A Burgundy diary – 23 January 2022

St Romain: le village haut

On Saturday afternoon we walked up the valley from St Romain to Meloisey and back. St Romain is two small communities, one in its valley and one – much smaller, I suspect – is le village haut high on a cliff above. I think that must have been where the original village would have been: its church and a small castle are in the upper village. The lower village nestles in a horseshoe created by limestone cliffs. Much of our walk was to follow these cliffs on the Côte d’Or above the vineyards. Le village haut perches on the northern arm of the horseshoe around St Romain.

St Romain produces a white wine which, like many white wines in this area, must be some of the best white wines imaginable. The chardonnay grape which must produce the Burgundy wine from the limestone and the soil which surrounds this, and a small number of villages, in this area. No, maybe St Romain is not up with the really expensive white Burgundies – Meursault, Puligny Montrachet and so on – but it is what most of us are very happy to drink as a very good white Burgundy.

We parked in the lower village, so the first bit of our walk was up a steep path diagonally up the cliff to the upper village. The communities’ church is there. Would many of the villagers have had to climb that hill to get to church? Carriages could go on what is now the road up through the lower village, and pedestrians could follow the road; but it is a longish hike up the road and back again to the church.

The spur on which the village haut stands ends with the remains of a castle (a chateau fort). This perches on the cliff above the lower village, and gives views down to Auxey Duresses and Meursault and to Beaune away to the north: that is, following the line of the Côte d’Or. At the point of the cliffs was a castle. Now just a few remains of ruins survive. Very little is left. Its walls rarely exceed three or four feet (a metre), and it does not seem to have been more that a few rooms in length. The cliffs provides a natural defence on three sides, so there is no need for outer defences.

The church is not old, but has the unusual distinction of containing a flight of steps over its width from the street level door to the main single span nave. I assume it followed the contours of the hillside as it fell from the spine of the village street away towards the valley below.

We left the church, and walked through the few upper village houses towards Meloisey. [To be continued.]

A Burgundy diary – 16 January 2022

Cold ‘beauty of the morning’

It is cold here. Minus 6 degrees earlier this morning, and 14 degrees in the kitchen where I am writing this. The wood-burning stove is doing a grand job. Of stone walls, there is a debate as to their insulative value. With much thinner walls I am sure we’d feel the cold even more, and more of the heat would be wasted as it escaped the old farmhouse.

What is certain is that in the summer, the walls keep the inside of the rooms cool compared to strong heat outside. That is no great comfort now; but with sufficient clothes enough heat is holding up from the fire.

Today a light freezing fog envelopes the valley below us. The sky is stern outside. The light a couple of days ago – morning and evening as the sun came up, and later went down – was so beautiful. After the sunrise then I kept thinking of Wordsworth’s sonnet :

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare…

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;…

Yes, I know, that is written of standing on Westminster Bridge (in the middle of London) in 1802; and I have left out the bit about ‘Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie’ etc. Without that and the word ‘City’ (in line 4) – for which substitute ‘country’ – these lines work for what I see as the sun comes up here on a clear winter’s day.

Anyway, I mustn’t complain of the cold. I bought this barn and farmhouse twenty-five years ago, not thinking – I accept – of the cold factor in winter; still less thinking I would ever come to live here. It is a beautiful place to live; and so different from the city houses and flats – Bristol and Paris – that I have lived in. And soon there will be the stirrings of spring again here in Burgundy. So no more of weather me, please; unless of the extremes of this time of year: snow or spring sunshine.

A Burgundy diary – 15 January 2022

To market in Autun

Yesterday I went to the market in Autun. It is there in the middle of the town every Friday morning. It takes place in a vaulted three-side wide passage-way beneath the mairie and outside in the open air in front of the steps of the mairie. You walk in between the stalls ranged each side of the passage-way and then round three sides of an open square. I love it. It is truly an essence of France.

