For my summer break this year I had the pleasure of joining a friend on a three-week driving tour from northeast to east-central France. Along the way, we uncovered many an under-the-radar gem as we strayed far off the beaten track in true GG style. I would like to share some of these discoveries with you folks in the hopes of reminding you about the breadth of beauty we have practically on our doorstep. France’s tourism has taken a knock in light of the barrage of attacks that it has suffered in the past few years. I am here to say don’t be put off, get over there and explore everything the country has to offer…because from food to art to history, it truly has it all!
Our under-the-radar French adventure began at Basel Airport from where we hired a car and took the brief drive down into the beautiful region of Alsace, staying in the Hotel Cheval Blanc in the sleepy little town of Baldersheim on the edge of the wine route. The region is characterised by splendid mountain ranges standing shoulder to shoulder with perfectly manicured vineyards and quaint medieval villages more akin to Bavaria than the rest of France. Ancient beamed cottages reminiscent of the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel grace the little towns cobbled streets with tiny wooden doors and vivid window boxes.
Our favourite was Bergheim whose charming streets were the home of Cafe Du Baili and undoubtedly the best Tarte Flambé I have ever tasted. Local beers such as Storky Pils…are named after the protected birds that nest on many of the towns church towers and chimney breasts and last but not least are of course the wines, especially the rich fruity Pinot Noir and the crisp white Riesling. Although the region does attract a bit of tourism it is not even close to being swamped like much of the south and consequently, visitors are treated with warmth, parking is free and the food is cheap and delicious… well worth a visit!
Heading West our next stop was Hotel Du Golf in Chamouille… a tiny ribbon town in Champagne. Situated fairly centrally it was a great base for exploring the region. The town lies on the historic ridge between the rivers Aisne and Ailette known as Chemin Des Dames ( literally Ladies Path ), named for the daughters of Louis XV who frequented the path as it was the most direct route between Paris and Château Du Boves. In WW1 the ridge was passed between German and Allied troupes and 3 Battles were fought along it. The 2nd Battle of the Aisne resulted in 271,000 French casualties and 163,000 German. The aftermath of its days as a strategic military position can be found all along the D18, which follows the ridge and is scattered with cemeteries and memorials for soldiers from both sides. Looking out across the open fields dotted with tiny ribbon towns and copses it is easy to see why it played such an important role in the fighting but difficult to imagine its green and rural peacefulness shattered by gunfire and open warfare.
Champagne is characterised by open landscapes and beautiful medieval towns including Rheims, whose amazing Gothic cathedral and surrounding palaces qualify it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also sporting a stunning cathedral is Laon, whose medieval old town perches high on the hill above the more contemporary new town offering an imposing site as you approach from the main road. The Cathedral is a Gothic masterpiece that is rawer than Rheims and I preferred it somehow. I loved the rough stone walls and malevolent gargoyles and I loved the winding streets and panoramic aspects of the historical centre. We also enjoyed the most delicious meal there, in a fine dining restaurant called Le Petit Auberge.
Our biggest day-trip in Champagne was out to the Somme where we explored the poignant Theipval Memorial and Beaumont Hammel Memorial Park as well as some smaller cemeteries and memorials along the way. The final stop in the region was Troyes, a big town and fairly modern with another splendid cathedral in its historical centre and lots of 13th Century townhouses, wooden beamed and leaning like buildings from the Tudor era in the UK. Back in the day, it was a town of fashion and it’s still renowned for its designer outlets, which are a great escape when you start to get Gothiced out! Like Alsace Champagne is surprisingly tourist free, with people tending to drive through it rather than stop. This makes it an easy region to explore with good roads, low traffic and easy parking, it’s rich and varied history means it contains many a hidden gem. For fans of Architecture or Military enthusiasts it is an absolute must, but also for those of you who like peace and rural idylls and enjoy simply drinking in the atmosphere of a place (with a glass of the world famous bubbly of course!)
From Troyes we travelled south and spent a week at the beautiful Château Bernund in the wilds of Burgundy The perfectly renovated medieval château is now run as a B&B with a cooperative feel. We stayed in the old groundsman’s lodge next to the Château and enjoyed many an evening sitting out on our porch watching the wildlife and listening to the gentle rushing of water in the mill pond below. The place was so tranquil we found it hard to leave and explore the region, but we did of course! Our first trip was for a delicious meal at Ma Table En Ville in Macon where we enjoyed wonderful service and a spot of people watching that convinced us the Tabac next door was selling more than just cigarettes!
We started our day trips with the nearby Cluny, a town famous for its stallions and its Benedictine Abbey, in former times one of the most powerful seats in Christendom. Only a small section of the once enormous Abbey remains and there is a charge to enter which we declined to do. Instead, we wandered through the quaint little town with its peach and cream buildings and boutique shops and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere.
