Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel

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Floating along the Burgundy Canal….

One of the most delightful travel ventures in Burgundy is to float on a graceful vessel along the Burgundy canal.  This waterway excursion may include short trips (around 3 hours) or for travelers inclined to uncover a sumptuous spell, exclusive hotel-barges are a splendid way to experience a canal cruise for a week or so while visiting many sites and charming villages along the way.  The cruise docks at multiple quays along the canal and visitors can explore the region via bicycle tours or hiking expeditions through distinctive areas.  Professional guided tours on comfortable air-conditioned vans are also an option which can be easily arranged.

Historically some of the canal’s construction’s preparations began around 1605.  However, it was Louis XV who signed a decree for the canal’s official construction in 1773.  Upon completion around 1882, the Burgundy canal was considered to be an engineering achievement with its 242 km (150 mi) of length and virtually 190 locks. The canal converges the Yonne and Saône valleys following a spectacular stretch towards Burgundy’ boundaries through a 3300m tunnel.  This marvelous river exploit will generate incredible views of Burgundy’s glistening vineyards, historical sites and communities, and wonderful outdoor markets on weekends.

My river cruise experience included visits to lovely places such as the beautiful Ancy-le-Franc château.  In the 16th century, Antoine III de Clermont chose the renowned Italian architect, Sebastiano Serlio, to design and build this fetching structure.  The château sits on the canal’s embankment and presents a magnificent collection of Renaissance murals and paintings by Flemish and local French artists from the 16th and 17th centuries.   Continuing along the canal, we stopped and cycled to another incredible place:  Abbaye de Fontenay.  Its historical background has an element of the divine: at age 23, Bernard de Claivaux, a wealthy aristocrat, decided to abandon the “world” and join the monastic life of the Cistercians.  He was a strict follower of the Benedictine Rules which comprised of an atmosphere of prayer, hard work and studies, community living, economic self-sufficiency and a spirit of moderation.   In 1118, he founded the Fontenay Abbey with a group of Cistercian monks. The abbey is the ultimate architecture legacy of Cistercian originality.  Built in Romanesque style with understated warm sandstone, the structure allows for ample natural light to saturate its buildings thus fostering a sense of serenity and beauty. A visitor may leisurely walk through its immaculate landscape gardens nestled over 1,200 hectares.  The abbey nurtures such an inspirational atmosphere that a variety of film productions have use this location as a backdrop including the award winning “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with Gérard Depardieu.

Our water-based holidays continued. After our next docking, we climbed into a minibus for a visit to a medieval gem: Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.  Stepping through its massive city gates, we arrived into a serene chocolate-box medieval city-center with narrow winding streets. Around 52 BC, a Roman soldier Flavinius received from Caesar a stretch of land situated on a hill as reward for the victory over the Gaul.  Thus, the area was named name Flaviniacum and later Flavigny.  In addition, the Romans also brought with them an excellent supplement to the local flora: aniseeds.  Anise (Pimpinella anisum), also called aniseed, is a flowering plant in the Apiaceae (parsley) family.  The Romans believed that tea made from its flower was a powerful elixir for their troops in the treatment of colds and influenza.  For years, the factory of the famous “Les Anis de Flavigny, un bien bon bonbon” (candy-drop mints), housed at an ancient abbey in town, produces these wonderful mints sold in elegant boxes or painted tin containers.  It is said that when a strong West wind overtakes the factory, the entire village smells as fragrant as the scent from the anise plant.  The village is scenic with ancient architectural design, gates and fortifications, and ancient shops.   The church in the center of town, Saint Geneste, is a marvelous site including its carved artwork. Proximate to the church is the store front for the film “Chocolat” with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp filmed mostly in Flavigny and surrounding areas.

From the Burgundy Canal, gazing towards rolling green fields speckled with white steers, one cannot help to notice a small village sitting on top of an inconspicuous hill: Châteauneuf-en-Auxois.  As we ascended into its gate, we were welcome by an imposing 15th century fortress: the Château de Châteauneuf-en-Auxois with a tall round keep.  Around the 12th century, this village began to flourish.  A stroll through its curving streets is like striding into a storybook especially since most houses date back to the 12th – 15th centuries.  An assortment of crafts shops and window panes bursting with colorful and fragrant flowers adorned the village. On the trail, we promenaded further into the edge of town to discover a congregation of trees and a cross overlooking a spectacular view of the valley and the intertwining Burgundy canal below. Breathtaking!

Our next stop included a morning in Semur-en-Auxois.  This fortified village is bordered by the river Armaçon. Its medieval centre-ville (town center) remains virtually unspoiled after hundreds of years and the area is a prime location for panoramic photography.  After Semur-en-Auxois, we visited the village of Époisses where one of my favorite cheeses of Burgundy originates: the Époisses, king of cheeses!  That evening on our boat we shared our discoveries and cheeses while the captain introduced: Kir Royale.  Blackcurrants, one of the main ingredients in this drink, were brought from northern Europe and Asia to be cultivated in Burgundy’s monasteries.  There, the monks used this fruit to prepare traditional remedies to alleviate sore-throats and fever.  In 1836, Auguste Denis Lagoute had the idea to start a liqueur factory using blackcurrants since the plant thrived in the region. Eventually, he and his partner developed the Crème de Cassis: blackcurrant berries soaked in clear alcohol and later, its juice is sweetened with a sugar glacé.  This new liqueur progressed to another creation, the blanc-cassis, as white wine was added to its blend.  Blanc-cassis became quite famous in the mid-1900s when Canon Felix Kir, WWII pioneer resistance fighter and deputy mayor of Dijon allowed this trendy apéritif to be named after him, Le Kir.  Felix Kir further popularized this drink by serving it to visiting foreign and local dignitaries on multiple official and social events. The Kir Royale is made with Crème of Cassis plus champagne and served in champagne flute glasses.  This drink also rose to fame in the novels of mystery writer Agatha Christie.  Her fictional character Hercule Poirot favored this delectable aperitif on various occasions.

One of our last adventures was rising at dawn to experience the thrill of a hot air balloon ride.  Floating and moving with the wind, our hot-air balloon flew over: the resplendent vineyard rows of Chablis; the stunning medieval village of Vezelay resting peacefully on a hill; glazed tile roofs; smaller quaint villages and nature reserves. We also followed from above parts of the marvelous watercourses of the canal, its locks and rivers which were simply awe-inspiring.  I have to say that the canal cruise was an excellent way to travel and marvel at the remarkable beauty of Burgundy!

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Côte d’Or, Burgundy: golden vineyards, wine tasting & relaxation

Côte d’Or , Burgundy, wine route

Côte d’Or , Burgundy, wine route

One of the nicest short trips from Dijon is to follow Burgundy’s Côte d’Or region prized wine route.  From north to south, this impeccable trail unveils the splendor of perfectly flanked vineyards: the Châtillonnais vineyards (about 20 villages producing red and white appellation wines); the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits (about 8 villages producing famous and robust burgundy red wines); situated on the slopes are the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits; the Côte de Beaune vineyards producing exquisite reds but also elegant white wines and further back the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune vineyards.  Most of the vineyards of Côte d’Or face east or southeast and in autumn their leaves stir in the wind while glistening in fields of gold (continue below)

The cultivation of wine can be traced back to antiquity.  In particular, the skilled efforts of the Romans greatly influenced the viticulture development along their occupied territories including France. In Burgundy, it was the monks of Citeaux (called Cistercian; Cistercium the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux) who were responsible for elevating the Roman process of cultivating vines into an art form.  These monks strictly followed the Rule of St Benedict (St Benedict of Nursia: c. 480 – 547) a book of precepts regarding the monastic life which also included the encouragement of manual labor and self-sufficiency.  Thus the abbeys founded in Burgundy supported themselves through a variety of activities including viticulture.   Gradually, the monks advanced their knowledge base by dedicating themselves to academic pursuits not only in agriculture but in research, science and medicine.

