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March 1, 2011

France: Beaune

Filed under: Europe 2010, France, The List, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage, Wine — anotherheader @ 6:15 pm

Room of the Poors inside Hospices de Beaune

Leaving Chamonix and the French Alps there was time for just one more stop before our two-month long road trip finished full circle at Charles de Gaulle Airport.  Google maps told us that on our road route to Paris, almost exactly midway, is Beaune France.  Beaune lies in the heart of the Burgundy’s prime vinicultural region.  With two UNESCO World Heritage sites nearby and way too many of wineries, a return visit to Burgundy was inescapable.

Polychromatic tiles on the roof of Hospices de Beaune

Out of Chamonix we were soon on the fast French autoroute. Our Kangoo cargo van stuffed with bikes comingled with its big cousins on the road.  We shared the tarmac with the Tour de France trucks heading to the finishing point of Stage 9 of Le Tour.

Before long our road ended at Hotel Belle Epoque just outside Beaune’s historic medieval walls.  Our arrival was christened by a heavy rainsquall.

Soon we were in the rain exploring historic Beaune.  Near the Belle Epoque, inside the walls, is the Hospices de Beaune or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune.  This former almshouse has a striking colored tile roof.  Unfortunately it seemed that every time we were lured outside to view the tiles the rains returned with determination.  So instead we spent much of the visit inside the hospice amongst the hospital beds for the poor.

Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay

On the standards of the Middle Ages, Hospices de Beaune’s accommodations were cushy.  But you wouldn’t want to be a patient there in the Middle Ages.  The hospital provided palliative care for the dying.  A stay was meant to prepare the soul for the afterlife.  At this hospital, in the Middle Ages, you’d likely check in but never leave.  At least you wouldn’t leave alive.

Inside the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay

Not too far from Beaune is the hill town of Vézelay.  UNESCO has designated the town and its abbey as a World Heritage Site.  A strip of old buildings follows a ridgeline road that leads from a saddle up the hill to the abbey.  Inside, the Romanesque church is airy and filled with light.  Outside, from the edges of abbey’s plot, views of the green Burgundian countryside can be seen in three directions.

Vézelay’s abbey acquired relics of Saint Mary Magdalene in the 9th Century.  Ever since the abbey has been a pilgrimage destination.  Even today the pilgrims keep coming from afar.  Only it seems that many of the current pilgrims belong to that newfangled “tourist” sect.

Vézelay's Romanesque abbey

Inside Vézelay's abbey church

Of all the of tourist sites near Beaune our favorite is the Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay.  Another UNESCO designated site, the Abbey of Fontenay is noted historically for its iron working and industry.  It is the first metallurgical factory in Europe.  Founded in 1119, the abbey sits in a quiet, small, forested valley.  The area is very peaceful.

A fountain on the grounds of the UNESCO designated Cistercian Abbey of Fontenay

Cistercian monks pledge a vow of silence.  Somehow that seems appropriate to the setting.  And the vow of silence thing appeared like such a good idea that I suggested to Becky that she might just want to consider it.  Sure enough, I got the silent treatment all right.  Somehow I think that a “vow of silence” meant something very, very different to the Cistercian monks.

Of course we sampled the wines in Beaune.  Beaune definitely offers plenty of opportunities to sample the local fermented grape juice.  Winery visits, pay-for-tasting experiences like Marche Aux Vins, and restaurants provide plenty of opportunity to sample the renowned wines.  Though we liked the Burgundy wines we tasted, the over all wine experience fell well short of our stay in St. Emilion.  Perhaps it was simply that the most recent best vintage in Burgundy, 2005, was further from release and not being commonly poured.  Who knows?  All we know is that we are more likely to return to St. Emilion for wine tasting.

The monk's dormitory at the Abbey of Fontenay (HDR)

Certainly we’d have done more extensive hands on research of Burgundy’s fine wines if our stay were longer.  You can be sure of that.  But our time in Burgundy was over quickly.  One day after our arrival in Beaune, it was time to head back to Charles de Gualle Airport.  Our trip’s next leg would be the beginning of the end our European odyssey.

JC as a hippie

After 64 days, 5,200 miles, and 153 gallons of diesel fuel burned it was time to return our leased Kangoo to Renault.  (That comes to 34 lead-footed miles/gallon, if you are doing the math.)  The car return was the easy part.  The hard part would be to stuff our sprawling mass of personal effects into our bags in a manner that would be acceptable to Air Canada.  With the bikes and everything, this was indeed a major hours-long undertaking.  Only later we could finally relax in the airport hotel’s restaurant over one last bottle of wine.  And yes, it was a 2005 St. Emilion, dense, smoky, and complex as usual.  What else could we have ordered?

Fontenay's grounds

Our return on Err Canada, as Homer would say, was uneventful.  Well, mostly uneventful.  We were detained at US Customs at the Toronto International Airport due to a large jar of duck cassoultet long ago acquired in Auxerre Burgundy.  The jar was destined to be our dinner somewhere along the Canal du Nivernais but that never happened.  We had dutifully claimed the cassoultet on our customs form.  As a result, we had to sit for a half an hour before we could explain to the officer that our jar of duck, sausage, and beans was actually cooked meat and thus perfectly OK for entry into the US.  We didn’t even have to dig the offending item out of our hermetically sealed suitcases.  Thank God.

Finally cleared of all food terrorism charges, we were free to reenter the United States.  Customs was our welcome back, I guess.  Good thing was had an extra long layover built into our return itinerary.

Becky, silent in the cloister at Fontenay


  1. May we please have permission to reproduce your photo of the inside of Fontenay Citercian Abbey Church on It would be used in a post on Cistercian architecture. CFD is a non-profit blog website. Thank you. –Bernie

    Comment by Bernard Dick — July 8, 2014 @ 12:52 am

    • OK.

      Comment by anotherheader — July 24, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

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  3. […] Indeed, UNESCO’s seal of approval is at least part of the reason why we visited it in 2010. And there is, of course, a brown tourist sign promoting l’abbaye de Fontenay along the Autoroute […]

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