You can buy all sorts produce in the Autun market, including local, and less local, cheeses and yoghurt (cow’s and sheep’s); a variety of fruit and vegetables (organic and otherwise); meat; honey and bread; fresh pasta (with solid blocks of parmesan); Morvan trout; and fish from a more generalised fish-monger; olives, nuts and crystallised fruit. And the paté en croute, a Burgundian speciality, comes from Chez Camille, a well-known restaurant in Arnay-le-Duc: the chef there has won prizes for his paté en croute.

I suspect there are very few regular markets left in England. I don’t know how many there are in France. I know that round here there are a good few weekly markets (including on two days in my local village of Épinac). I do not know what the economics of market commerce is. They face stiff competition from the baleful supermarkets which can open much longer hours: good for the customers, but not for the staff. Buying from someone who comes to recognise you in a market, as in a local shop, is very different from taking your food from an anonymous series of shelves in aisles in a supermarket. And it is fun to see the same stall-holders in different towns or villages locally.

A Burgundy diary – 14 January 2022

Freezing

The day is very still. At eight o’clock light was beginning to spread in the sky: pink toward a brightening white. Below the gentle sky lay the mist deepening into the trees and fields. The temperature for nearby Curgy is -7, and here it was recorded in my new meteo link perched on a pole in the garden records it as -4. I wonder how often in my life I have been in weather as cold?

In our stone-walled kitchen the wood-burning stove does its stuff. Inside all feels fine at 18 – 20 degrees. I’ll need to go out to the barn shortly to collect fuel from the pile of cut wood, to keep the stove burning. So long as the stove holds up – and why shouldn’t it? – we’ll be fine, as the temperature stays below freezing.

And now, at nine o’clock, the sun is coming up on the other side of the house. In the valley below us the sun-light comes over the house. It shines on the winter-bare the trees, lighting up their distant branches. The woods are a strange muted yellow between us and the mist which shrouds the hills and fields beyond.

The temperature on the garden meteo is recorded as -5.

A Burgundy diary – 9 January 2022

Brambles on the hillside climb; winter colours in the old oak forest

The road across the field above les Fands had lead to the forest road (Route Forestière du Val St Benoît). Above this, above the Tour de Grosme a few hundred yards into the woods beside us, our local forest – the Forêt Domaniale des Battées – climbed away through the trees. And along the spine of the hill above us was a path, we knew, which followed the crest the hillside and led to a path back down to home. The path to the top of the spine showed on the map as a somewhat fitful link. Continuous lines on French maps are no guarantee of a right of way, still less of a way through; and dotted lines – as here, partly – sound real caution.

We knew it was a walk through trees, mostly pine; and the climb was barely one hundred feet (80 metres). A path we had not been on before set off up through the forest. It was clear, and had obviously been used by vehicles. No longer though, I fear; and thus, sad to say, I suspect it will soon decay back into the forest, unless foresters use it to fell and take away the trees higher up. Around here there was originally not only forest traffic; but there were small coal or bitumen (houille) mines (as with Épinac les Mines), only five or six miles (eight kilometres) away. The coal must have been carried by vehicles through the forest. (A sign on the forestière road below warns of ‘puits’, which for years I thought meant wells; but here in the forest it means old mine shafts.)

The forest path turned upwards where the map said it would; but its existence all but died, first in a stream and then in deepening brambles growing profusely between the pines and aas we climbed the hillside. Finally, the brambles became thinner as the hill climbed more steeply. We arrived at the top by a quarry cut five or six metres deep into the hillside. I wonder if any stone had been used from there to build the Grosme castle. And then we arrived on the path along the crest.

It had started to rain now; but the colours in the oak forest around us remained as bright as ever: autumn oak-leaves almost pink and shining; grey stone; and moss of all sorts of colours: dark green, fresher green, and green which was tinged with blue. I thought the small knoll of moss I photographed looked like a green tortoise plodding under the trees; but my son, to whose family I sent a copy, came back with: ‘Looks more like a green rabbit who’s fallen on his face’.

