A Side Trip from Paris

Bourgogne March 2009

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March 2009

The Burgundy area is an easy three hour car ride from Paris. There are ancient towns to visit and wines to taste. We didn’t visit any of the famous wineries in the area but we did sample some good Burgundies with our meals.

Wilson Farm HouseAndrew stayed in Paris with Roman while Ray, Erica, Atticus and I took the auto route out of Paris on a bright but chilly Saturday morning in a rented car. Libby and Spenser Wilson, friends of Erica and Andrew, kindly allowed us the use of their farmhouse in Burgundy. We stopped on the way to load up with groceries and soon found our way to the tiny crossroads village of Thory. Erica and Andrew had visited twice in the summer with their boys but March is a lot colder and an old stone farmhouse takes a long time to warm up. We lit the wood stove in the living room and turned on the space heaters to take the chill out of the rooms.

We opened the cupboard in the kitchen to unload our groceries and were inundated with chewed bits of plastic and paper. A rodent had made its home in the cupboard. I started to clean out the cupboard and Erica came to see what I was doing. “It’s not a mouse” she said “a big rat just ran across the cupboard!”. Erica promptly took Atticus outside and Ray and I got a broom to dislodge the uninvited guest. Soon a well-fed, sleek rat carefully descended the cupboard, ran across the kitchen floor into the adjacent bathroom and disappeared behind the washing machine. While I finished filling garbage bags of chewed nestings and cleaned out the cupboard, Erica and Ray went to visit friends who live nearby. They returned with a large rat trap which we set behind the washing machine. The rat enjoyed the piece of bacon with which we baited the trap the first time and the second offering of a piece of cheese but didn’t get caught. We tried a third time with raisins and are pleased to report the rat was snared. We hope he was a loner and didn’t tell his friends of the marvellous pickings to be found.

After the rat nest cleanup, we were all ready for a walk in neighbourhood. Most of the homes in Thory appear to be vacation homes but there are still a few working farms. Atticus led us into the yard of one and showed us the large rabbit and chickens kept in outdoor cages. We walked into a communal forest beside the village. It is a favourite spot for the children to explore. A steep bank leads to a stream that runs through the forest. Piles of firewood lined the stream, cut by locals from windfalls.

LavoirJust across the road from the farmhouse is a “lavoir”, once the social center for women of the village. Wash houses were built all over France at the end of the end of the 18th C as a hygienic move. An 1851 law is credited for a huge surge in construction. Fed by streams or rivers, they were usually built of brick or stone with a tiled roof. Some had a wood fireplace for heating water. Their use lasted until they were displaced by the washing machines in the 20th C. There is currently great interest in saving and restoring these buildings. The water still flows through the lavoir across from the farmhouse. It is in amazingly good shape. Someone in the neighbourhood has been tenderly caring for the lavoir.

New Arthel ChateauSunday we took a drive to visit several of the picturesque towns within a short drive from the farmhouse. It seems that every large town has a château, often built as the summer residence of the local Duke. We drove to the tiny town of Arthel for a walk around a dammed lake, complete with a lavoir beside the water. Arthel had two châteaus, one built in the 11th C, the other from the 17th C. Both are still in use. The older one had a tennis court in the yard while horses wandered the fields around the newer one. We made another stop at the Butte de Montenoison with ruins of a 13th C château at the top of and a commanding view of the countryside.

Erica and Atticus had to return to Paris on Sunday. Ray and I were to stay at the farmhouse for another two days. We drove to Nevers, about 45 minutes from Thory, where Erica and Atticus would take the afternoon train back to Paris. Nevers, on the right bank of the Loire River, is very quiet on a Sunday. Nearly all the stores were closed and we had to search to find a restaurants open. Nevers is known for its faïence style pottery, introduced by the Duke of Nevers, an Italian, in the 17th C. We had the decision to buy some of the items displayed in several stores made for us as everything was closed.

Nevers CathedralAfter lunch we said our goodbyes and went to visit the Cathedral Saint-Cyr et Sainte Julitte. This large stone building, built between the 11th and 16th C, is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The church, instead of ironworks nearby, was bombed accidentally by the British in 1944 and sustained extensive damage. The beautiful stained glass windows were shattered but the bombing uncovered a 6th C Bapistry. The church was rebuilt and the windows were replaced in the 1960s with those of contemporary design.

Vezelay CathedralOur destination Monday was Vézelay, a Romanesque town built on a hilltop and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the top of the hill sits the Basilica of Ste Marie-Madeleine. It was founded as a monastery in 878 and was a major pilgrimage destination for adherents coming to view relics of Christ’s disciple Mary Magdalene. The site was also a stopover for pilgrims from Northern Europe on the way to the Camino Santiago de Compostela. Like the cathedral in Nevers, the Basilica is part Romanesque and part Gothic architecture. Most interesting were the detailed stone carvings over doors and on the capitals of the many pillars within the church. Outside we enjoyed the view from a good panorama at the rear of church.

By the time we had toured the Basilica it was time for lunch and as usual, the locals know where the best values are found. We had to wait for a table to be available but it was worth the wait. Fortunately the waiter spoke good English as he was able to explain the unfamiliar dishes on the menu and steer us away from the local specialties not palatable to our bland North American tastes. We enjoyed our eventual choices.

Auxerre HalfTimbered BuildingsWe had time on our drive back to Paris on Tuesday for a stop in Auxerre. Auxerre, on left bank of Yonne River, has been a thriving commercial center since the Gallo-Roman era and still has a thriving farmer’s market, now located above convenient underground parking. We walked from the market through the old town past numerous half-timbered buildings centered around small squares.

Jeanne D'Arc StatueWe were headed to yet another church, Cathedral Saint Étienne. Its flamboyant 13th-14th C Gothic facade was partially damaged in the 16th C by clashes with Protestant reformers but it was not destroyed. The beautiful red and blue stained glass windows from 13th and 16th C retain their appeal. The Cathedral was visited by Jeanne D'Arc on her was to Orleans in 1430. I had to stop to take a photo of a statue and stained glass windows installed to commemorate my namesake

We intended to visit the Monastère St Germaine and its adjacent museum but it was closed for the month of March. There are not enough tourists around to warrant keeping it open. We just had time to buy sandwiches at a Boulangerie and head out to the auto route towards Paris. The drive was easier than we had feared and we made good time back to Paris.

We saw just a small part of Burgundy on our visit but we will be sure to return again to visit more of this pleasantly rural part of France. 

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