On the Internet they looked just wonderful. Self-catering flats, called gites, for rent in all sizes and price ranges. Moreover, they were located in Burgundy. I had a vision of being footloose in “God’s country” – vineyards, small market towns, villages with their boulangeries and medieval abbeys.
I looked at the pictures again and made my choice: a gite in a converted dovecote in the south of Burgundy. It looked too good to be true. A squat, tower-like structure built from rough stones, drenched in sunlight, with wooden shutters. A small porch. I’ll be a country squire, I thought.
I arranged for a small car from Renault Eurodrive under the Renault buy-and-buy-back program. The car was waiting for me at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. I showed my passport and order form, filled up at a nearby station and was on my way on the Autoroute du Soleil, the holiday road of the French, going south.
That evening I sat on the terrace of my new home and chatted with Gérard, the farmer and my landlord. We had a drink, talked in my halting French. His white Charolais cattle grazed nearby. Narrow lanes cut through the land, connecting fields and hamlets lined with moss-covered walls that have been here since the days of the French revolution. I was in the country all right, in a small village, its church bell tolling every hour as it had for centuries.
Gérard is a cattle farmer and was busy with the hay harvest. For the next several days I would see him well into the evenings on his tractor in the distant fields, gathering hay and rolling it into huge bales.
He showed me my accommodations. There were fresh-cut flowers on the kitchen table and there was an electric range, a fridge, a washing machine and a decorative ancient bread oven framed by wooden beams. Bath and bedroom were on the floor above. I had radio and TV. Only a telephone was missing, but I was on vacation – if I needed to call someone, there was a telephone booth in the village.
Gérard runs a squeaky-clean gite, even supplies bed sheets, which puts his place in the gite plus category. We had another drink and talked a little more. I was convinced that my French was improving.
Six kilometres from the village is Charolles, a pretty town with a small river running through the centre. There was the usual morning traffic, but around the church there would always be a parking spot. Here I would go to buy my baguettes, post a letter and stock up on groceries at the supermarché, where I would also fill up with gas at a lower price.
The second day there, I explored the surrounding countryside. While the area around Charolles is cattle country, driving east towards Mâcon I entered the Mâconnais region, with its vineyards and their wine-producing villages and châteaux.
Mâcon, on the river Saône, holds its market on Saturdays. It’s a pleasant town and a wine centre. The Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine was born there, and his statue stands close to the river. In the surrounding country is the dramatic Roche de Solutré, its rocky outcrop rising 1,200 feet above the vineyards. It is said that prehistoric people living there drove their quarry toward the edge of the rock, and the animals would tumble down into the abyss below. Remnants of their bones still form a layer under the chalk-rich soil that now nurtures the vines.
At the foot of the Roche de Solutré lie the vineyards of Pouilly-Fuisse and the village of Pouilly. The Mâconnais wines produced there are the better vins ordinaires, meaning they are good wines for the dinner table, yet do not enjoy the reputation of the great labels of the Côte d’Or and the Beaujolais regions.
North and west of Charolles in the undulating country, the Loire and canals flow through the land. Although the Canal du Nivernais is the best-known among boaters and bargemen, the Canal du Centre connecting the Loire and its lateral canal with the Saone, is equally to be enjoyed.
A few kilometres north of Charolles at the town of Palinges, I came across a canal lock. Waiting for a barge to appear, I had lunch at a restaurant at the edge of the canal. Small town French restaurants may not look great from the outside, but order a meal, even a cheap one, and you are impressed. And there I ate – not like a king – but surely like a duke. Appetizer, main dish, dessert, local Burgundy, all served as a feast not only for the palate, but also for the eye.
A pleasure barge came silently up to the lock outside the restaurant. That led to another of the pleasures of Burgundy. Formerly a freight barge, the craft was converted to a cabin cruiser. It was guided by a host and skipper with no worries in the world, no hotels, no train schedules, parking problems or high prices for gas.