Le Pays Beaunois
Walking amidst
les Grands Crus de Bourgogne
Our very first walk in France was in Burgundy. It was in 1986 and we were on an ambitious round-the-world trip with a brief stopover in France to experience Paris and to get a taste of walking in the countryside. We were hopelessly ill equipped with heavy packs and the wrong shoes. Dijon was the starting point, with our first night in Gevrey Chambertin, then Nuits St George and finally Beaune. At that time these hallowed names were virtually unknown to us. But the food and wine were superb and played a large part in our desire to return again ... and again...
Discovering Burgundy
It was 15 years before we returned to Burgundy in 2001, this time for a longer visit. Staying in the little town of Bligny-sur-Ouche, about 15 km from Beaune, offered the opportunity to further explore the fabulous Côte d'Or and the surrounding country. Equipped with glossy literature and maps from the tourist information office in Beaune we interspersed four days of walking with visits to the wineries, abbeys, chateaux and villages of the area. There was good eating in Bligny's three restaurants, a lively market on Saturdays and a local boulangerie, boucher and supermarché to provide for daily needs.
The Gite at Bligny
The gîte rural in Bligny had been the family home of an elderly lady who now lived in Beaune and she had summoned her entire extended family and some local friends to greet us on arrival. She was assiduous in giving us instructions about how to manage the house, which dated from round 1650 though had been much done throughout the centuries. The most convincing evidence of its age was a curious configuration of heavy hand hewn wooden beams supporting the ceilings.
The kitchen contained a weird collection of cups, plates and cooking utensils, all of them probably rejects from the more modern establishment in Beaune. After some intuitive adaptations they became very usable. Tall people needed to be constantly vigilant as some of the doorways were designed for a now extinct race of undernourished and very short people.
Madame had furnished the house with an extraordinary range of antique furniture, tapestries and artificial flowers and palm trees. As in all these houses, the lighting was very dim and the temperature very chilly. However, there was a huge cellar, full of wood for winter (or in this case early autumn) fires and a range of ineffective heaters for which you paid by the second.
There was also a pretty garden and from the bedroom window, upstairs under the wooden beams, we looked across other gardens and rooftops to the church and its bell tower.
Walks in the Vineyards
There were some local walks up in the hills surrounding the town and taking in the local attractions. But the big drawcards for walking were the forested hills and the vineyard country of the Côte de Beaune and the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune . Here were well marked trails, sometimes co-inciding with the GR 7 and its offshoot the GR 76, arranged as circuits that could be expanded or contracted according to how energetic you felt on the day.
These walks would start in villages with names from the wine encyclopaedias. Villages like Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Pommard or Volnay. After crossing through the vineyards, the tracks would then run up into the little ranges of hills that straddle the precious land.
From the ridges, you look down on a mosaic of vineyards - line upon line of vines, squeezed tighter and tighter till a line might have only one or two vines in it - but never a metre wasted. Each individual holding may only be one or two fields, say 5-6 hectares. Overall there are 4500 individual wine holdings in Burgundy. To maximise the opportunities for sharing the profits of the liquid gold, new vineyards are gradually encroaching further and further up into the hills. You wonder where it will stop.
It was harvest time when we were there and the business of the vendage was in full swing. It's all done by hand, pickers gradually making their way along the lines and emptying their baskets into carts which an army of tractors would then pull off to the crushing points in the villages. There were tractors everywhere and little white vans shuttling from field to field, transporting the pickers to the picking point. Busy, busy, busy.
The wine of Bourgogne
Wine has been synonymous with the name Bourgogne for so long that no one really knows how the vines got there. Perhaps from the early Greek settlements in the Mediterranean region, perhaps with the Romans, but there is certainly no doubt that from the times when the monks of Saulieu, Cluny and the like started to cultivate the vineyards and make wine, these wines came to be among the most revered in the world. With limited land and the establishment of exclusive AOC laws this is now guaranteed and Bourgogne is not only among the best wine in the world but also the most expensive.
In five production regions, 25,000 ha of grapevines are cultivated and 180 million bottles of wine are produced each year. Much of the vintage is grown on small holdings, averaging 5-6 ha in size and there are around 4500 growers. Quite a lot of them take advantage of the twenty or so cooperatives which exist in the major villages to make and market the wines on behalf of their members. Other growers make and sell their own wines, generally that of the highest quality.
Tasting, or dégustation, is possible though you can't expect to try the very best of the wine and in some establishment tasting is managed with an eye to how many bottles you are likely to buy. You don't just drink this wine either, you become part of a tradition and observe certain rituals.
You will know when you have ordered an acceptable wine in a restaurant as it will be decanted and a larger and higher quality of glasses will be used. For pure gastronomical snobbery it is not unusual to see people insisting that their wine be decanted when a waiter evidently did not think it worthy of the honour.
Up in the hills there were other attractions. On one walk we followed a Roman road which had probably been the main road between the Roman settlements of Autun and Dijon. In the surrounding fields was an imposing Roman column.
On another walk, the hillsides were rugged and wild and highly favoured by rock climbers. An army exercise was underway in the forest, something that hadn't been obvious until movement in the treetops led us to look up and discover that the trees were full of young soldiers in camophlage gear waiting for an unsuspecting enemy. We didn't wait around for the action.
At the end of the day
Then it is down into the vineyards again, a little dégustation perhaps, a visit to one of the village caves to pick up a couple of bottles and home to Bligny to make a meal of the days findings. This might include some of the specialties of the region - eggs meurette, coq au vin with a salad of walnuts collected from underneath the trees around the vineyards, an oozing Epoisses cheese from the local market and of course one of the wines tasted and purchased direct from the cave where it was made.
A mosaic of vineyards in le Côte d'Or
The gite at Bligny
Walking in the vineyards
Bringing in the day's picking
A Roman road, now a walking track
A Roman column in the fields
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