Burgundy is la belle France in a nutshell. Known as Bourgogne in French, this quintessentially rural region stitched from pea-green fields, canals and vineyards in eastern France really does have it all: sensational food and wine, a million and one chateaux, handsome hilltop villages at every turn and enough Unesco World Heritage sights to keep culture vultures busy for days.
While urbanites get their kicks in dashing Dijon, Beaune and other thriving small towns, cycling, canal boating, ballooning and sauntering on foot along enchanting riverside trails peppered with wildflowers in spring are exhilarating outdoor pursuits. Oh, and did we mention road-tripping on the back of an original, 1950s Mobylette? If it is authentic French joie de vivre you’re after, Burgundy is the address.
Play the French flâneur in Dijon
With magnificent medieval and Renaissance architecture at every turn, regional capital Dijon was cut out for slow and indulgent flânerie on foot. Its compact and pedestrian-friendly center, lively street scene and rich architectural tapestry make it one of France's most appealing cities to mooch: the gorgeous polychrome tile roofs in glazed ceramic hark back to Dijon’s 14th- and 15th-century heyday as capital of the Duchy of Burgundy when it was richer and more powerful than the kingdom of France itself. All municipal museums, including the superb Musée des Beaux Arts in the east wing of the monumental Palais des Ducs et des États de Bourgogne, offer free admission and the self-guided Owl Trail walking tour is great fun for families; get details at the tourist office.
Live like a local in Beaune
From its architectural jewel of a Gothic charity hospital to the centuries-old labyrinth of wine cellars hidden beneath its streets, the small town of Beaune (pronounced similarly to 'bone') is as beau as its name suggests. As the unofficial capital of the world-class Côte d'Or region, wine is the town's raison d'être and natural source of its deliciously contagious joie de vivre. Tasting opportunities are rife above and below ground, guided vineyard tours by car or bicycle abound, and dining is notably grassroots and farm-fresh (Caves Madeleine is a favorite). Don’t miss hobnobbing with locals at the sprawling, Saturday-morning farmers’ market on cobblestoned Place de la Halle.
Cut the mustard as a French gourmand
Burgundy’s feisty cuisine is a gastronomic romp through history and indulging, no holds barred, is key to cutting the mustard as a French gourmand. Pain d’épices (gingerbread) was brought to Burgundy from the Holy Land by the Crusaders and vines were planted here by the Romans. The inevitable wine-tasting aside, there’s tender Charolais rib-eye beef and tangy Dijon mustard to sample: experience black truffle, blackcurrant, honey, white wine and dozens of other gourmet flavors at Moutarderie Maille in Dijon, and traditionally stone-ground moutarde at Moutarderie Fallot in Beaune.
Mop after up garlicky snails
France’s finest snails hail from Burgundy. Escargots de Bourgogne are fed on juicy grape leaves and are traditionally served still in their distinctive black shells, stuffed with tangy garlic-and-parsley butter. Mopping up the sublime puddle of garlicky oil left on your plate with bread is as much a highlight as each chewy plump snail.
You can master the art of manipulating snail tongs and two-pronged snail fork – not easy – at any restaurant specializing in regional cuisine: family-run La Table d’Héloïse in Cluny never disappoints. Or join locals celebrating their favorite gastropod at a traditional Fête des Escargots (Snail Festival), held each year in Chevigny-St-Saveur and Digoin.
Follow pilgrims to a Unesco-treasured abbey
Visiting Burgundy’s trio of superstar abbeys is as much about the journey – a meditative ramble through peaceful green fields and wooded valleys, along cobblestoned lanes and tranquil streams – as the awe-inspiring history and architecture you encounter on arrival.
Tiny but spectacular Abbaye de Vézelay squats in splendid isolation on a hilltop at the trailhead of the centuries-old Voie de Vézelay pilgrimage route leading 1100km (685 miles) to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Its exquisite, 11th- to 12th-century basilica is enshrined on Unesco’s World Heritage list as one of the world’s great treasures, as is Abbaye de Fontenay, founded in 1118 and a powerful evocation today of medieval monastic life. In southern Burgundy, ruined Cluny was incredibly Christendom's largest church until the construction of St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Shockingly stinky orange-skinned cheese Époisses adds a curious dimension to restored Abbaye de Cîteaux where it has been monk-made since the 11th century. Upon departure, buy a round from the abbey shop.