The path is bordered – on the part we walked – by three or four boundary posts. A couple have carved into them the moor, or Corsica coat of arms. This is associated with Jean-Baptiste Lazare de Morey and his wife Charlotte Le Belin (wife and cousin), owners of Sully castle in the early eighteenth century (till 1748). We walked back home down the hill in sporadic rain.

A Burgundy diary – 8 January 2022

To Grosme, les Fands and the forest

We set off this morning to find another path we can walk in the countryside around here. We started along the Roman track from Savigny-le-Jeune to Épinac. One version of this track may have passed along the road in front of the barn and into the farm lane (‘Lucie’s Lane’). It was a cold, grey day. Rain was forecast.

The first junction on the Roman lane, once it becomes a farm lane, runs through a small cluster of houses – called les Fands – and on up towards the forest to the south of us. There are five or six houses in les Fands, and only two or three – I suspect – are now lived in more or less full-time. The group of houses must once have included a couple of working farms with accompanying out-buildings and farm-workers’ houses. Now I wonder if there is anyone living there who farms at all; though, of course, today there are farmers and farm-workers working in the local fields. All on the farms are less intensively employed thanks to mechanisation.

Beyond the short road from les Fands, a field runs up towards the forest. Some track passable by medieval forms of transport must surely have passed from the chateau in Sully via la Come to the smaller but older – at least as to what remains now – Tour de Grosme. The Tour was on the other side of the wide field we wanted to cross (in the centre of the picture above). And I guess there would have been a way – even a right of way, so far as these exist (other than metalled roads) in France – which may have taken in les Fands and where we were planning to walk. Now there is a gate into the field and you walk up towards Grosme. Today the field was empty of cattle.

Boars and passing the fence

Boars had been shallow mining, rootling in the grass in the upper part of the field we were walking across. But for what? We were three or four hundred yards (350 metres) from the nearest oak trees. Do they like worms? What else could they have been searching for? Whatever it is they had conducted a thorough, if superficial, excavation of the upper part of this field.

And there was evidence in a couple of places where they had got through a fence which crossed it, and which we needed to get past; but the gap they had negotiated it was too small for us even if we had crawled through there. We needed to find a point where we could at one pass of the fence, negotiate two electric fences (probably not live: there were no cows in the fields; but who wanted to test the question?) and a barbed wire fence in between. Eventually we found a point where we could climb under the electric fences, and where the barbed wire could be held down.

Climbing a little higher in the field, we could look back to the hills beyond the barn. Vergoncey gradually came into above the trees below us. And ahead of us, as we crested the hill, we could see what looked like a gap for a gate in the fence at the far side of the field; and so it was. The pathway – perhaps part of the old road to Grosme castle, when it was more fully occupied – was fully evident as a short track on the other side of the gate; and so at last crossed the field from les Fands.

Above us, above the forest road, and above the Tour de Grosme (the old ruins were in the woods a few hundred meters away), climbed the hill and spread our local Forêt Domaniale des Battées. Through the forest lead a path for us back home; but the next thing was to find it.

(To be continued).

A Burgundy diary – 1 January 2022

Cloud in the Drée: New Year’s Day

2022: a year ahead in Burgundy now begins. Burgundy is now our home, and will be where we – mostly – work.

It’s colder outside today than it was over Christmas; but only just. Low cloud hangs away below the barn in the Drée valley. The Morvan hills, fifteen kilometres beyond that, rise above the nearer valley. Often after a clear night – even in summer – there is low cloud hangs there, briefly; but normally it clears quickly. Today the cloud has hung there all morning; whilst in the sky above there is only a faint impression of wispy cloud.

Dew has been heavy after the clear cold night. Now the sun has risen a little. Its shadow has slipped down the pear tree below me as it rises slowly over the roof above. Dew evaporates as the winter sun sips the patches of grass it reaches. And the grass stretches greenly away across the fields and on to the forests and hills beyond. Trees and hedges wait for spring (though I’ve a horrible feeling the climate crisis will bring it earlier to no benefit for all of us): this New Year’s Day is one of the warmest ever for many of us.

