Monthly Archives: May 2012

Beaune and Dijon

A newly-opened stretch of ‘auto-route‘ leading towards Beaune, the famed Burgundy wine town, early in the morning and yes, I tested the Renault’s ability to move along and that it did – and before you tsk-tsk as soon as it hit the 200 kph (120 mph) I immediately eased up on the accelerator.
(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)
The anticipation of fine wine tasting and excellent cuisine spurred me on – couldn’t get there fast enough.  Yeah, the devil made me do it!
Autoroutes’ are ‘péage‘, it costs but if you are in a hurry it pays off in saved time and in less fuel spent. ‘Départment’ is the French equivalent of a province or American state, of course nothing close to the same size territory but often with a larger population.  Generally, when possible I look for the D signs indicating a regional road to travel from town to town and I’m never disappointed as you wander through the ancient ways and byways of what the  French refer to as ‘La France Profonde‘, or alternatively ‘Douce France‘.  Indeed the finest of what this superlatively endowed country offers is often in small, out of the way towns and villages.  Getting there is half the fun too.

Somewhere on the way from Blois, one of the well-preserved fortified chateaus that dot the French country side – I don’t even know its name.

Vineyards here, there and everywhere –  there’s something soothing in the  orderly, symmetrical  rows going up a gentle slope framed by a wooded backdrop.  I always find reassurance in such scenery; must have  to do with my familiarity with such panorama from my childhood years in Ay-Champagne.

Beaune is the capital of the justly celebrated ‘Vin de Bourgogne‘ and of course the culinary world dotes on  heavenly Dijon mustard.   Both of  these towns boast of a unique, rich and varied cultural heritage that should make a visit a must on any serious traveler’s agenda.  Beaune is south of Dijon, a little over 30 kilometres and going to or from  it winds its way along the famous ‘Route de Grand Crus’.  Remnants from medieval times are abundant and walking the streets a pleasant dip in the limpid pool  of days past.

Medieval city gate ‘Porte Saint Nicolas’ in Beaune is one of the many monuments and buildings the city preserves with care and pride.