Day 2 we took the lengthy journey to Beaune, a famous wine town in the heart of the vineyards which also boasts a 15th Century Hospital, originally a hospital for the poor, whose beautiful interior now houses an eclectic museum. Whilst it’s an attractive town I didn’t like Beaune, it is a real tourist trap and this is reflected in the prices and the quality of the food and service you receive there.
Day 3 at my request we visited the delightful literary town of Cuisery, mentioned in “The Little Paris Bookshop” and spent a happy hour perusing the dusty volumes, collectable annuals and vintage paperbacks and chatting to friendly booksellers. On our return journey, we stumbled upon possibly the highlight of our holiday, the stunning Abbaye St Philibert in Tournus. The abbey is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture with an extensive interior to explore, including a perfectly preserved crypt dating back to the 10th Century. The magnificent Chancel, Nave and adjacent Cloisters and Refectory are not to be missed either. The jewel in the crown is the Roman Mosaic depicting the Signs of the Zodiac, discovered during renovations in 2002. To add to my general delight it was free to go in…. yes FREE! The town itself is deceptively large and really beautiful, with winding medieval streets and stone houses adorned by brightly coloured window boxes. The people are friendly and the prices are fair, I would chose it over Beaune any day of the week!
Day 4 and we thought it was time for a bit of Château action, so we headed back towards Tournus for lunch and then visited the 17th Century Château Du Cormatin. The magnificent château has some of the best preserved 17th century ‘apartments’ in the country with gilt panelling and stunning detail in the frescoes, fireplaces and furnishings. My favourite room was the ‘Chamber of Curiosities’, a macabre collection of items from all around the world, designed to show off the wealth of the collector but also to stimulate symbolic reflection with an exotic melange of taxidermy, tortoiseshell, minerals and bronzes. As well as the perfectly restored 17th-century apartments there are rooms decorated by the eccentric Raoul Gunsbourg, director of the Monte Carlo Opera who owned the château in the late 19th century and renovated some of the bare rooms to reflect other historical periods. The gardens are an exquisitely landscaped collection of flowerbeds, topiary and a grand labyrinth with an aviary at its centre. For lovers of history, architecture and glamour this is absolutely unmissable!
Day 5 we travelled out to the town of Autun which was founded in AD 356 and still boasts some impressive ruins from that era. Around the ruins grew a beautiful town with relics from many historical periods. The little windy streets house many cute little boutique shops and cafe’s and the town has a wonderfully cultured yet alternative atmosphere. When we first arrived we found ourselves faced with an entire brass and woodwind band, evidently lost, running down the hill towards us. It was one of those memorable moments and I was glad to be reunited with the musicians later on as they busked some beautiful music next to the cafe where we enjoyed an afternoon Campari! The 12th Century Cathedral was semi-closed for renovations yet still made a spectacular impression on the skyline. We arrived on market day and the main square by the grand ‘Hotel D’Ville’ was bustling with stores selling food, clothes, jewellery and crafts by local artisans. Despite its beauty, it was still an easy town to visit; not swamped with tourists, not impossible to park and not overpriced. Don’t eat at the Trattoria at the top of the hill by the Rollins Museum unless you are fond of intolerably slow service and fairly mediocre grub, otherwise get ye to Autun! You won’t regret it!
Our final day in Burgundy was a little underwhelming… we visited Château de Sully, reputably one of the grandest Renaissance Châteaux in Southern Burgundy and currently home to The Duke of Magenta and thus in Royal hands. It is true that from the outside the Château is spectacular, rising up gloriously from its moat and surrounded by an impressive estate. However, it seems to be suffering at the hands of bad management and the handful of rooms that are open to the public are not really worthy of a viewing. In fact, they are in desperate need of repair and were depressingly dusty and uncared for, the few noteworthy things were overshadowed by the general sense of decay. Renovations have been ongoing for years and it will be an epic undertaking to restore the château’s interior to even a fraction of its former glory. I wish them good luck but for now, I would not recommend it as a destination.
And so back to Baldersheim and one last Tarte Flambé before our magnificent voyage of discovery came to a close. Having visited many parts of France from Provence to Paris, The Riviera to The Dordogne, the exploration through the northeast corner was a real eye-opener. Far away from the flocks of tourists, we were free to just soak up the landscape, culture and history of the regions we visited and if you’re the kind of person who appreciates a peaceful trip full of pleasant surprises I strongly recommend you give this pilgrimage, or part of it, a go. You will return feeling refreshed and reflective and an absolute authority on Gothic, Neo-Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance Architecture! Bon Voyage m’beauties!