I often think back to the first time I visited a French city, village or region. Let me tell you about my first trip to the heart of France, Bourgogne.
I first visited Bourgogne, located in the heart of France, when I was in my mid-20s, and it was there that I developed a true appreciation for wine. One afternoon, while touring through the region’s Route des Grands Crus, we decided to stop at a little wine shop in Nuits-Saint-Georges, one of the many prestigious wine towns along the famous sixty-kilometer route. Before entering the shop, I had no idea what terroir meant and could care less about pairing wine with food. In all honestly, I was a wine novice who only sipped white wine occasionally, and if it was sweet, all the better. Little did I know how much one delectably memorable wine tasting experience would change my life. I sampled three different wines, and with each one I was given a thorough explanation about its origins, vintage and the best foods to drink it with. A whole new world opened up to me from that moment on. At restaurants, I began to ask for wines that complemented my food, and when we traveled through France, no vineyard or wine village was safe from my oenological hunger. I had to get out of the car to dig my hands into the soil, touch the grapes and feel the essence of wine with my own fingertips.
LANDSCAPE & CULTURE
Wine wasn’t the only thing that caused an impression on me during that first trip, however. The weather was glorious and the landscape lush and green. We stayed at a charming holiday home in the Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan, a quiet and peaceful nature reserve dating to 1970 and home not only to farmlands, lakes, woodlands and hills, but also to more than one hundred towns and villages spread out through the departments of Yonne, Nièvre, Saône-et-Loire and Côte-d’Or. The house was small but comfortable, and our daughter Kirstie, who was five or so at the time, had a room full of toys, swings overlooking the hills and even a horse and a pony to pet every morning right from her bedroom window.
We spent a lot of time exploring cities and villages, and stopping along the way to visit churches, museums or have a drink at a pretty terrace. In Beaune we visited L’Hôtel-Dieu a former hospital for the poor that was built by Nicolas Rolin (chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe le Bon) in 1433. At the time, the city of Beaune had greatly suffered from war and famine, and Rolin made sure that patients received only the best care. L’Hôtel-Dieu, which became a prominent statement of wealth and grandeur, has a splendid courtyard with roofs covered in glazed multicolored tiles arranged in extraordinary geometric patterns. For me, the main attractions was The Last Judgement Polyptych by Rogier van der Weyden (1446-1452), one of the most influential artists of the 15th century. The exceptional masterpiece is housed in a rather small, dark, cool room which somehow makes its bright colors and grandeur all the more phenomenal. It was one of the most captivating paintings I had ever seen, and it was certainly very hard to turn my back and walk away from it.
Autun was a favorite from the first time we visited. The attractive city has Gallo-Roman origins which can still be seen at its Roman Amphitheatre (built by Emperor Augustus and known to have been the largest in the Roman world) as well as the two ancient gateways (the Porte d’Arroux and the Porte St-André, dating back to the 1st and 4th century respectively. There, you can visit the 12th-century Cathédrale St-Lazare, famous for its magnificent sculptures and tympanum, or Musée Rolin where you can admire a variety of artifacts, sculptures and beautifully preserved mosaics.
When we planned the trip to Bourgogne, one of the things I looked forward to most, however, was the food. I could not wait to sink my teeth into a Charolais beef steak, try the famous boeuf bourguignon and poulet de Bresse or devour a dish of escargots à la bourguignonne (snails smothered in sizzling butter, parsley and generous amounts of garlic). I enjoyed wonderful cheeses such as the orange-crusted Époisses bathed in Marc de Bourgogne, sampled authentic mustards and fell in love with the regional gingerbread (pain d’épices). Every morning started with fresh bread and pastries from the boulangerie and in the evenings, we would head to the local café for a pre-dinner kir, the second most popular apéritif in the country after pastis. Traditionally made with one-third blackcurrant liqueur (crème de cassis) and two-thirds of the somewhat acidic aligoté wine produced in the village of Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise. On Wednesdays, we shopped at the weekly market in Autun, held around the town hall. I would fill my basket with bags of ripe nectarines, apricots, grapes, tomates coeur de boeuf, fresh spices, hearty slices of jambon persillé (a parsleyed ham terrine made with aligoté and sometimes served with Dijon mustard and tiny cornichons) and honey made by the local bees in the Morvan. And because there was a wonderful brasserie right across from the market, we would have lunch with the locals before returning back to the house for an utterly delightful siesta.
The food, landscapes, wines and people – that first trip to Bourgogne would forever stay etched in my memory and lure me to the region time and time again.
All images courtesy of: Alain DOIRE / Bourgogne-Franche-Comté Tourisme