Burgundy domaine names that are sure to pass any wine ‘connaisseurs’ lips, figuratively and literally with blissful pleasure and anticipation.
Beaune features a plethora of reputed wine merchants where one can taste the wines ‘gratis‘ before making a decision on which of the fine ‘cru‘ to buy – warning, some of the prices do require a sober judgment but the quality of course is ‘impeccable!‘ It’s a sensual pleasure every one should indulge in no matter how much it pinches your wallet.  You only live once and surely you’d not pass up a slab of bbq pork ribs in Chattanooga, would you? Or turn down a beer in Pilsen, right? When in Rome do as the Romans, eat a good plate of pasta.
A  welcoming parochial church I passed by each day on my way to the ‘centre ville’.  The affluent city of Beaune I’ve visited on occasion before but it never fails to surprise and delight in new ways.
A medieval treasure is the Hospices de Beaune, also known as ‘Hôtel-Dieu’.  Built for the poor and sick at the end of the Hundred Years War in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin and his wife.  It features and instantly recognizable geometric glazed-tiled roof of interwoven red, green, brown and yellow tiles.  The generosity of the benefactors was emulated by other wealthy and powerful families in the region, notably Pommard, Nolay, Meursault so that collectively they have become known as the ‘Hospices de Beaune’.    It’s one of the finest example of 15th Century French architecture, this particular building referred to as an emblematic example of Flamboyant Gothic  – the facades facing the  main courtyard are eye-catching and unique.
Huh…  I  have to come up with a different pose – you think?  
A view of the main ward – would you believe it was in use until very recently when the last patients were transferred to a modern facility although still in use as a retirement home.  Indeed, it has presently been  transformed into a splendid museum endowed with some 5000 objet d’art and artistic treasures.
Undoubtedly the clean and comfortable convalescence  nooks where undreamed of luxury for the sick and downtrodden of ancient days.  The aptly named Sisters of Mercy must have appeared as Angels of Mercy, and surely they were heaven sent for the grateful patients.
At one end of the main ward an altar and chapel richly adorned with many artistic treasures among them a famous altar piece ‘The Last Judgment’ by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.
Each year since 1851, in November, a charity auction of wine kicks off a three day festival devoted to the food and wines of Burgundy.  The Domaine des Hospices de Beaune is a non-profit organization which owns 150 acres of donated vineyards, in Côte de Beaune, Côtes de Nuits and Pouilly-Fuissé, need I point out much of it classified Grand and Premier Cru.  The proceeds go to its charitable work in keeping with its long tradition of caring for the poor and sick.  Since 1905 the auction has been organized by famed Christie’s and it entices international bids from professional and private buyers.
The central fountain in Le vieux Dijon provides a meeting place for old and young alike – ancient buildings well preserved serve as a scenery backdrop and of course notice the ubiquitous carousel just behind .   Although Dijon is a fine city with an illustrious past it somehow slips below the radar of travelers to France (even the French somehow by-pass it);  go for it and I promise it will beguile the most jaded tourist.
A quick 30 minutes north from Beaune  you’ll come to Dijon, an ancient medieval city reputed as a focal point of French gastronomy (be sure to feast on coq au vin and sip on a delicious crème de cassis liqueur) as well as a lively university town thriving with world class art museums such as the Musée des Beaux-Arts.  Fortunately unlike the majority of large towns in the northern mid half of France it escaped major destruction in World War II, lucky for us who have the good ‘nose’ to find it on our journey.
Eglise Saint Michel in the background and another one, nameless I’m ashamed to admit, in the foreground.  There are churches around every corner in this town and as I was struck by the far one I neglected the nearest – mea culpa!
Eglise Saint Michel, an eye-catching and unusual architecture for this part of France.
Beautiful stain glass windows adorn the main facade as seen from the interior.  I hold the belief the  creation of stained glass art is taken too much for granted and not appreciated to its full value.  Perhaps it’s the distance between object and viewer that is the cause, not often can we stand as close as to a painting in a gallery.  Other than Marc Chagall, I know of no other artist of note that is celebrated for their stained glass work.  Am I wrong? 
After Mt. St. Michel I meet the victorious archangel again in Dijon pitchforking the loser out of heaven and into the abyss of darkness.
Hey, I do have another pose – must remember it. Liberation Square fronting the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy in Dijon is spacious and a favourite meeting place.
City Hall part of the complex Ducal palace where important matters are dealt with – example, getting hitched!
Getting married in Dijon is serious business – first you must pass identification procedures.  Perhaps giving the couple one last chance to change their minds?
Let joy reign supreme for now – notice the two walking away couldn’t care less.
And of course, THE world’s best mustard and where it all originated, right there, in that very same shop.  Before entering I felt almost as pious as going on pilgrimage to Lourdes.  Dijon mustard is near must on my dinner table, anytime, well maybe not for seafood.  
Oy, that pose, again!  I really have to stop that from becoming a habit. Sure, sure!
The array of different flavored mustards would take a year to taste each and every one on a daily basis.  Yet, for the  pleasure of my taste buds nothing beats the ‘Dijon Originale’.  I use it as a condiment but often as the base for savoury sauces; generously dabbed on sautéed chunks of pork tenderloin or cheaper cuts of beef it will wring out flavour beyond your expectations.  Incidentally, don’t let on this gastronomy secret to your dinner guests, it’s ours to know and keep.
Dijon is a hub for cultural events celebrating a glorious tradition in arts and of course its illustrious viniculture.  Ducal banners from different ‘houses’ are a reminder of the pomp and glamour associated with the wealthy proprietors of world-famed vineyards and superb wines.
Notice there is no traffic on the street – how I wish we could emulate here in Vancouver this civilized concept where pedestrian traffic is favoured over noisy, polluting cars.  The banners are a reminder of past glories and present-day respect for its regional history.  That’s it for this short visit to Beaune and Dijon, more coming your way but as the song said – don’t know when, don’t know where but we’ll meet again, count on it.

