Midway between Dijon and Lyon, Burgundy's southernmost département Saône-et-Loire is an inviting land of rolling green fields criss-crossed by hedgerows and dotted with indigenous Charolais beef cattle. During the region's medieval heyday it was home to the largest church in all of Christendom, the magnificent abbey of Cluny.
Beaune (pronounced similarly to 'bone'), 44km south of Dijon, is the unofficial capital of the Côte d'Or. This thriving town's raison d'être and the source of its joie de vivre is wine: making it, tasting it, selling it, but most of all, drinking it. Consequently Beaune is one of the best places in all of France for wine tasting, and one of Burgundy's top tourist destinations.
The alluring riverside town of Auxerre (oh-sair) has been a port since Roman times. The old city clambers up the hillside on the west bank of the River Yonne. Wandering through the maze of its cobbled streets you come upon Roman remains, Gothic churches and timber-framed medieval houses. Views span a jumble of belfries, spires and steep tiled rooftops.
Côte d’Or Vineyards
Burgundy's most renowned vintages come from the vine-covered region of the Côte d'Or (literally Golden Hillside, but it is actually an abbreviation of Côte d'Orient or Eastern Hillside), the narrow, eastern slopes of a range of hills made of limestone, flint and clay that runs south from Dijon for about 60km.
The well-to-do, picturesque town of Chablis, 20km east of Auxerre, has made its fortune growing, ageing and marketing the dry white wines that have carried its name to the four corners of the earth. Chablis is made exclusively from chardonnay grapes and originated with the monks of Pontigny.
Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan
The 2990-sq-km Morvan Regional Park, bounded more or less by Avallon, Vézelay, Corbigny, Luzy, Autun and Saulieu, and straddling Burgundy's four départements (with the majority in the Nièvre), encompasses 700 sq km of dense woodland, 13 sq km of lakes, and vast expanses of rolling farmland broken by hedgerows, stone walls and stands of beech, hornbeam and oak.
West of Dijon, along and around the Canal de Bourgogne, the Pays d'Auxois is a rolling land of mustard fields, wooded hills and escarpments dotted with fortified hilltop towns, including Semur-en-Auxois. Tucked into this verdant landscape are a pair of exceptional historical sites, the Cistercian abbey of Fontenay and the MuséoParc Alésia historical museum.
The tiny hilltop village of Vézelay – a Unesco World Heritage Site – is one of France's architectural gems. Perched on a rocky spur crowned by a medieval basilica and surrounded by a sublime patchwork of vineyards, sunflower fields and cows, Vézelay seems to have been lifted from another age. One of the main pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain starts here.
The town of Mâcon, 70km north of Lyon on the west bank of the Saône, sits at the heart of the Mâconnais, Burgundy's southernmost winegrowing area, which produces mainly dry whites. The city has a pair of museums, some excellent restaurants and a small but pleasant-enough historic centre consisting of a narrow strip of pedestrian-friendly streets near the riverfront.
The once-strategic walled town of Avallon, on a picturesque hilltop overlooking the green terraced slopes of two River Cousin tributaries, was a stop on the coach road from Paris to Lyon in centuries past. At its most animated during the Saturday morning market, the city makes a good base for exploring Vézelay and the Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan.