Travels with My Parents: Burgundy, France
The renowned wine region is the perfect destination for a grown-up family vacation.
My parents have always been great travellers, it's one of the gifts that they've given us as a family is a love of travel and the confidence to go out and experience the world.
Although they're now nearing 80, they're both still fit and active and still love travelling.
Apart from an awkward period in my teens when it felt particularly uncool to travel with my family, I've always loved going on trips with my parents, so when they asked me to join them on a visit to Burgundy in France, I jumped at the chance.
In many ways, the region of Burgundy symbolises everything about old-France that makes it such an incredible place to visit.
The history of this region stretches back through the ages, but Burgundy began to take shape in the form that we know it today during the dissolution of the Frankish Empire in the 880s.
The Dukes of Burgundy emerged as a powerful political force across the centuries, steadily expanding their territories and influence before being largely absorbed by France during the 15th and 16th centuries.
One of the factors that made Burgundy such a strategic part of the world was its agriculture — throughout its history this area has been recognised as producing quality food and outstanding wine.
One of the reasons that this region has been able to produce such good wine is its topography — the valleys and slopes created along the west of the Saone River (a tributary of the Rhone) have proved to be perfect conditions for growing pinot noir grapes (for red wine) and chardonnay grapes (for white wine).
The climate of this region features cold winters and hot summers — but there is also some unpredictability as rains, hail, and frost can all play a part in making the vintage of one year significantly more desirable or appreciated than the vintage of another.
- If you're travelling from London, then it makes sense to take the Eurostar train to central Paris, changing onto the TGV fast train to Dijon (the major city in this region). You'll need to pick up a hire-car when you get to Dijon.
- If you’re arriving straight into Paris, then the fast-train to Dijon is still the best access point to this region. Alternatively you could pick up a hire-car and drive – it's easy driving and will take around 3.5 hours.
- On this trip we flew from Bristol to Geneva, picked up a hire-car from Geneva airport and then drove into Burgundy. Easy to do.
Our first stop was Beaune—we arrived around lunchtime and easily found a park. Beaune is effectively the second city within this region (Dijon being the largest).
There's some beautiful architecture in Beaune, and you can easily spend a couple of hours wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere.
One of the main attractions to visit is the Hospices de Beaune.
The history of this place is incredible. It was established in 1443 as a hospital and continued to be used as Beaune’s main hospital until the 1970s when a new modern hospital was built on the outskirts of town.
Today, the Hospices de Beaune is open to the public as a museum. Its medical history is fascinating, but it's also a stunning example of the building styles of the 15th century — particularly the decorative tiles used to construct the roof which is a feature of this region.
The museum also houses the stunning Rogier van der Weyden polyptych altarpiece — this originally adorned the hospital’s main chapel and, due largely to the care of the nuns who ran the hospice (who even managed to hide it from the Nazi’s during World War II), the altarpiece has survived remarkably intact.
While you're in Beaune it's also worth visiting the Fallot mustard factory. While Burgundy is synonymous with wine, one of the other products that this region is famous for is its mustard.
Fallot is the fourth most popular mustard producer in France but, unlike the top three, Fallot is family-owned and is creating mustard using the local produce of the Burgundy region (although the mustard seeds are now mainly imported from Canada). You can do a tour of the production facilities of the factory—which is more interesting than it might sound—but if you don't have time for the tour, you can still taste some of the different flavoured mustards available. Quality stuff.
From Beaune, we drove on to the village of Gevrey-Chambertin—a small village between Beaune and Dijon and the location of our hotel for the duration of our stay.
We stayed in Les Deux Chevres, which was the perfect base from which to explore the region.
There are a series of small villages scattered across Burgundy, and I imagine that they all provide a fairly similar experience, but Gevrey-Chambertin was almost fairytale good.
We walked a few blocks from the hotel to dinner at a restaurant called Chez Guy, had some fantastic food and wine, and then happily walked back to the hotel where we fell into bed.
The Villages of Burgundy
Our second day was dedicated to gently exploring the region in which we'd immersed ourselves. Driving slowly along the back roads, stopping for numerous photos, admiring the spectacular countryside, the vineyards, the villages, the churches, and appreciating a real sense of being in a place of agricultural excellence.
We drove as far south as the village of Pommard, before making our way back to Agencourt for a late lunch (it's not the place where there was a famous battle—that's Agincourt, near Calais).
That evening, another short walk to dinner in the village—this time we dined at La Rotisserie du Chambertin, which was perfect.
Our third day in Burgundy, and we focused on the city of Dijon.
It was an easy drive from where we were staying, and it was easy to find a park.
Dijon is a spectacular city. A fascinating mix of architecture and building styles throughout the ages. City tours can be booked through the tourism office, but a more relaxed way to explore the city on your own is to collect the self-guided tour booklet. The route of the tour is marked by small owls set into the pavement, with major points of interest clearly marked and detailed in the free booklet. You don't necessarily need to booklet as the owls are pretty easy to follow, but the booklet gives you a few insights about the key points of interest.
