France – Burgundy & Franche-Comté
Dijon is the capital and principal city of Burgundy. Other cities are well worth a visit to understand the Burgund culture and history: Beaune, Nevers, Chalon-sur Saône, Auxerre, and Mâcon are the most important ones. From Beaujolais to Auxois, and from the Saône to the Loire rivers, Burgundy is divided into regions defined by both politics and geography. There are the 4 “départements”: Côte d’Or, NIèvre, Saône et Loire, and Yonne; in addition there are also geographical divisions such as Nivernais, Dijonnais, Mâconnais, Morvan, Auxois, Charollais, Autun Basin. the Côte, Saône Valley, Bresse plain, Burgundy plateaux and many more…
Burgundy wines have made the region world famous. Grape types are very specific, cepage is important, but what makes the unique quality and fame of Burgundy wines is the “Terroir”, the very peculiar ground composition where the vineyards are planted in small parcels. “Grands Crus” and “AOC” wines are unique and produced in limited amount. Prices may reach mind boggling levels that are affordable only to rich collectors. Experts in wine tasting will compete to recognize the year and the terroir of a bottle without label, they will also decide of the yearly awards. Since Roman times and through the Middle Ages production has continued to expand, as has its global acclaim. Monks in their monasteries developed and kept secret the “savoir faire” of wine making. Beaune, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard or Château du Clos Vougeot are among the most prestigious names. But this is an endless subject. Wine tours can be arranged for every level of wine connoisseur.
Besides wine tours, cycling opportunities in Burgundy abound, and you can follow the quiet tow paths used not so long ago by horses pulling barges. There is also a cycling road from Beaune to Santenay which takes you through many magnificent vineyards. River sailing on a barge or a self driven boat will allow you to quietly enjoy the countryside and discover the hidden treasures of local villages along the way. Interesting archeological sites In Solutre and Bibracte take you back to Roman times when Vercingetorix fought with Julius Caesar, a battle which started the Gallo Roman civilization. The historic and well preserved Roman Theatre in Autun is also a must see, with many local chateaux that are suitable for an overnight stay. Cluny Abbey, founded in 910 is a masterpiece of Romanesque Art. It was the center of a monastic movement which influenced the whole of Europe.
Cities not to be missed
Any of these cities could serve as a hub for your daily excursions throughout Burgundy.
Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, will take more than a day to visit in depth. The city Hall and Fine Art Museum are located in the ancient Duke Palace dominated by Philippe Le Bon Tower. The Museum exhibits among other treasures the masterpiece sculptured Tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy. The Cathedral Saint Benigne, the “Puits de Moïse”, and the Hotel Chambellan are also worth seeing as well as the gardens, parks and large pedestrian shopping area of the city center.
Beaune is the wine capital. The Hospices has served as a hospital since the middle ages, and it is now a beautiful museum. Historic houses are mostly dedicated to the production and commerce of wine, with collections in their cellars to match the most discerning of tastes. The 12th century Basilica Notre Dame has a valuable collection of tapestries.
In Nevers you will see the Pont Saint Laurent crossing the River Saone, and also the 2,000 year old Temple of Janus. The Roman theater at Autun could seat 20 000 spectators.
Chalon-sur-Saone is particularly pleasant and a major center for river cruises; the Street Art Festival is gaining more fame every year.
Auxerre, more to the North on the road to Paris, shelters a fresco from the 9th century in the crypt of Saint Etienne Cathedral. The medieval quarter overlooks the Yonne River and the old town is for pedestrians only. Auxerre would be a perfect departure point for day excursions to Vezelay and Chablis.
Paray-le-Monial is a spiritual center where pilgrims come to pray to Saint Margaret Marie Alacoque, who had visions of Christ. (1673).
In Franche-Comté, the Jura Mountains in the south form a natural border with Switzerland. Indeed, the region shares much of its architecture, cuisine, and culture with its neighbor to the east. From the crest overlooking Lake Geneva, the Alps can been seen in the distance. It is primarily a rural area with meadows and fields of barley, oats, rye and potatoes. Forest covers 40% of the region with mostly spruce, fir, and beech. Cattle breading and cheesemaking techniques hark back to the old days, with the more modern present day economy more focused on metal work, gems, clockmaking and salt mining, The Royal-Salt-Work (Salines Royales) of Arc-et-Senans is a must see; it is a Unesco Heritage Site and the masterpiece of architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux.
Spa towns offer soothing therapy to those who come and take the waters in Divonne-les-Bains, Lons-le Saunier, Luxeuil-les-Bains and Salins-les-Bains. Sochaux is part of Celestial Voyagers unique program of industrial visits to the world of Peugeot cars.
The cities of Franche-Comté
Besancon is more than 2000 years old. The Grand’Rue, St John Cathedral with the astronomical clock, St Jack Hospital with its antique apothecary, the neo mauresque synagogue in the old town, are all worth spending a couple of nights to visit. The citadel was fortified by Vauban and is now a Unesco World Heritage site overlooking a dramatic buckle bend in the River Doubs. A leisurely stroll on the promenade along the Doubs river is also a pleasure.
Other little towns have been built along the Doubs and all have great character: Dole, where you can visit Pasteur’s birthplace; Ornans, where the painter Gustave Courbet was born; Vuillafans, Rougemont, Saint-Hippolyte, etc. Each offer interesting sites and delectable cuisine.
Arbois is the capital of Jura wine country, with Saint Amour and Chateau-Chalon also famous for their AOC wines. Poligny is the Capital of Comté cheese (the Swiss cheese which is not really Swiss and contains big holes inside!) Theses small towns and dozen of other villages are full of charms.
One other must see for architecture enthusiasts is the Chapelle Notre Dame de Ronchamps, built in 1955 by Le Corbusier and a symbol of modernism in religious art.
All these hidden treasures are rarely advertised. Indeed, traveling off the beaten tracks in Eastern France is a unique experience.