Exploring French Villages
During our 2017 road trip we gained an authentic glimpse of rural France in the limestoned streets of many charming little villages.
Travelling through the French countryside, a stop at the many rustic villages along the way gives you a richer cultural experience than can be gained at the larger tourist centres.
Smell the mouthwatering aromas of cheese from the fromagerie, or the freshly baked bread from the boulangerie. Taste the fresh meats from the local charcuterie. Then there are the too-good to eat treats at the patisserie.
The sound of the church bells tolling the hour echo through the villages. Wander the deserted cobblestone streets as locals take in their midday siestas. The overall ambience of these little villages greatly enhanced our trip.
The frequent “En Vendre” signs we encountered on crumbling terraces and abandoned farmhouses evoked scenes from the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” and the odd “imagine if….”
Here are eight of the many charming villages we enjoyed along during our travels in Burgundy.
This Lonely Planet Discover France guide on Amazon may be useful in planning your own trip.
Our drive towards Dijon brought us to the medieval village of Ornans,
Here we enjoyed a break meandering through the cobblestone streets exploring the ancient village.
Our self guided tour map took us across 17th century stone bridges bedizened with spring flowers. Past rustic houses overhanging the river and locals fly fishing in the Loue River running through the village
Built in the sixth century, Ornans is famously the birthplace of the painter and sculptor Gustave Courbet. His home is now a museum housing a number of the artist’s works.
It was in Ornans we first realised how little English is spoken in these rural villages, when our spoken English attempts at conversation were met with blank stares.
Visiting during the middle of the day, most places were shut. However we managed to find an accommodating waiter at the local cafe who spoke as much English as we spoke French. We were soon enjoying an ice cream sundae lunch under a shady tree in the village square, before heading off on our journey.
Gilly- le Citeaux
We stumbled upon this quaint village travelling between Dijon and Beaune.
It is a perfect example of the benefits of self-drive road trips over guided tours. A stop for a brief photo shoot turned into an enjoyable hour and a half wandering through the ancient village, which we would have missed on a bus tour.
The Bishop of Paris donated the site of the village was donated to the community in the 6th century and rivalries between neighbouring villages raged throughout the centuries.
The original castle was burnt, demolished and rebuilt over the centuries. The 14th century priory of the monks of St-Germain des Pres now operates as a hotel and restaurant.
The former moat surrounding the castle is still intact and visitors can enjoy a stroll through the beautifully landscaped gardens. The current dining room of the hotel was formerly the cellar, where the monks stored the wines made in nearby Vougeot.
We browsed through the adjacent St Germain Church, still intact after centuries of revolution and war, and meandered along the cobblestone streets, taking in the historic ambience of this little village as well as enjoying a browse through the antique stores.
Clos de Vougeot
No visit to Burgundy would be complete without sampling the local produce.
Travelling through rolling French vineyards in the heart of Burgundy, we came across the village of Vougeot, home of Clos de Vougeot, the winery previously operated by the monks from Gilly le Citeaux.
The walled vineyard was originally a wine farm, built in the 12th century by monks from the nearby Abbey of Cîteaux. In the 16th century, a Renaissance style château was added to the existing buildings.
Our visit to the Abbey itself earlier in the day proved disappointing, as the Abbey was closed for prayer on that day. We still had the opportunity to stroll through the grounds across the irrigation channels which the monks had hand-dug to service their vineyards.
You may be interested in learning more about Burgundy winemakers
Historic Chateau at Vougeot
Climbing the hill from the village of Vougeot through the modern day vineyards, we reached the Chateau, where we browsed through the ancient cellars, monks dormitories and vat rooms.
While the Chateau no longer produces wine, it now operates as a reception and function centre. We were able to sample the local produce at the tasting room in the village centre.
Our visit to Vougeot was early in the trip, so we were not yet accustomed to the practice of everything shutting from 12 noon until around 3pm.
Our walk through the village in quest of a restaurant for lunch proved fruitless, however we did have the opportunity to admire the ancient limestone buildings close up.
Stumbling upon a friendly corner store, despite our limited French and the storekeepers’ emphatic “Non” to my customary “Parlez-vouz l’Anglais?”, we managed to find sufficient supplies of local bread, cheese and meats for a picnic in the nearby park.
