: How do you name the wine?
Colette: We name the wine, never with the name of the plant; we name the wine with the name of the place. It's the same grape everywhere. It's all a paradise for pinot noir here, but lower down, over here, it's completely different because of the earth.
Rick: So you don't name the wine by the grape?
Rick: In Burgundy.
Rick: By the place.
Colette: By the place, yes.
Rick: So tasting is different than drinking?
Colette: Tasting and drinking are two very different things. You drink with food; you taste the wine naked. You begin to look at it, you just raise it to the light and look at it and admire its beautiful color, then you put your nose in the glass and do the first nose...and you take here, your impression, because then you aerate and with the air...you just let the aromas get out in the glass, and then you go the second nose. Is it the same?
Rick: Ahh the difference! Then you understand and appreciate the contrast.
Colette: And then you finally deserve to put that in your mouth after such a long time you've been waiting. And when it's in your mouth, because you are tasting and not drinking, you will chew the wine. You chew it. You do it like this...and you spit out because your stomach does not taste. But what is important is that once you have spit it out, you exhale through the nose like that, because the zone which is here behind your back nose and your back throat is so sensitive to the aromas that you keep the finish of the wine, you keep the bouquet of the wine much longer in the mouth and in your head.
Rick: So even if you chose to swallow rather than spit, you can still enjoy a good finish?
Colette: Just exactly the same.
The culture of Burgundy has deep historic roots. Within an hour's drive are powerful sites illustrating how the region was for centuries the spiritual heart of France.
In the Middle Ages, Burgundy was the cradle of real monastic power in Europe. This town of Cluny was once home to a great monastery, which, around the year 1100, actually vied with the Vatican to be the most important power center in all of Christendom.
Much of today's old town stands on the scant ruins of that monastery. Until the present St. Peter's church was built in Rome, the church that stood here was the largest anywhere.
The Abbey of Cluny was the ruling center of Europe’s first great international chain of monasteries. It was the headquarters of 10,000 monks — the heart of a church reform movement and an evangelical revival that spread throughout Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. In an era of particularly corrupt popes, Cluny's abbots — who followed the teaching of St. Benedict — served as a moral compass and rallying point for Europe's Christians.
The success of the abbey has been attributed to a series of wise leaders, or “abbots.” In fact, four of the six first abbots here actually became saints. They answered not to kings and not to bishops, but directly to the pope. They preached the principles of piety and the art of shrewd fundraising. Piety: They got people to stop looting the monasteries; shrewd fundraising: they talked Europe's wealthy landowning elite into willing their estates to the monasteries in return for perpetual prayer for the benefit of their needy and frightened souls.
From the springboard of Cluny came a vast network of nearly a thousand monasteries that gave regions from Rome to Scotland a common thread — helping to kindle the establishment of modern Europe. While Cluny peaked in the 12th century, monasteries in general remained a powerful force until the 18th century.
Over time, Cluny's rich and powerful abbots were tainted with the same corruption they'd originally opposed. The once-dominant Cluny order was eventually eclipsed by more austere monks, like the Cistercians of Fontenay.
The Abbey of Fontenay is beautifully preserved, giving visitors a sense for monastic life in medieval France. It was founded in 1118 by St. Bernard of Clairvaux as a back-to-basics reaction to the excesses of richer Benedictine abbeys, such as Cluny.
The Cistercians worked to recreate the simplicity and the poverty of the Church in the first centuries after Christ. Bernard created what he called "a horrible vast solitude" here in the forest, where his monks could live like the desert fathers of the Old Testament. They strove to be separate from the world, and this required the industrious self-sufficiency that these abbeys were so adept at. The movement spread, essentially colonizing Europe religiously. By the year 1200, there were over 500 Cistercian monasteries and abbeys throughout Europe.
The abbey church is pure Romanesque and built to St. Bernard's specs: Plain facade, Latin cross floor plan, no colorful stained glass, unadorned columns — nothing to distract from prayer. The lone statue is the 13th-century Virgin of Fontenay, a reminder that the church was dedicated to Mary. An ethereal light still bathes the interior.
Stairs lead from the church to an oak-beamed dormitory where the monks slept — fully dressed, on thin mats.
Monastic life was extremely simple: prayer, reading, work, seven religious services a day, one meal a day in the winter, two in the summer. Daily rations: a loaf of bread and a quarter-liter of wine.
In spite of its isolation, Fontenay flourished as a prosperous economic engine for several centuries. According to a 14th-century proverb, "Wherever the wind blows, to Fontenay the money flows."
In the 13th century, the monks at Fontenay ran what many consider Europe's first metalworking plant. The art of metalworking was largely lost after Rome fell about seven centuries earlier. Iron ore was melted down in ovens with the help of big bellows. The monks made and sold iron tools for a profit.
A stream was diverted to power hydraulic or water-powered hammers that operated the forge. This technique, first used here, became the basis of industrial manufacturing of iron throughout Europe.
Like mustard seeds carried by a European wind, the monks of medieval Burgundy spread not only the gospel, but helped to germinate the Industrial Age — which led to the thriving continent we know today.
Monks in Burgundy still draw crowds. To experience the latest in European monasticism, drop by the booming Christian community of Taizé. Taizé is an ecumenical community, welcoming Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians alike. The uplifting ambience of this place — with thousands of mostly young, European pilgrims spending days exploring their faith and enjoying a break from the fast-paced material world, is remarkable.
The Taizé community — which was founded in 1940 — welcomes visitors who'd like to spend a few days getting close to God through meditation, singing, and simple living. Meals are in keeping with the joyful simplicity of the place. At any given time there are several thousand here from about 100 countries enjoying a week-long retreat.
When the bells ring, worshippers and white-robed brothers file into the long, plain, modern church. Taizé-style worship is a cycle of Bible readings, meditative silence, and mesmerizingly beautiful chants, as worshippers "enter together into the mystery of God's presence."
While monastic life in Burgundy celebrates simple austerity, Burgundian rural living celebrates simple pleasures. A great way to experience that is to rent a house in the country. Throughout France, self-catered houses — which rent by the week — are part of a popular lodging network called the “gîtes ruraux” [Gîtes de France].
Steve's family owns a gîte. They stay here for part of the year and for the rest of the time it's rented as part of the gîtes system, managed by a neighbor in the village. This is part of a national effort to keep village life vital in an age when young people are being drawn to the big cities.
For about half the price of a typical hotel, a gîte comes fully-furnished — with a kitchen, cozy living room, and all the comfort you could want immersed in the country charm of Burgundy...or whichever part of France you choose to settle into. Gîte living comes with a relaxed rhythm that's hard to find in a hotel.
And part of the fun and saving of gîte living is going local in the kitchen. Steve's wife, Karen, knows just what to do with the escargot we picked up in the Beaune market. Simply fill the shell with a lovingly created butter, garlic, and parsley mix, tuck in the snail, and top with more of the mix...pop in the oven and when ready — you make the family very, very happy.
Rick: So put it on the bread, is that right?
Another dimension of Burgundy's unspoilt charm is its characteristic medieval châteaux that stand royally atop hills as if they still rule their feudal domains.
Château de la Rochepot is a fine example. Constructed near the end of the Middle Ages, when castles were built to defend, it was completed during the Renaissance, when castles functioned as luxury homes. As a result, with an enchanting mix of turrets and gardens, Rochepot is a little of both.
Rooms with their artifacts give a peek into life back then. The door frames, for instance, are a reminder that medieval architecture, like medieval life itself, was colorful and far from the stony gray we often imagine. The kitchen is equipped with new-fangled gear that was state of the art...back in the 19th century. The castle entertains...from its rampart views...to the bottom of its well — 200 feet way, way down.
I hope you've enjoyed our cruise through the highlights of Burgundy. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Au revoir.
Steve: Look out here Rick.
Steve: What do I do now?