The owl has become the symbol of the city after the builder of the stunning Notre Dame church included a small owl in the exterior as a subtle tribute to the Dukes of Burgundy (in French there is a similarity in the words used to describe the owl with the description of the Dukes). Visitors are encouraged to rub the small stone owl with their left hand — it brings luck, or perhaps it is an aphrodisiac, either way it's worth a rub.
We were in Dijon on a Friday, which seems to be their big market day, so we stocked up with some bread and cheese and wine and that was our dinner for the evening.
The Pyramid of Quality
There are plenty of opportunities to learn about wine while you're visiting Burgundy. Our hotel offered a wine tasting, and most hotels will either be able to guide you through some wines or recommend where to go.
The simplest way to think about the wines of Burgundy is as a pyramid of quality — there are four main categories of wine produced in this region.
The first level (with the greatest volume of wines produced and the lowest prices) are the regional appellation wines. These are wines that are produced from grapes grown from within the Burgundy region. The labels of these wines will clearly show AOC Bourgogne to indicate that it is a wine of Burgundy.
The second level (and a step up in quality and price, with lower volumes produced) are the village appellation wines. These are wines that are produced from grapes grown within the boundaries of one of the 42 villages that can be found within Burgundy. The labels of these wines will clearly show the name of the village that it is from and will also generally have the specific vineyard where the grapes have been sourced from. So you will see wines labelled as Pommard; or Puligny-Montrachet; or Aloxe-Corton.
The third level (and again a step up in quality and price, with lower volumes produced) are the Premier Cru wines. These wines are produced from a specific vineyard that is considered to be of high quality. The labels of these wines will indicate the name of the relevant village, the vineyard name, and will clearly indicate its Premier Cru status.
The fourth level of quality (so these are the most expensive wines) are the Grand Cru wines. These are the wines produced from the small number of vineyards that have been recognised as the best vineyard sites in the region. The labels of these wines will list the name of the vineyard and indicate their Grand Cru status, but they will not list a village name.
A great way to start a meal is with a glass of Crémant—the sparkling wine produced in this region, similar to champagne—best accompanied with some gougère pastries (choux pastry flavored with cheese which are a local specialty). Chardonnay grapes are used to produce high-quality Chablis, but it's the Pinot Noir wines that this region is most famous for.
Other Things to Do
- Cycle—your hotel will probably have access to some bikes that you can borrow, it's a great way to explore the vineyards and the nearby villages. There are also specialist operators that can put together cycling vacations for you.
- Visit the cassis factory—As well its wine and its mustard, Burgundy is also renowned as a centre for the production of the blackcurrant vines used to make cassis. Le Cassisium near Nuits-Saints-Georges is effectively a museum dedicated to the celebration of the iconic liqueur of Crème de Cassis. This is the production factory of the Védrenne company — makers of the Super Cassis brand of the liqueur.
Where to Stay
- Les Deux Chevres — Gevrey-Chambertin: A gorgeous boutique hotel with simple but stylish decor. Breakfast is particularly good. There are a range of rooms available; we struck it lucky with two bedrooms that shared a kitchen and living area. It was perfect for our family expedition.
- Le Clos — Montagny-les-Beaune: This would be my back-up option. Located in the village of Montagny-les-Beaune, Le Clos is a traditional, chateau-style hotel.
Where to Eat
- Chez Guy — Gevrey-Chambertin: This is a small, modern bistro with very friendly and welcoming staff as well as quality food — presenting local specialities in an informal and relaxed style. I opted for slow-cooked beef cheeks in a pinot noir sauce, finishing with a cherry clafoutis. It was a real treat to be able to sit outside in the warm evening and observe village life around us. Simple, uncomplicated food done really well. You can’t ask for much more than that.
- Le Peche Mignon — Agencourt: Le Peche Mignon (which I think translates roughly as The Guilty Secret) seems a bit out of the way, on a road that doesn't really lead to anywhere of significance. As you pull into the carpark, the appearance of this place is underwhelming in every sense, but it's an absolute gem. We sat outside, looking out over the adjoining fields. We opted for the menu of the day, which included a fresh tomato mousse to begin, grilled pork for main, and a peach dessert to finish. Clearly popular with local people working nearby, this is excellent food and charming service.
- Rotisserie du Chambertin — Gevrey-Chambertin: Modern and contemporary, this is slick and professional but still welcoming and with a focus on great photo. I had a lamb dish, while my parents opted for the fish. Fantastic.
- L’Ecusson — Beaune: This was modern, impressive food. Service was professional and friendly — our basic restaurant French was thankfully received with a smile, although our waitress helpfully also spoke English if required.
- Le Chevreuil — Meursault: A modern restaurant with friendly and professional service. A solid option in a region renowned for its gastronomic excellence.
- Le Fine Heure – Dijon: Contemporary French cooking with a focus on quality wines.
- Dijon has been announced as city of gastronomy in 2018 — there will be events scheduled throughout the year.