A celebrated and frequently visited vineyard along the wine route is the Clos de Vougeot (clos = walled-enclosed vineyard). Located in a beautiful setting its vines are a lasting example of the Cistercians’ work.  Traditionally, the Benedictine monks of Cluny had already introduced to the region the subsequent grape varieties: Pinot Noir (for reds) and Chardonnay (for whites).  However, these industrious viticulture experts discovered that there was a pronounced difference on the quality and tastes of the wine depending where the plant was sown, sometimes 200 meters could make a real difference.  As such, they parceled the Clos de Vougeot vineyards accordingly. Of course, the geological variation of the soil is important. However, the orientation/exposure to the sun, rains, local climate alterations, slope, drainage, etc., are equally significant to the outcome of wine vintages.  Hence, the concept of Terroir/soils in Burgundy is the main factor of designating a wine’s originality.  Today, Clos de Vougeot is owned by an array of independent wine growers and the chateau is owned by the Société civile des Amis du Château du Clos de Vougeot (“Friends of the Château du Clos de Vougeot”), which leases its facilities to the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.  The Grand Cru appellation is bestowed upon this elegant wine which was honored by Isak Dinesen in her literary work “Babette’s Feast” due to its remarkably intense bouquet.

The wine road and villages between Dijon – Beaune may be visited by car, rental bicycles tours or by promenading its gentle hills. Each road sign along the way is a recollection of a fine wine list waiting to be revealed and tasted.  For this reason, visitors are welcome to stop along the string of villages for wine tasting and purchases.  Arriving in Beaune, which is considered the capital of burgundy’s wine, there are further opportunities for wine tastings in restaurants, commercial venues as well as wine-related institutes offering formal (certification) and informal classes. A historical landmark worth visiting in Beaune is the Hospices de Beaune or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune. The Hospices were founded as a charitable hospital in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of Burgundy, and his wife. Its architecture represents the 15th century style well. Of particular significance, since 1851 every year around November, the Hospices hold a classical and influential charitable wine-auction devoted to the food and wines of Burgundy.  It is a worthwhile social and cultural experience!

After an eventful exploration of the region, I highly recommend visiting the picturesque village of Meursault. Located on the Côte of Beaune, these fine white wines vineyards are exclusively cultivated from Chardonnay grapes.  While exploring the village, stop by the office of tourism and they will help you rent bikes and even secure a place on a hot air balloon ride of the region. This is a beautiful area and I highly recommend staying at La Cueillette Hotel & Spa.  This lovely 19th  century château was built on the foundations of a 12th century Cistercian residence within walled vineyard parcels allowing for pleasant promenades through nature. At the Spa you can reward yourself by plunging into the whirlpool and swimming pool.  For a total body relaxation, I recommend their sauna followed by their “Frutithérapie” exfoliating massage with red berries pulp, honey and grape seed oil. Certainly, all of their well-being beauty products make great souvenirs to take home.  The Château de Cîteaux also provides fine dining with an exquisite ambiance.  If you cannot stay long at La Cueillette, I recommend at least paying a visit to their Sunday brunch which is a memorable banquet that you can share with friends and family during the warm summer months.  Their ample veranda is a most favorable place for such fetching celebration and for building lasting memories.

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The Golden Age of Burgundy

My first impressions of Burgundy were as serene and uncomplicated as the surrounding landscape with golden vines basking in the sun. Certainly, I had visited Paris and the northern part of France before. However now, I was heading out by car towards my new home southeast of Paris in the east-central region of France. Drawing near my final destination, I found myself admiring with inquisitive satisfaction a completely different terrain with unexpected rolling hills graced with ripe vineyards, orchards, farmsteads, alluring medieval villages, châteaux and Roman fortresses garlanded by rivers, a few lakes and streams.