Philip even managed to find a bottle of local red wine for the equivalent of AUD1.80 which he snuck into our growing wine stash to see if we could tell the difference. (We did!)
Heading through the national parks, along the old Roman canal systems formerly used to bring the cereals and produce to Paris, we came across the picturesque village of Accolay on the River Cure, and the Nivernais canal in the Yonne district of Burgundy.
We made a brief stop in the sixth century village on our way to Vezelay, enjoying a stroll through the town, visiting the Saint Nizier church, built on the site of the original 11th century church, stopping for a photo shoot on the bridge.
High on the hillside overlooking the Cure Vally stands the historic 12th century Fortress of Vezelay, 50kms from Auxerre.
The village was founded in the 12th century around the basilica, and is virtually one long, steep street rising up to the top of the hill.
Climbing the hill past shops and cafes, we took the time to browse through an eclectic selection of arts and crafts, souvenir shops and little antique vendors.
It was here Ian managed to haggle for an escargot cooker in very limited French – I’m not quite sure what he thought we were going to do with this on our return.
We eventually arrived at the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene, dominating the ancient fortress.
The world heritage building is said to contain the relics of St Mary Magdalene in the crypt below, and the pilgrims hall was the meeting place for pilgrims on two crusades.
In 1190 King Philippe Auguste of France and Richard the Lionheart of England, two of the most powerful sovereigns of their time, met to depart on the third Crusade.
Views across Burgundy from Vezelay
Strolling along the ancient ramparts, and the adjacent abbey ruins, you have an unrivalled view over Burgundy, in what is a truly awe inspiring location. So much history, natural beauty and legend to soak in at one truly amazing place.
It was amid the ruins of the ramparts that our “Strine” once again gave us away.
Ian gave chase to a small canine escapee, saying “Gday” to the grateful owner who ran over to retrieve his wayward pooch.
Chatting, we found he was visiting from England and shouldn’t have been surprised when our ‘revelation” that we were from Australia was met with “Um, yes I gathered that when you said “Gday”.
Strolling back down the hill, we enjoyed our now traditional lunch at one of the many cafes before heading off on the remainder of our day’s adventures.
It is easy to see why Noyers is listed as “one of the most beautiful villages in France.
Located on the banks of the River Serein, the medieval fortress still features many traditional colombage and stone houses lining the cobblestone streets.
Once you enter through one of the original fortified gates and towers, you can stroll through the streets, taking advantage of a self-tour guide to soak in the historic ambience of the village.
Half-timbered houses bend under the weight of centuries, ornate public buildings dating back as far as the 15th century are decorated with carved gargoyles and the remains of the original castle can still be seen today.
Outside the ramparts, a stroll along the riverside brought us past gardens bursting with spring and another view of the castle ruins and the many ancient buildings on the village perimeter.
Our explorations complete, we took in the aromas of the local charcuterie, boulangerie and patisserie to gather supplies for a sumptuous picnic with local delicacies back at our chateau that evening.
Chablis was arguably one of the prettiest villages we called into on our travels.
Vibrant flower boxes bedeck the bridges over the rivers and canals, with many of the village’s Roman origins remaining, including the public baths.
Horseshoes left on the St Martin church door by pilgrims on route to Vezelay remain today. The Roman style Collegiale Church of Saint-Martin dates from the 13th century, and you can still see the traditional village wine press.
The most outstanding feature for me however was the patisserie…..so many baked goods, so little time!
The site of the ancient Roman baths where some Roman relics remain today, Aix-les-Bains was a booming tourist town in the Victorian era.
Today the town is a major tourist centre, holiday makers enjoying a range of water sports on Lake Bourget.
Visitors can still stay in many of the magnificent lakeside hotels from the Victorian era.
We enjoyed strolling through the streets, viewing a few of the remaining Roman relics, including the Arc de Campunus and nearby ruins of a Roman temple.
It was truly incredible to see locals sitting in the bustling village square enjoying a game of chess amid these ancient relics.
Exploring further, the town became more and more “touristy”, so after a quick “glace” and a stock up at the local chocolatier, we headed on our way.
Aix-les Bains had been “must see” on our itinerary, however apart from the handful of Roman ruins, the town is really now a bustling tourist centre which overshadowed much of the town’s history.