Sparrows, blue tits, even a nuthatch and a wren, often sport outside my window. They are nowhere to be seen now – midday is just passing – but half a dozen crows and a couple of magpies dived from the trees a few minutes ago. They have disappeared now. A pigeon waits. Close to in the shade the dew stays heavy and wet in the still sunless air beside the house.

A Burgundy diary – 19 December 2021

Winter deepens

This is now truly a Burgundy diary. Lucie and I are living here full-time now. In the latter part of November we moved the last of our furniture from Ivry-sur-Seine, by Paris, to here; and on 1 December 2021 Lucie started her new job as chef de service (pôle)for the department of Soane-et-Loire.

A fire is lit in our kitchen; and we’ve now got more wood for the rest of the winter. We only need to heat – for the two of us – the kitchen and our bedroom above. With family here at New Year the fire in the main room will be lit, and that will heat that room and the upstairs bedrooms. Only the downstairs room – with the vestiges of a manger, where some of the animals would have spent the colder winter days – is now warmed by an electric heater.

It’s getting colder outside as winter deepens: frost overnight, but clear moon-lit nights as Lucie’s deep dusk photo shows (complete with eoliennes – windmills – 25 kilometres away; and my photo with unexplained blobs).

A Burgundy diary – 20 October 2021

La Cave de Bourgogne

I was first in this part of Paris – at the foot of the rue Mouffetard – nearly 30 years ago. I stayed in a hotel which had been recommended. Early every morning I used to wander around, anonymously, absorbing the autumn early morning, the streets, the people. I discovered a part of Paris I’d not known at all before: les Goblins, place Monge, Boulevard de Port-Royal. I sat in the Cave de Bourgogne – not knowing then how much Burgundy would later mean to me – in a sort of back room (too blurry in the photo below: sorry). I drank coffee and ate a croissant (I am sure I did: I was truly a tourist then). I inhaled the smell of Gauloises and Gitanes, the true and ubiquitous smell of French bars at the time.

In those days the bar was narrow, with the room I sat in at the back, and another room behind the bar. Now the bar is along the side of the room formerly behind the bar, and where was the bar are tables for people to drink an eat. The lavatory is no longer a la turque, no one smokes, I expect it’s all a bit cleaner; but to me it has echoes of the bar I knew those 30 years ago.

Outside in the rue Mouffetard is a reminder – which I learned when I was first there – that Paris is not all boulevards and formal gardens – as I had thought until then. (True, now I have found out so much more of the varied Parises: the Marais, St Martin Canal, the parallel older streets which run from the Gare du Nord to the river, and all those varied streets around Le boulevard St Germain and La rue de Cherche Midi.) The street – rue Moffetard – rambles up a gentle hillside still keeping its medieval plan. Mostly it is flanked by small – and very varied – shops. The buildings must span a period of eight hundred years or more.

And at the foot of this ancient narrow street is La Cave de Burgogne, surrounded by a book-shop (still in business), a green-grocer and one of Paris’s evergreen chemists.

A Burgundy diary –  18 October 2021

Viévy: stone houses and its church tower

It’s a strange time in my life. Leaving Paris (see note of a couple of days ago), when I’ve lived in a city all my adult life; and – entirely by choice – going to live in deep country-side in Burgundy.

The village of Viévy is just north of us: the contrast with Paris could hardly be greater. It consists of only a few houses. Many are no longer occupied. It has a very small village square which probably once had a shop and a bar. Its church has a fine Romanesque tower (I’ve not been in the church), and alongside is its mairie with old blue sign.  

I love that village. I’ve only stopped there once: to take these photos back in July. I’ve remembered the church tower from most of the time I’ve been coming to Burgundy. And now I know more of how it stands in the greens of the fields around and amid the sandy coloured stones of a of its short village street.