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On a walk through Burgundy, there is time for getting lost and also found

Roving #CroakeyEXPLORE correspondent Dr Lesley Russell recently undertook her fifth walking tour in France, from Dijon to Meursault in Burgundy.

Along the way, she found some beautiful countryside and learnt about local history and produce (including the story of a hospital that served wine to the sick) – and also became a little lost.


Lesley Russell writes:

I’m at the top of a hill with a magnificent view over rows of vines to the small village below and beyond to more vineyards and farmland. I walk along a muddy track (there was a thunderstorm and a huge downpour last night) between rows of vines and the forest that covers the hilltops, searching for what my directions say is “a very small path leading into the woods”.

Uncharacteristically, there are no signs marking the route, and the fact that my (usually very explicit and quite formal) instructions state “It might look unlikely but, believe me, it’s correct!” is no comfort.

I come across a group of vineyard workers enjoying their morning break and ask directions. That initiates a whole set of questions around my walking destination, where I am from, my ability to speak French, and my knowledge of kangaroos, along with an invitation to share their repast. Their directions send me straight ahead, a route I know is not the one I’m supposed to take, but soon, after slipping and sliding through the mud along the tractor route, I can see the next village marked on my map.

The village is tiny, but the road I am supposed to take is not to be found and neither are the signs that mark the way. So I ask a little old lady for directions.

Quick as a flash, she pulls out her I-phone from her apron pocket, dials up Google Maps and indicates that I just need to walk 150 metres to the right on the road behind me. This is why I love walking in France – and why I stubbornly refuse to use GPS when I do.

This June I walked in Burgundy from Dijon to Meursault. This was my fifth walking trip in France and the third time I had undertaken a solo walk. You can read about my previous walks at #CroakeyGO.

I selected this walk more for the beautiful countryside, the history and an element of luxury (albeit with some physical exercise thrown in) rather than the wines, but I was enthusiastic about learning a little more about the famous produce of this area.

Red marker indicates Meursault.

This trip was undertaken with the help of my usual travel organisation, which made all the accommodation arrangements and (the best part) moved my duffle bag from place to place so I only needed to carry a day pack. They also provide maps and detailed walking instructions, in both hard copy and on an app.

Unlike most previous trips, the evening meal was not included because there were many restaurant options in the towns and villages where I stayed. Most days I opted for a picnic lunch (bread, cheese, fruit) along the route. There were abundant cherry and fig trees and even wild strawberries to forage along the way.

The weather in June should be ideal for walking (although I experienced a heat wave in June 2017 and floods in June 2016) and so it proved. True, rain was forecast every day, but the weather gods ensured that it was always at night. June does, however, seem to always be rail strike month in France.

Even before I arrived in Paris I had received an email alerting me to the fact that my train to Dijon might be affected. (I buy my train tickets for Europe and the UK on thetrainline.com and somehow SNCF has my email address for notifications.) Fortunately I had time to check at Gare de Lyon about my departure the next day (cancelled) and then to stand in line to change it. You must combine being a bit pushy with being overly polite and invoke your best mastery of the language when it comes to French railway officials.

I arrived in Dijon late in the afternoon. It’s a large, sprawling city surrounding a beautifully preserved old city that dates from medieval times. I loved the Burgundy architecture which is distinguished by stone and wooden buildings with roofs made of tiles glazed in green, yellow and black and arranged in geometric patterns.

The long, softly lit evening gave me a good chance to explore and to find a great place for dinner in the wide plaza opposite the magnificently restored Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. As I ate, a thunderstorm rolled in and the rain came down – something that was to become a nightly event. My hotel room had doors opening onto a wide balcony with views of the old city and I fell asleep wondering if I would be walking through the rain the next day.

The Old City of Dijon

Day 1: Marsanny-la-Côte to Gevrey-Chambertin (9 km)

To my relief, my first day of walking dawned bright and sunny. I had time for an early morning walk around the old city and to find the nearest bakery for lunch provisions before a pre-arranged ride to the start of the walk at Marsanny-la-Côte.

Soon I was surrounded by neatly tended vineyards and it wasn’t long before I passed my first winery offering free tastings. It seemed a little early, even for a committed wine buff, so I kept walking, but did stop to have a serious conversation (and some samplings) with a woman picking cherries by the pathway. The well-posted route led to the Parc Noisot, a forest of Corsican pines planted in 1835 to honour the Emperor Napoléon (who by then was interned on Elba) by Claude Noisot who was Napoléon’s surgeon and who spent some time in exile with him. Here there is also a set of 100 steps cut into the cliff to recall the Hundred Days of Napoléon’s return to power in 1815.

With only nine kilometres to walk and all day to do it, I dawdled and got off the track to explore churches, graveyards and villages, and read all the signs (a feature of this walk was lots of signs with information about local wine domaines, chateaux, and villages).