Savor viticulture flavor in Mâconnais
With its attractive old town and riverside location on the west bank of the Saône, the small winemaking town of Mâcon in southern Burgundy is a delight to explore. But its greatest appeal lies in the surrounding Mâcconais countryside, peppered with cute winemaking villages that read like a 'Who’s Who' of best French whites: Fuissé, Vinzelles, Pouilly…
For a bird’s eye perspective of the entire vineyard-spangled Mâconnais, motor 10km (6 miles) west of Mâcon where the rocky outcrop of Roche de Solutré commands awe-inspiring views and a tip-top prehistory museum. Lunch with a modern creative twist afterward at La Courtille de Solutré is always a good idea, as is gastronomic dining overlooking vines at L’O des Vignes, 10 minutes drive south in Fuissé.
Celebrate gastronomy and wine at La Cité
Excitement for summer 2022 is already mounting for not one, but two, ground-breaking cités (cities) aimed squarely at seducing French food and wine lovers. West of regional capital Dijon, slap-bang on the sweet spot where the iconic Route des Grands Crus hits the road, La Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin (CIGV) is taking shape in an upcycled 13th-century orphanage-turned-hospital. When finished, the cooking school, wine school, restaurants, shops, exhibition space and labs in the €250 million complex guarantee full immersion in Burgundy’s grassroots gastronomy scene.
If it’s a pure, unadulterated vin experience you’re craving, don your tasting hat for a road trip around La Cité des Vins et de Climats de Bourgogne – a three-pronged attraction with sites in Beaune, Chablis and Mâcon, and a strong focus on sustainable viticulture. At the flagship in Beaune, gen up on Burgundy’s Unesco World Heritage-prized climat (Burgundy vineyard) and scale a 24m-tall corkscrew tower for a mind-blowing panorama of Côte d’Or vineyards laid out romantically at your feet. Gorge on a garden exhibition demonstrating the seasonal calendar of winemaking in real-time in Chablis, and experience the ‘sound’ of Burgundian wine culture in Mâcon.
On the hop: craft beer
Swap wine for craft beer. Artisan microbreweries have mushroomed in Burgundy in recent years, with experimental brewers cleverly drawing on their region’s rich viticulture heritage to age beer in oak wine barrels, create sought-after millésimées (vintage ales) and blend traditional local flavors such as blackcurrant, gingerbread and Marc de Bourgogne (a local grappa) to create unusual aromatic beers.
Highlights on the craft-beer trail include an organic lager or IPA at Brasserie de Vézelay, beer crafted from grape must or aged in a premier cru wine barrel at Maddam in Chablis, or a sweet Zouaffe brewed from fresh elderflower blossoms at Brasserie de Cluny in Cluny. Or make a meal of it with exceptional home cooking and beer pairings around a shared table at Tournus’ Two Dudes.
Relive high drama in Roman Gaul
Admiring Gallo-Roman artifacts and the unusually sensual Temptation of Eve, a masterpiece of stone carving by 12th-century sculptor Gislebertus, in the largely unsung art museum Musée Rolin easily justifies a trip to Autun. This low-key town, on the doorstep of the nature-rich Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan in southern Burgundy, was one of the most important cities in Roman Gaul almost two millennia ago. Sacked by barbarian tribes from 269 CE, evocative ruins are all that remain of its original ramparts, monumental gates, theatres, amphitheater and sophisticated aqueduct system. Its hilly old city and impressive Romanesque cathedral are rather nice too.
Hardcore Celt fiends must continue 25km (15 miles) to the Gallic oppidum of Bribracte, capital of the Aedui Celts in the 1st and 2nd century BCE, and nearby MuséoParc Alésia to relive the famous 52 BCE battle between Gaullish chef Vercingétorix and Julius Caesar’s merry band of 50,000 Roman legionaries.