Chateau II – “What a Man!”

What follows is a factual story recounted for your amusement as long as you solemnly make a promise (between you, me and our personal deity) to  read it without judgement or worse a raised-eyebrow cynical appraisal of my action.  If you can’t in the depth of  your heart do so, please close this post and move on.  The ‘dramatic’ event happened two decades ago, at the gloriously beautiful Château de Chenonceau.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

This true anecdote may tickle your funny bone, or you may scratch your head and wonder about why a grown man would behave in such a manner.  Several years ago I and my traveling companion Hélène left the lovely town of Blois early for a quick start to what was planned as another stage in our private Tour de France.   It was exactly on the 19th of April, so she tells me; the sky was a radiant blue however unseasonably cool with a blustery wind adding a stinging bite to near frigid conditions.  The parking lot was some distance from the chateau and as we were walking my lovely friend who had donned a thin, spring jacket visibly displayed ed signs of discomfort by hugging herself and shivering.

Ever the gentleman I rescued her by offering my Coq Sportif ski jacket that I had been wise enough to choose for the day.  Well, we come up to the chateau and just as we are about to cross the bridge leading to the entrance, I suggest that I’d take a photo of her.  I turn to take a few steps back and almost immediately hear a heartfelt, “Oh, no!”  I wheeled around and she was  peering over the stone parapet into the moat some twenty feet below.  Looking down I see my jacket sedately floating down towards the Cher River not far off to the left.

(Twenty years later back to survey the scene – almost nothing changed except for definitely changed hair colour, damn!)

How did that happen? Always fastidious about her appearance (also a tad vain as are most attractive women), Hélène didn’t want to be wearing an over-sized jacket, removed it and set it some distance away atop the parapet.  As luck would have it a sudden blast from a particularly petulant Zephyr blew it off to the waterway below.

Now what? As you can see from the photo, across the moat stairs lead down to the water’s edge.  That turned out crucial to the rescue operation I soon devised.

A rowboat was tethered to the wall a little farther but obviously under lock and key – no joy there.  Without a clue as to what exactly I might do,  I ran down to the steps and that being as far as I could go I necessarily had to make what one might refer to as an ‘executive decision’.  Did I have a clue?  Would I really?

First I put my hand in the water and it was as I feared – ice cold!  No matter, I made a mental calculation that if I felt anything really amiss, such as an incoming heart attack, I’d turn back.  Without further consideration lest I chickened out, I stripped down to my bikini briefs and gingerly so I wouldn’t get my hair wet slipped into the water; now with a stately breaststroke I set off on the rescue mission.  All the while I’m watching my jacket gently sailing down towards the swift flowing river but thankfully an air bubble kept  it afloat.  I’d absolutely not have wanted to dive in after it.  Finally, I caught up to it (perhaps a distance of some 20 metres) and turning around I started back half tossing forward, half pushing it in front of me.  Oh, I forgot to mention that after the initial few strokes my briefs had slipped down to my knees and I had no choice but to removed them and toss them back to where the rest of my clothes were piled up.

Remember we had been the very first car in the parking lot and in the heat of the action I’d not noticed newcomers had arrived on the scene – in fact it turned out to be three busloads of Japanese tourists.  They were now lined up on that same little bridge surely wondering about strange ‘gaijin‘ behaviour – perhaps a Spring Rites ritual?  I didn’t yet notice them but as I swam up to the steps Hélène was now waiting for me but so was a young blond woman who had shown up as well..  Sheesh, I’m stark naked, think I.  Well no matter, I’ll scramble up to the ledge backwards so she doesn’t get shocked by the ‘Full Monty’ but when I turn around there are about one hundred cameras aimed at me.  I decide one is better than a hundred fold and make my way out of the water offering a backside view to the 100 cameras.  (I vaguely hear a spattering of applause and even one cheeky wolf-whistle proving contrary to some opinions that the Japanese do have a sense of humor.) What a lovely young woman she turned out to be!  It took me a half-second to realize when she stepped forward she was holding a large, dry towel to wrap around my shoulders.  It turned out she was a backpacker from Switzerland and correctly surmised I’d need something to dry myself, especially in that temperature.