This vineyard near the village of Fixin was once owned by Claude Noisot, who was Napoléon’s surgeon. It’s just 1.8 hectares.

But by early afternoon I was at my accommodation (a charming old hotel surrounded by roses) in a village that seemed to have more wine tasting venues than houses. My host advised on the best restaurant in town and I dined magnificently with lots of helpful advice about the wines.

Once again, there was a thunderstorm and a downpour. The very large Airedale dog accompanying the French couple sitting nearby had a panic attack, whimpering madly at every thunderclap but the French guests were unperturbed. Despite an umbrella, I got soaked as I headed back to my hotel.

The flower-filled village of Gevrey-Chambertin

Day 2: Gevrey-Chambertin to Nuits-Saint-George (14.5 km)

I preened somewhat as I overheard my host tell a couple at breakfast that the only other guest was “une madame qui marche toute seule”. Meanwhile, I was plied with pastries and fruit for lunch and ice for my (insulated) water bottles. I pulled on my muddy boots on the front porch, shouldered my pack, and set off for my day’s adventures along the “Chemin des Grands Crus”.

The first part of this walk was along a woodland trail through the local forêt communale; this path soon dropped back down among the vineyards along tracks that were very muddy and quite slick. I was glad of my stout, waterproof walking boots and walking pole. There was no-one else on these trails, although there were lots of workers among the vines. You could just see minute bunches of grapes starting to form and most of the work involved thinning and training the shoots along the wires. The workers seemed very companionable, with lots of talking and laughing, and I enjoyed interacting with them along the way.

I arrived at Nuits-Saint-George at lunchtime, so ate my picnic in the local park and then explored the town, which frankly was disappointing – a fairly gritty, rather industrial place, not at all what I had imagined from the famous wines made in and around the town. But there was good coffee to be had at a café in the town square, and my accommodation, which overlooked the 17th century Hôpital Saint-Laurent (still functioning as a hospital, supported by sales of the products of its vineyards), was lovely.

Burgundy views

Day 3: Corgoloin to Beaune (13 km)

The same transport service that moved my bag dropped me at the cemetery gates in Corgoloin. It soon became apparent that today – for some inexplicable reason – the usual abundance of signs and the clarity of my written directions had disappeared. The situation was complicated by tracks so muddy that in several places I had to look for diversions.

But you can never be really lost in rural France – there are usually farmhouses, hamlets, roads and workers within view (although on previous occasions I have walked for several kilometres wondering if I had taken the right path).

This day I was “rescued” by the little old lady with her phone (as per the vignette above), by the local postman, and by the directions which told me to turn right at the large house, which was clearly visible from a distance.

Lots of signs along the way – until there weren’t!

A walk through leafy suburbs brought me to the square in front of the magnificent Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, where the weekly market was just packing up. My hotel for the next two nights was just outside the old walled town centre, in a beautifully restored 17th century house built for a wine merchant. I was warmly greeted with cold drinks in the courtyard, and then shown up narrow winding stairs to my timber-beamed room under the eaves.

I explored the old town as the sun set in the early evening, dallying over my choice of restaurant for dinner and finally settling on one that was quaintly old-fashioned, with elegant service to match.

My hotel in Beaune – a beautifully restored old house built for a local wine merchant

Day 4: Beaune (20 kms)

This was scheduled as a “rest day” in Beaune – although with so much to see and explore, I ended up walking more than usual. There has been a settlement here since prehistoric times; Beaune was a thriving centre of viticulture under the Romans and a seat of power for the Dukes of Burgundy through to the end of the 15th century. The town, circular in shape, is still largely surrounded by walls with towers, some of which date to the 13th century.

The ramparts of Beaune
The wine museum in Beaune

I briefly explored the Collégiale Notre-Dame (begun in the 12th century) and the wine museum, then walked the ramparts and treated myself to lunch. In the afternoon I spent time at the very impressive Hôtel-Dieu.

This was built in 1441-52 as a hospital for the poor by Nicholas Rolin, the last chancellor of the Burgundian dukes, and his wife. At the time, the majority of the population of Beaune were destitute in the wake of the Hundred Years war and the area had recently suffered an outbreak of plague.

The internal courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune

Rolin was forward thinking and generous – he spared no expense on the buildings, which include a kitchen and apothecary, commissioned a number of important pieces of art which remain today, and made an endowment of land and vineyards.

Then the sick were served wine daily; today the sale of wines from these vineyards (mostly pinot noir) helps fund the maintenance of these impressive buildings. Remarkably, there was a hospital here until 1970 and there are photos of the wards crowded with wounded during World War 2.

The hospital wards of the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune – in use (in this form) until 1970.