Historically, Burgundy fascinated me especially after reading an assortment of sources capturing the grandeur of ages past when the Valois dukes of Burgundy (fr. Ducs) ruled the region with rich and inexhaustible support for the arts, architecture, and music. Their intense interest in commerce also flourished especially in the Low Lands (Belgium and part of Netherlands). Unfortunately, there was a great contrast between their lavish lifestyle and the average man. Still, a budding bourgeois class of merchants embarked with verve on fruitful trade opportunities and Dijon became part of a strategic trade route. Before long, the dukes of Burgundy had perhaps more power than the king of France.

The most famous dukes of Burgundy ruled during the 14th and 15th centuries. The first Valois duke, Philip the Bold (reign 1364 – 1404)  strategically organized his domain by marrying the affluent Margaret of Flanders in order to increase his territorial power and sphere of influence. As such, he was able to organize a solid base for his state though he spent much of his wealth in the arts. During his reign the “Dijon School” flourished with artists from the Low Lands such as the sculptor Claus Sluter. After his death, his son John the Fearless (reign 1404-1419) became the next duke of Burgundy. Notorious for his calculating political savvy, he was also brutal in battle ordering the death of his opponents in particular his main rival, the duke of Orleans. His conquests and secret alliances allowed him to consolidate his power base as his support for Henry V, king of England intensified. He was assassinated in 1419 and his son John the Good, came to power.

John the Good (reign 1419 – 1467) was twice-widowed without any surviving issue. Due to his political alliance to England, he pursued a third marriage agreement with a noble-titled heiress who had also long-lasting ties with England. As result, he married Isabella, the infanta (princess) of the house of Aviz, Portugal and cousin to Henry V of England. Isabella was very well-educate, dutiful and upon her father’s instructions she received the same excellent cultural and educational upbringing as her brothers. She grew up in the court of Lisbon, well-versed in the affairs of state as well as being fluent in Latin, French, English and Italian. She was very religious and fond of the arts, hunting and riding. Philip the Good appreciated these attributes as complementary to his ambitions. Thus, he married Isabella and came to highly trust her with affairs of the state. When her husband went to battle or left the region she was the regent of Burgundy and the Low Countries. Likewise, her influence became a contending leverage in the midst of commerce and trade negotiations with the English in 1439. The duke and duchess had three male heirs including the future duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold. In due course, the court in Dijon began to soar while eclipsing the French Court culturally and economically.

Demand encouraged Philip the Bold to launch a productive shipyard in Bruges with the help of the skilled Portuguese shipbuilders. Moreover, he profited greatly from the sales of luxury goods and illuminated manuscripts in the Netherlands whilst maintaining palaces in Brussels, Lille and Bruges. Philip the Bold upheld the dynasty’s commitment to the arts and to the patronage of Flemish artists such as Jan van Eyck who painted portraits of the duke and Isabella of Portugal. He also commissioned a number of tapestries and fine jewelry. His consistent patronage empowered the Burgundy School of Music considerably. Hence, musicians and singers progressed to build a renowned music center with celebrated composers such as Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay. Militarily,  Phillip the Bold and his aggressive army captured Joan of Arc at Compiègne in 1430. Afterward, they delivered her into the hands of the English to be burned at the stake. He was advanced in years when he died in Bruges and his son Charles the Bold ascended into power.

Burgundy at that time had become an extremely powerful duchy. Per contra, Charles the Bold (reign 1467 – 1477) had a tumultuous reign given that most of his energy was spent establishing Burgundy as an independent sovereignty. By contrast, since he played the harp and composed a number of musical pieces, he also encouraged lavish banquets and pageantry while endorsing the advancement of the Burgundy School of Music.

