Our first surprise was the city of Dijon. For me Dijon used to mean just one thing: mustard. Dijon mustard goes on your barbie snags (that’s “barbequed sausages” for readers unfamiliar with Aussie idioms). You can get it at Woolworths. What punishment could possibly fit this ignorance? Dijon, we discovered, is a picturesque, historic city. Its centre is crammed with beautiful buildings: palaces, museums, churches, creaky old residences reminiscent of England’s Tudor heritage. It is a meditative pleasure simply to stroll the criss-crossing, zig-zagging pedestrian walkways of the city centre.
We got a taste of Dijon’s old-world character at the Petit Tertre Hotel, our night’s accommodation. “Hotel” doesn’t quite cut it as a term for a dark maroon door in a wall. No signage, just a street number. Behind the door we rolled our suitcases down a dark, stone-walled corridor with several doors on the right leading into (presumably) apartments of local residents. We emerged into the sunlit floor of a square well with a patch of blue sky far above us and bicycles leaning against its walls. We disappeared into another stone-walled corridor to emerge from its dimness into a tiny courtyard with a short narrow, stone staircase climbing the side of one of its walls. At the head of the staircase we found our room. It was as eccentric a “hotel” room as one could wish for.
In the centre of the room stood a dark, round, varnished dining table with a simple but exotic chandelier above it. Behind it was an upholstered chaise longue. Next to this stood a tall, antique, folding screen decorated with 18th century motifs. Partly hidden behind it was a bed heaped with cushions and blankets. At the foot of the bed stood the room’s piece de resistance, a “wardrobe” yet not a wardrobe. It was a 19th century traveller’s clothes trunk with huge hinges and iron latches. About a metre high, it stood on one end, its top-to-floor mouth partly prised open to reveal a space where clothes might be hung. Up some steep, rickety wooden stairs there was a mini-mezzanine loft with a double bed filling most of it under a gable-topped window looking out over slate-tiled roofs.
The next morning our host served us breakfast on the varnished dining table: deliciously flaky croissants, freshly baked bread rolls, jams and soft cheeses and fresh yoghurt. And of course, strong aromatic coffee. We were magnificently set up for a day’s walking.
Following instructions by Macs Adventure (https://www.macsadventure.com/holiday-2231/burgundy-short-break-dijon-to-beaune) we were taken by taxi to the edge of Dijon where we started walking at a bronze statue labelled The bearers of the great grape. It was the morning of Monday July 16th 2019. Already the day was uncomfortably warm. Within hours, as we climbed up into the part-wooded slopes of the Cote d’Or, the temperature had topped 30 degrees. We looked out across a shimmering landscape of endless neatly combed, bright green ranks of grape vines punctured by spiky old churches, shuttered deserted villages, and turrets of the occasional chateau. We were walking on a surface that was part quiet country road, part asphalt path and part gravel track. We made sorties into hill-top woods with their crackling leaf-strewn tracks and shadows of cool. Macs Adventure had supplied detailed trail notes, maps and a mobile-phone app, and the route was reasonably well way-marked.
The end of a long day led us to the small town of Gevry-Chambertin. Tiny though it was, it seems every second shop was a “cave” – a cellar-shop selling wine. We dined in the evening warmth at the Chez Guy restaurant. When the proprietor asked: “And to drink, monsieur? What is your preference? Red or white?”
“Just water for us, thanks.”
His shock lasted less than a nano-second. Maintaining perfect courtesy in the face this foreign eccentricity he asked:
“Still or sparkling?”
Having tucked into a delicious fillet of Burgundy beef we sat in the quiet square opposite an old church with its bell clanking at quarter-hour intervals, sipping our austere ration of (still) water, and enjoying the long slow sigh of twilight as it breathed its warmth into the approaching night. I’m reluctant to say this, because it sounds so sentimental, but it was the perfect end to a perfect day’s walking.
And Day Two was pretty much like Day One, only hotter. We left Gevry-Chambertin around eight o’clock in the morning, hoping to cover as much distance as possible in the cooler air of morning. And again, like riffling the pages of a souvenir calendar, we flashed past vineyards, turreted chateaux, church steeples ceramic-tiled in colourful patterns, villages with their shuttered town halls and their wine shops displaying sample bottles on upended barrels along the footpath. And this time, in the square of Nuit-Saint-Georges, I demolished an entree dish of six snails. The very ample lady at the next table made short work of sixteen.
