Our jaws still drop every time we realize that it is only a two hour drive North from Geneva to the Burgundy wine region of France. We decided to drive out during the grape harvest, staying in a lovely airbnb in a winemaker’s home in the village of Pommard, 3km SouthWest of Beaune (pronounced “bone”), the wine capitol of Burgundy. No picture can do justice to Pommard. It is the quaint, ancient, beautiful, faded pink brick, walled village that dreams are made of. I honestly didn’t know places like this existed in real life. In fact, that was how I felt about all of Burgundy. The area is so tranquil and unpretentious and the villages and towns so perfect and preserved that it felt as if we were the first people to stumble across this amazing French secret.
Beaune is equally exquisite. Urban sprawl has somehow not reached the town, so the entire area is just one beautiful old stone and wood building after the next, connected by winding cobblestone streets and open squares. There is a bustling farmers market every Saturday morning that takes over most of the town and sells everything from clothes to truffles to pumpkins – a perfect place to create a picnic for a day out in the vineyards. L’Hotel-Dieu, a hospital built for the poor in1443 after a large outbreak of the plague is still a major landmark of Burgundy and a nice spot for a tour, with beautiful artwork, marvelous buildings and so much history.
Armed with baguettes, cheese, and white nectarines, and no particular plans for the day, we set out on the mostly-empty roads snaking through the vineyards to see what we could see. Our first stop was a beautiful scenic view above a small town that stretched out over the region, creating the image of a bright patchwork quilt of green hues.
We continued down whichever roads looked most interesting, getting lost but not caring, and eventually found ourselves in Nuits-Saint-Georges. We parked the car and as we were wandering aimlessly, saw what appeared to be an indoor market in the distance and decided to check it out. To our utmost delight, this was not a market but a french CHEESE festival filled with vendors from all over showcasing their prized cheese (in the form of free samples). In the center of the room, tables were set up with sommeliers, burgundy wines, and huge baskets of cheese and bread – buy a basket of cheese, bread, a wine glass and 6 wine pairings decided on an individual basis by your sommelier all for 10 euro! You would think this type of event would draw crowds the way American beer festivals do, but the place was filled mainly with the local villagers and there were no lines to be seen. We had two sommeliers, one Chinese man who was legit, and one older French gentleman who had married into the cheese family that hosts the festival, and was taking full advantage of his position behind the counter. He gave us hours of wise marital advice, such as “don’t yell at him!” and “don’t let her go!”, and also asked why does not Chris shave? When we finished, our reasonable sommelier offered to show us around the wine cellars of Beaune and gave us the inside scoop on wine politics in the area. He has determined that the only way to be successful is to have an “in” with the locals. Apparently, even if you own your own wine shop, you will not be allowed to purchase wine to sell in your shop unless you are buddy buddy with the wine growers.
Eventually we had to head back to our airbnb, because the owners, a classically elegant, happy, boisterous French couple, had offered (just as a nice gesture due to our interest) to take us on a tour of their cellars and Premier Cru vineyard and to do a tasting of their wines. We had never actually seen the grapes, just picked the weekend before, fermenting in the open vats this way but it smelled delicious. They told us that this is where you used to jump in and stomp the grapes with your feet, but nowadays they use what looks like a tamper (a stick with a big metal plate on the end). Still a lot of work!
We had made dinner reservations at Caves Madeleine, a highly recommended tiny French restaurant, in hopes of having a traditional French Burgundy meal. We were not disappointed – this will go down in the record books as one of the best meals of all time. And it was so simple! French cooking is magical, yet really just hearty fresh food from the country done extremely well. We ordered pigeon (squab if you prefer) and beef from the chalkboard and shared an incredible bottle of wine that the waiter recommended that was not on the menu, and then split first one, and then another chocolate soufle-type dessert. I am still baffled by how they make a profit. The entire place sat 20 people, and once you get a table it’s yours for the evening because dinners are meant to be savored and last over 3 hours. The food is local and fresh but still reasonably priced, and the staff are paid very fair wages instead of tips. Maybe they just do it for the love of food and break even.
As if for a special treat to top of the great dinner, the cathedral in Beaune was lit up with beautiful designs on our way home.
Sunday happened to be “free museum day” in France, so instead of being good wine tourists , we opted for Alesia, the site of the Battle of Alesia of 52 B.C., the last major stand of the Gauls, led by Vercingetorix, against the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, which is one of the most famous battles in the history of the territory that would become France. It’s amazing how much history we are surrounded by no matter where in Europe we go and Burgundy is certainly no exception. Interesting museum with lots of reinactments and to entertain all ages.
Our last stop before heading back to Geneva was a quaint monastery just North of Alesia with some beautifully manicured gardens and old stone buildings.
Luckily, the drive back to Geneva through the Jura mountains is as spectacular as anything, so we were able to convince ourselves to leave. That, and knowing that we are just two hours away…