Revel in boat life afloat
Exploring the region’s network of tranquil waterways is a golden ticket to encountering flora, birdlife and other fauna at close quarters along the peaceful Yonne, Saône and Seille rivers and a network of pretty canals, including the Canal de Bourgogne, Canal du Centre and Canal du Nivernais. March to October is the season for water explorers. Boats of all shapes and sizes, from single canoe to houseboat with bicycles attached on the side, can be rented in the ancient river port of Auxerre, on the western bank of the Yonne. To navigate by standup paddleboard, electric motorboat, pedalo with sunshade and kayak, make a beeline for Le Betardeau.
Cruise the countryside by vintage Mobylette
In a region essentially built from rural back lanes, bucolic countryside, farming hamlets and wine-making villages, memorable road trips are a given. Motoring around the countryside by car, campervan or motorcycle cooks up endless opportunities for memorable pit stops – to lunch in epicurean style, taste wine crafted by boutique vignerons (winegrowers) whose vintages are only available in the region, explore historic churches and abbeys, gorge on panoramic views atop hilltop villages best reached by foot. Cruising the countryside by e-scooter with One Up Tour or the back of an original, 1950s vintage Mobylette with Les Brêles Balades are unforgettable new-gen road trips.
Wine and dine in a Renaissance chateau
It feels like a world-renowned grand cru seeps out of every last flintstone in the Côte d’Or (literally ‘Golden Hillside’), Burgundy’s most prestigious wine region where meticulously groomed vineyards march with military precision south of Dijon for some 60km (37mi). Tasting opportunities naturally abound on this vinicultural neck of the woods, but to delve backstage – from the Middle Ages to the magnificent present day – reserve a date with Château du Clos de Vougeot. Touring the medieval vat house and presses, Cistercian cellar and original kitchens at this 16th-century chateau is an immersive eye-opener, as is the subsequent sensational table d’hôte tasting lunch, enjoyed with six different wines around a shared table in a private wing of the Renaissance chateau.
Try your hand at blackcurrant mixology
No French aperitif is quite so classic as kir which mixes three-parts white wine with one-part crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) to create a sweet yet crisp pre-meal drink. Not only is the French icon named after Dijon mayor, Félix Kir (1876-1968), credited with reviving the 19th-century drink after WWII; crème de cassis is a born-and-bred Burgundy babe. Gen up on its history, production and – most importantly – taste at the family-friendly factory-museum Cassissium in Nuits St-George, and discover the secret cocktail artist in you with an inspiring, hands-on mixology workshop.
Slow right down in a balloon
To feast on the region’s insatiably green and handsome landscapes from an alternative perspective, book yourself a ride over Burgundian vineyards, hills and rivers in a colorful hot-air balloon. Balloons generally only take off on blue-sky days between April and October. About a dozen companies operate in the region, including the ingeniously named Air Escargot (‘Snail Air’), some 20km (12 miles) southwest of Beaune. Beaune and Dijon tourist offices can also help with bookings.
Taste wine in a Dijon ‘speakeasy’
You can rely on a French cultural heavyweight like Burgundy to flip the conventional meaning of ‘speakeasy’ on its head. Clandestine, surprising and occasionally feeling a wee bit illicit, ‘Wine Thursday’ tastings organized by the Dijon tourist office lead visitors to a different secret destination each week, May to September. Guided wine tastings are led by a professional sommelier who goes by the ‘stage name’ of Monsieur Déguste (Mr. Taste), with visitors learning as much about the cultural location they end up – the opera house, an abbey or cloister, a museum, place of worship, all sorts – as the different regional vintages they swirl, smell, sniff and sip.
Other fun wine tasting opportunities in Dijon include sampling vintages from the year of your birth with owner Olivier at old-vintage specialist wine bar Caveau de Saulx (advance reservation necessary for anyone born before 1970); in situ amid vines during a ‘Château Vélo Vino’ bicycle tour with Bourgogne Évasion; or paired with a plat du jour crafted from local organic produce at L’Age de Raisin (not ‘Age of Reason’ but rather brilliantly ‘Age of the Grape’).
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