Apparently only mildly concerned, my navigator/companion was asking how I felt and just about then my entire body, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes started to tingle, something akin to a million bees swarming all over me.  I said, “I feel fine except I’m wondering what is going on with my skin?”  In the meantime she and my good Samaritan were rubbing me down and in about 30 seconds as quickly as that strange sensation had come the tingling ceased.  I had by then put on my dry jeans and shirt and it wasn’t until some years later that I  learned that what I’d experienced was the onset of hypothermia.  After profusely thanking my benefactress we started back up when two uniformed guards from the castle rushed over and invited us to go inside the castle where a rip-roaring fire was  burning in the main chimney.  “Venez vite, il y a un grand feu dans la cheminée pour vous réchaufer.”

Non; merci beaucoup!” I managed to utter with all the dignity I could muster, “In Canada where I come from we prefer cool water to swim in.”  No kidding, that’s the best I could come up with but I wasn’t about to go in and face all those tourists who’d surely snap more photos.  As well, how can you explain that you went in to retrieve a mere sports jacket?

Holding my head high, arm in arm, we marched off in quick-step unison.   Coming to the car I automatically  reached for the keys and that’s when I immediately realized that my imprudent bravado had an unsuspected reward, in fact a felicitous outcome of no small measure.  “Here,” I disingenuously claimed, “here’s why it was imperative for me to rescue the jacket.”  I held out the contents of the right side pocket – the car keys, my wallet with all my IDs, driver’s license and almost $1000 in French money when it meant a good week of traveling expenses.  The day before I’d cashed in a Traveler’s Cheque for that amount.  The bills were just a little wet around the edges but otherwise all was in good shape.  My jacket has zippers on the side pockets and without consciously thinking about it I had closed it almost totally; what marvelous design.  Notice I said, ‘has’ as I still have it but only occasionally wear it so as to prolong its useful life.  Quickly I swallowed a couple of  2-22 pills (strong Canadian aspirin) and would you believe it I escaped the watery incident without so much as a sneeze.

Feeling no pain in the warm car and so it appeared nothing more than a casual afterthought I later asked if she’d had any concerns seeing me in a situation, “Fraught with danger!” I was definitely exaggerating yet wanted her to feel a little guilt for my enforced swim, but only a tad.  Cleverly nimble, Hélène neatly deflected the implied guilt by claiming to have thought while taking this photo, “What a man!” And that she’d genuinely felt a very warm feeling for me for being so bold as to jump in to repair her unfortunate mishap. My ego satisfied I merely nodded in agreement.

For better or worse one constant in my life has been a sense of loyalty, not just to people but to things as well, for example I drive my cars until they are done, kaput, period.  This jacket traveled around the world with me; it’s a stylish black, easy to fold, light yet keeps me warm on all but the coldest days.  In other words I feel a great deal of affection for it and of course having saved the beginning of our European wanderings means I owe it my loyalty.  The day it no longer is wearable it will be honorably retired but remain in my clothe closet as a reminder of when I was young and foolish, oh all right, not that young but still full of vim, vitality and just a tad of welcome impetuosity intact.

Almost twenty years later, my splendid Coq Sportif yet keeps me snug and warm,  This pic was taken last year in Stanley Park following a rare Vancouver snowfall.

Now you are privy to this rather odd anecdote, one that until now only a handful of people had heard about and even they weren’t in on the whole truth.  I always made it a point to underline that I needed to retrieve the keys and my wallet.  The unvarnished truth is I went in for my jacket and nothing else as I’d never thought, not for one second, about the vital contents of that one pocket.  Loyalty, in whatever form it is expressed can only be rewarded, do you not agree?  And come to think of it and please don’t think it a dark thought, rather a happy one – when I’m laid out for the final journey, no ill-fitting suit please, but  let me be decked out in my lovely Coq Sportif jacket, I’ll surely feel snug and safe for the unknown journey ahead.