Leaving Vienne and its Roman links, we sailed through the night, past Lyon where we would eventually return and, joining the River Saône, made our way into Beaujolais countryside, past villages well known to wine lovers. Hopefully we would be enjoying their produce later.
Today’s visit was to be Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. As it is set well back from the Saône, we woke alongside the Quai des Messageries and spent the morning enjoying the quiet shopping streets of Chalon-sur-Saône. Opposite us on a small island, the Doyenne Tower still guides river traffic, but not on the scale as when wine was shipped from quays similar to the one to which we were tied. Chalon has been a famous wine exporting centre since Roman times when it was called Cavillonum, then Cabyllona when Emperor Constantius used it as a base for his 7th Legion in 354 AD.
Even earlier than Roman times, Chalon-sur-Saône was an important centre. Before assuming its modern name which is derived from the river goddess Souconna, it was known as Arar by the local Gallic tribes. The gentle Saône rises near Vioménil in the Vosges Mountains to the east before joining the Rhône near Lyon.
Apparently a stage of the Tour de France was due to end in Chalon–sur-Saône later in the month, and the town hall, the Hotel de Ville, was decorated with yellow bunting, ready to welcome the day’s winner of the yellow jersey. Along with welcoming professional cyclists, the town has a couple of famous sons. Nicéphore Niépore, an early inventor of one of the versions of photography came from here; there is a museum dedicated to his work not far from the Quai des Messageries. Another son, Dominique Vivant was involved with the creation of the Louvre Museum in Paris. This came about soon after the French Revolution, when the state was looking for somewhere to display the collection of gems and medals inherited from the guillotined King Louis XVI.
A small fleet of coaches took us up to Beaune, one of France’s most famous wine producing regions, home of Meursault, Volnay and Pommard to name just a few.
There are still a few traces of the city wall that once surrounded Beaune. Following it from the out-of-town bus park, we passed a stream issuing from what was once the town’s water supply. At one time this would have combined a source of fresh water with the local equivalent of a medieval launderette. Not only would local women visit it to do their weekly wash, but they would use it to keep up to date with the current gossip.
Medieval streets lead away from the ring road, into what cannot fail but to tell the world that here is the capital of Burgundy’s wine production. Almost the first building we passed on the way in was the 13th century wine market, then the Musée des Vins de Bourgogne, followed by inviting entrances to all the competing ‘caves’, the warehouses of different wine retailers. We spent a happy hour in one, sampling what was on offer, but I was able to remain sober enough to spot the competing sign advertising Jura whisky outside a neighbouring establishment selling some quite rare single malts! Now that is salesmanship if ever there was.
Beaune was founded by the Dukes of Burgundy, with dynasties stretching back to the 9th century with imaginative names such as John the Fearless, Charles the Bold, Philip the Good and Philip the Handsome – obviously they were not afraid of a bit of self publicity now and then.
Probably the finest building in the town is the magnificent Hospices de Beaune, or Hotel-Dieu with its instantly recognisable multi-coloured tiled roof. Considered one of the finest examples of French 15th century architecture, it was founded in 1443 after the Hundred Years War by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor to Duke Philip the Good. At that time the majority of most of the town’s inhabitants were destitute as the result of the long conflict and the hospital became a refuge for the poor, together with orphaned children along with the disabled, sick and elderly; a charity that has lasted unbroken from the Middle Ages to this day. Nowadays funding is raised by way of an annual wine auction.
An afternoon drive took us through the section of Burgundy-cum- Beaujolais known locally as the Côtes d’Or. To say wine production is a uni-crop is putting it mildly. Acre upon acre, or should one say hectare upon hectare fill the valley sides south of Dijon. The northerly part, the so-called Côte de Nuits, specialises in red wines from the late harvested Pinot Noir grape, while the southern section, the Côte de Beaune embraces full-bodied white wines made from Chardonnay grapes. Reds are not overlooked and include such famous names as Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Romanée, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Corton, Beaune Pommard and Volnay, while Montrachet, Meursault and Corton-Charlemagne account for some of the finest white-wine vintages. In addition the district produces a range of light rosés, along with the sparkling crémant wines.
A final night cruise took us back to Lyon for a day to explore the city before travelling back via the famed TGV and Eurostar. France’s third largest city (population around 1.2 millions), Lyon climbs above the Rhône’s east bank and also fills the spit of land, the ‘presqu’ile’ dividing it from its confluence with the Saône. This part is the old city, Vieux Lyon, and to the west of both parts, high above the Saône is where the Roman’s entertained the population at a huge theatre built on the site of an earlier Gallic settlement. Topping everything beyond the theatre is the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière with the finest view of the city.
The Roman city of Lugdunum grew from a small Gallic settlement when Marcus Agrippa made what became Lyon the starting point of principal Roman roads throughout Gaul and ultimately its capital. Emperor Claudius conqueror of Britain was born here.
Lyon came to real prominence in the Middle Ages, when its fortunes were based on silk manufacture. Such was its wealth that the city was able to pay for the many Renaissance buildings and rich churches that still adorn the old city. In the 15th century wealth from the silk trade attracted Italian merchants, whose influence further led to the expansion of commerce and architecture. In more modern times, two of the city‘s sons, the Lumière brothers invented cinematography in 1895, filming their factory and its employees in some of the earliest moving films ever made.
At the centre of the presqu’ile, the Unesco World Heritage honoured Place Bellecour is one of Europe’s finest and largest public squares. The site of many fairs, concerts, pétanque contests and ice rinks, it was not always a happy place, for it became the site of the guillotine during the French Revolution. Later it was improved by Napoleon Bonaparte and was named after him before assuming its current title. Around the square and throughout Old Lyon you will find many ‘traboules’ – narrow passages created by silk merchants. They were cunningly designed narrow alleys that go right through houses, making it easier to carry goods from their workshops and down to the river. During the Second World War the mysterious twists and turns of the traboules were used to the advantage of the French Resistance when attempting to escape capture. Every December Lyon hosts a ‘Festival of Lights’ – a tribute to the Virgin Mary who is said to have saved the city from Plague in 1643.
A mid-morning TGV quickly took us back to Paris, now without its ‘Frexit’ signs, but still a nightmare to drive through for anyone with a train to catch. Fortunately there was no excessive delay in reaching the Gare du Nord where an aging Eurostar carried us swiftly back to the Channel Tunnel and on to London St Pancras for the train home to sunny Derbyshire.
Brian and Sheila travelled with the Burton upon Trent-based company Riviera Travel.