Day 5: Beaune to Meursault (16 km)

The last day of a walk is always sad – no matter how long you have been travelling, it always feels like you are just getting into the swing of it. The route led me quickly out of town into the vineyards with fantastic views back to Beaune and then through the Parc de la Bouzaize. Here I encountered a large and fortunately very dead snake on the track.

The trail through the Parc de la Bouzaize
Cote de Beaune vineyards

I had time to explore the village of Pommard and find a morning coffee before continuing on to the village of Monthelie with its 12th century church. From there it was an easy downhill walk into the square and fountain in the centre of Meursault. There was a small market by the church and I bought cheese and fruit and my favourite Agrum soft drink for a celebratory picnic in the park. There are a number of lovely small chateaux in the area with well-tended gardens and I had time to visit some of them.

Chateaux in Meursault

The next big task was to find a restaurant for my last dinner in Burgundy. I splurged on a magnificent meal in a restaurant that was clearly a favourite with local vignerons and their guests. The founding grand-mère watched down from the wall above.

Madame Daugier oversees the restaurant she established in Meursault

The next morning, I was transferred back to Beaune to catch my trains back to Paris, and then headed off to Berlin – a city I totally recommend.

Advice and guidance

This is a great walk for those who are moderately fit but who are not crazy about the sort of epic days and effort that are required to hike the Camino and the Stevenson trail.

Note that it is also possible to cycle the Chemin des Grands Crus. The cycle route diverges somewhat from the walking paths but looks very easy and this is not hilly country.

I have written previously about the importance of the right gear (especially footwear). After all my training and walking, I think I now have this just right – for me.

This year I invested in a new daypack. It has three compartments (helpful for finding things quickly), a ventilated back harness (makes carrying a backpack on a hot day much more pleasant), a wide, padded waist belt (helps distribute the weight), built-in rain cover, mesh water bottle holders and is also compatible with a water bladder. The waist belt and ventilated back are terrific improvements on my old pack, especially when walking long distances, and its 35-litre capacity is about right.

Sunscreen, hat and hydration are always important, regardless of the weather. I prefer to use insulated water bottles that keep liquids cold for surprisingly long periods rather than a water bladder. I always assume it might rain and carry at least a plastic poncho and a small fold-up umbrella. The other essentials include an array of plastic bags – to sit on if the ground is wet, to cover you and your pack in an emergency, to carry out your rubbish for appropriate disposal.

I take my phone and I-pad. I use my Australian telecom’s overseas plan, which costs me $10/day for every day I use the phone. Of course, I could have used my phone for navigation, but by now you know how I feel about that! Wi-Fi is freely available everywhere.

The history of the Burgundy area is quite fascinating, especially the so-called “Glorious Age” of the Dukes of Burgundy. I wish I had done more reading about this ahead of my trip. But I did take every advantage to learn along the way. At famous sites I try to hang around school tours as their level of French is about mine.

If you are a wine buff, or interested in agriculture, then some preparatory reading would also be helpful. Despite my love of wine, I forwent the tastings along the way (I made up for it at the evening meal), but enjoyed learning about the terroir – the French term for a mix of geography, geology, microclimate and other factors that contribute to the specific qualities of each vineyard. Most fields, even the smallest, are defined by stone walls and signs (some quite elaborate) stating the domaine.

The grape harvest season in Burgundy is September. Walking then might be quite difficult as many of the trails are also used by local farm equipment. I saw pictures of the vineyards in autumn that looked very lovely, so that might also be a good time for walking.

Each area of France has its own defining food and wines and, especially in the more rural areas, the seasonal variations on these are what is offered in all but the most upscale restaurants.

In Burgundy, no one has heard of the floc we came to love in Gascony, the cheese plates are very different from those in the Cevennes, and the cassis sorbet that I am addicted to was hard to find. The Burgundy cuisine features jambon persille (ham in aspic), escargots, oeufs en meurette (eggs poached in red wine), boeuf bourguignon, and coq au vin – a bit heavy for summer eating, but the fish options were surprisingly good. I rejoiced in the fact it was white asparagus season and had them at every opportunity.

As might be expected for famous wine country, there are some very fancy restaurants. Often these require reservations. I did try several (my non-walking gear of black jeans, black sneakers, smart T shirt and a scarf – after all I am trying to be French! – passes the dress code) and by sticking to the daily formule (set menu) you can get an excellent sample of the local produce for an affordable price.

At the end of the walk – Meursault

I so enjoy feedback about my #CroakeyGO walking blogs – especially when they include details of others’ walking adventures; doubly so if my writing has helped inspire these.

In September, Liz Dax and I are off to walk the Cotswold Way from Stratford-on-Avon to Bath and before then there’s some day hiking in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Stay tuned!

• Dr Lesley Russell is a contributing editor at Croakey, amongst many other hats.

• Check out the rest of the #CroakeyEXPLORE series.

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