There are a lot of sticky notes on my desk, and some of them are reminding me of blog posts I never got around to writing. Especially with travel posts, if I don’t write them quickly, the details get hazy or life gets busy and words never get typed. [Good grief. I’m trying to write this with Christmas music playing, at the request of my husband. More challenging than anticipated.]
Shepherds… fields… oh yes: Beaune. Back in September, we spent a week in rural Burgundy, France. And when we wanted a break from the cows and the solitude, we drove forty minutes to the comparatively-bustling town of Beaune.
I was amazed by how lively Beaune was, even on a Sunday. Locals were out, but Beaune is clearly a stop on the tourist main-drag. It’s a fancy wine town, and there were a lot of too-upscale (for us) wine shops. I went into an antique fair while Tim browsed, and then we went to the Hotel Dieu—the old hospital of Beaune from 1444 (operational well into the 1900s), and one of the few defined “attractions” nearby. It was a really interesting experience. When we visit old European towns we see a lot of churches, palaces, medieval walls—but I don’t think we’ve ever visited a medieval hospital. The building itself has a beautiful courtyard and distinctive Burgundian tiled roof.
The interior was surprisingly nice, and was used by both poor and rich patients. However, as we were reminded, “medicine” was basically nonexistent; so even if you were in the hospital, you were being cared for but probably not healed. Nuns ran everything, and they had some basic herbal knowledge but not medical training. The panacea was wine with herbs and opium: kill your pain, but not solve any problems.
We took a short walk through a park to where the town of Beaune meets acres and acres and more of vineyards. We stood at the edge of the grapevine rows and ate a couple grapes. The scenery is beautiful—hard to capture in a photo—and that week they were harvesting, so in clusters, people were moving in the rows filling bins with grapes clipped by hand.
We were eager to taste the wines of Burgundy, but in general found them prohibitively expensive, and the pinot noir grape not to our taste. Tasting was complicated by the coincidence with harvest time (all hands on deck). But we drove five minutes north to Aloxe-Corton, a town recommended in our Rick Steves book for tasting at a few caves. The first one we went to was just OK. The guy seemed bored, and though he spoke English, he couldn’t describe the wines very well so we decided to each just try a glass instead of doing a pricey tasting.
Once wine was being consumed, I asked him about living in this tiny little town, and (I thought) the conversation got much more interesting. He grew up in Aloxe-Corton, and said that everyone who lives there is in the wine industry. He said the Netherlands was “only flowers and drugs,” and asked us if we moved there because of the drug availability. He lamented that teenagers from north France drive up over the Dutch border to get drugs. I love to get people talking about their homelands, and before we left this man had recommended to us the peasant cuisine of Lyon (“the true ancestral cuisine of France”), and dis-recommended Paris and anyone who lives there. (Not being French myself, I feel blissfully free to avoid the Paris vs. non-Paris feud that French people seem to wage.)
Thus fortified we walked further into the village—-just some houses and some kids playing outside. There was a little boy wearing bright orange goggles playing superhero or something, making me wonder what it’s like to grow up in such a small, sheltered place.
We followed our eyes to a beautiful old chateau not knowing what it was, and it turned out to be another tasting cave (Pierre Andre). I was skeptical of the snooty exterior, but the bar inside was being worked by a young guy (probably 20 or less), super-friendly, and we really enjoyed it, much more than the first place. He, too, told us that he works full time in the industry, some days in the tasting bar and other days doing “what needs to be done.” His father trained him to taste the wines at age 13. I asked if he likes the work, and he said: “Of course”—like, “Why else would I do it?”—a response I find more European than American. He and Tim had such a good dialogue about the wines that Tim went back a couple days later and tasted / wine-shopped for so long that I read about 50 pages of a WWI memoir while sitting in the rental car outside.
We capped off our time in Beaune with a meal at Caves Madeleine. Full disclosure: we found it on Trip Advisor. Guess what? So did everyone else. When we walked in (reservation required) we were seated at a long, shared table that took up most of the restaurant. Tim was peeved about this and gave me the Look of Caution when I opened my mouth to help the American couple next to us translate their menu. It didn’t take long to figure out that we were surrounded by American tourists, mostly of our parents’ age, and that they had all either found the restaurant via Trip Advisor or Rick Steves.
While this somewhat detracted from a French-feeling atmosphere, the food was delicious, and the host (as promised) spoke excellent English and loved talking and recommending wine. Partway through the meal we finally entered the communal conversation around us, and got to chatting with a couple around our age from Alexandria, VA. The man came from a ranching/farming family in the Dakotas, and told us he loves France because of the food culture. Eager to see the grape harvest in action, he praised the traditional methods, lamenting that when he buys a tomato at a major US grocery store, it doesn’t even “taste like a tomato” to him, because it was combine-harvested long before it was ripe, and sprayed later with a chemical to turn its color.
Travel, he told us, is really just choosing where you want to eat for a certain length of time. Full of lemony ravioli and beef bourguignon, I was happy to agree.