Still, his aspiration for an independent state grew each day and he came very close to fulfilling his ambition. Accordingly, wars, treaties and purchases extended and solidified his territory from Burgundy to the Low Lands (Netherlands and Belgium), the far-reaching duchy of Luxembourg, Picardy, Artois, Lorraine, S Baden, Alsace, the Franche-Comté, Nivernais, and Charolais. He activated negotiations for the marriage of his only daughter Mary to Maximiliam son of Emperor Frederick III, King of Germany, and head of the Hapsburg Empire. He thought that this would further assist him not only to enlarge his territories but also to assure that his quest for an independent kingdom would succeed. Tragically however, he was killed in battle at the siege of Nancy in 1477 by the Swiss. After his death, a spiraling decline of the state commenced. Since his daughter Mary married Maximilian part of the realm was absorbed into the Hapsburg Empire and the rest was granted to France. Unequivocally, the enthralling chapters of Burgundy’s history formulate a concoction of a splendid voyage and exploration!

Arriving in Dijon at dusk, I steered myself toward the most fitting hotel for the occasion, Hotel Philippe Le Bon (Philip the Good). This marvelous boutique hotel situated in a quiet street in Dijon’s centre ville was full of charm and it was the right choice for someone visiting Dijon for the first time. When I approached my room, I laughed softly with amusement as room number 40 was named: Isabelle de Portugal, my middle name! I decided to view this correlation as a herald of things to come together with a great sense of interest and enthusiasm for all the possibilities ahead.

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The highways in Prague are convenient and uncomplicated. However, the city streets (one-way or splitting directions) remind me of a shape-shifting labyrinth that often leads a newcomer off course. Before long, I was thrilled with the location of my neighborhood! Whenever I got lost, all I had to say or look for was one word: ZOO (if you say it or write it, people will understand).

Yes, Troja is a gem.  Most Prague visitors will not have a chance to visit Troja because it is tuck away in the northwest region of Prague. Yet, the neighborhood has some distinct attractions that I believe are worth exploring. For starters, the neighborhood gets its name from the regal Troja castle. This stunning estate was built in baroque style by the renowned French architect and builder Jean Baptiste Mathey (1679 to 1691). Mathey was born in Dijon, Burgundy and this is only relevant because our paths will cross again later. Count Sternberg owned the estate and resided within its walls mainly during the summer months. Since then, the estate has had a number of owners and now it is owned by the city of Prague.

The interior of the castle is notable with exhibits from the Prague Municipal Gallery, unique frescoes and chandeliers.  However, its glory rests throughout the exterior gardens.  The hedges are exceptionally beautiful as they are trimmed with precision while forming an intricate maze.  Central to this grandeur is an imposing outdoor staircase where gods and Titans combat an invisible battle. Thus, a promenade throughout the gardens in bloom during late spring and summer is a must. 

Troja has also other attractions that deserve exploration.  When exiting the castle’s main entrance, an easy stroll will lead visitors to the Praha Zoo which is always a delight especially for children.  If instead, one wishes to ascend toward the hills then, everyone will be welcomed by an amazing view of the region via the botanical gardens and vineyards.

If instead, visitors decide to exit toward the river, a bridge is available to cross the river Vltava.  Once on the other bank, the riding school is on the left and straight on is the Stromvka Park.  This old park grants everyone an opportunity to enjoy an array of trees, flowers, and ponds. It also offers different paths for cycling, rollerblading, and walking. In addition, along the river Vltava there are other leisure opportunities such as clay tennis courts and a kayaking school.

Around the castle and Zoo, there are smaller cafés that offer standard dishes, ice-cream and desserts.  Yet, my personal favorite is the “Ristorante & Pizzeria Del Corso.” Their brick oven pizzas are delicious.

Troja is only about 20 minutes from the city center by tram or by bus/subway combination.  Yet, if time allows, I highly recommend returning to the city by boat ride from the Zoo to Rašínovo nábřeží (in the city center). It is a peaceful and scenic way to end the day.