The idyll couldn’t last, of course. It came to an abrupt end on Day Three. Heading out of Nuit-Saint-Georges, we got lost. Twice. Our trail notes told us to look for a small forest path, but developers had been into the forest. Raw earth and smashed trees lay heaped where our path was supposed to be. We tried to peer over the debris and walk around it, but saw no sign of any path. Half an hour of poking around led us back to the edge of the forest. I looked down the valley slope, over the endless ranks of grape vines, to a country road a couple of kilometres below us. It was our way out. Half an hour later we were inching cautiously along the side of the narrow road toward the village of Ladoix-Sevigny where (our map told us) we could reconnect with our planned route.
And yes, we managed to do that. But after just fifteen minutes of trekking through vineyards we were lost again. Maybe the configuration of the vineyards had changed, or our trail notes were not precise enough, or (no… this cannot possibly be the reason) I had forgotten to recharge my mobile phone and couldn’t access the route on Mac’s online app. Whatever… we found ourselves trudging the streets of a small town looking for a landmark. We walked past a middle-aged lady chatting on the footpath to a young man on a motorbike.
“You are visitors!” she called to us good English. “Where are you going?”
“I’ve no idea where we are going,” I called back. “We’re lost!”
“Come into my garden,” she said. “I’ll explain everything.”
She pressed a button on a handheld remote, and behind her, in a high, grey wall, a tall slab of iron creaked slowly open. She ushered us onto the back verandah of a grand old house set amid trees in a lush garden with a tennis court and a glassed-in swimming pool. Three big dogs bounded up – each dribbling over a stick or pine-cone – demanding to play. Big glasses of icy water appeared before us as Sabine, our new-found guardian angel, launched into an epic account of her family, her late husband’s business interests, her house, her children, and her dogs. An hour later, as she paused to draw breath, I glanced at my watch and, half-rising to my feet, murmured our thanks.
“Where are you going?” she asked in astonishment.
“We are walking to Beaune.”
“You certainly are not walking! I will take you there in my car!”
And that’s what happened. Not only did she drive us the last five kilometres to Beaune, she also took us to the nearby chapel of Our Lady of the Road (Notre Dame du Chemin) which has been part of her family’s heritage from ancient times. Half the chapel dates from the 11th century. This was followed by a tour around the streets of Beaune before we were delivered to our accommodation at Beaune’s Belle Epoque hotel.
That night, we drank a quiet toast of burgundy in thanks to Sabine, our dame du chemin. We were sitting in the Ecrit Vin restaurant (another family establishment recommended by Sabine) in the central square of Beaune, allowing the gentle rhythms of a jazz recital to wash over us from a nearby gazebo. Yet again we sank gratefully into the French institution of a long slow outdoor dinner, with long slow sips of wine, in the quiet warmth of a long slow summer twilight.
Have the French got it right? In Burgundy, in summer, yes, they have.
Postscript: A Perfect Stay with Friends in Charolles The following day we sailed south for an hour on a local train to the town of Macon where we were met by friends Lois Belton and Georges de Lucenay who live in the nearby town of Charolles, famous for its beef cattle. And again we luxuriated in the best of French hospitality: great food (I can still savour your Coronation Chicken, Lois), the warm quiet streets of Charolles, 17th century music from the town’s new church organ played with stately perfection by Lois, and a long, peaceful sleep under the 2nd floor roof of our friends’ big old house. Lois (originally from New Zealand) has adopted the splendid eccentricity of taking breakfast with a rook perched on her shoulder. Its intelligent, beady eye – like a guardian of all things Burgundian – kept a vigil over our meandering conversation and our slow enjoyment of croissants, local cheeses, local fresh eggs, and Georges’ delicious home-baked bread. It even forgave my swigging of Coca-Cola, a sin that must be kept secret in the wine country of Burgundy (wise bird!).
Next Post: we walk the wild Atlantic coast of county Clare in Ireland.