The medieval city of Beaune – sitting elegantly in the heart of Burgundy – had ten ancient and fortified gates. All of them led to small and insignificant local villages whose names have over the centuries become legends in the world of wine. Pommard, Vougeot, Volnay, Chassagne Montrachet, Nuits St Georges – the list could continue for a couple more paragraphs. Names that excite the palate even before the cork has been drawn from the bottle.
Beaune is one of those French towns which has been preserved and enhanced by the arrival of the motorway age. The serious tourist can reach it quickly but the thundering north-south lorry traffic no longer threatens its fabulous old buildings. The town is within five miles of one of France’s main motorway junctions. The E60, heaving with traffic from Paris to Lyon splits east for Alsace and Lorraine, while the A36 heads across for Switzerland.
On the edge of the town – within a few hundred yards of the motorway tolls booths – an entire group of modern hotels now caters for the passing traffic. Beaune has Ibis and a string of other low cost places to stay – they’re all a little soulless but comfortable, sensibly priced and accessible. The best thing is that they don’t impinge on the historic town centre. Within the ancient town walls you’ll find more than enough history and wine-tasting for a weekend stay. If your time is short then an intensive day’s walking tour would just about do justice to the town.
First arm yourself with a map from the tourist office in the very centre of town, then across a cobbled street and you’re into one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe – the Hotel Dieu. From the street there’s no hint of the richness and the ornamental grandeur you’ll find inside the courtyard. There the tiled roof in beige, green, red and black suggests you’re in a palace instead of a fifteenth century hospital for the sick and poor. It’s built in Flemish-Burgundian style with delicate spires and dormer windows. Inside the main ward is nearly sixty yards long and and fifty feet across. Around its sides are twenty-eight cubicles, each with its own four poster bed. At the end of the Great Hall the chapel was originally dominated by Van der Weyden’s painting of the Last Judgment. It’s now in a separate room where temperature and humidity can be better controlled.
There’s a medieval serenity about the Hotel Dieu. The nuns’ quarters, the kitchen and the linen room are all kept as they were five hundred years ago. If this is the only place you visit in Beaune then your time will have been well spent. So that visitors can enjoy the details of the Last Judgment better there’s a massive magnifying glass powered electrically which can be raised or lowered and traversed across Van der Weyden’s masterpiece. This was one of the first paintings which mastered the technique of illustrating jewellery, which gleams with the extra brightness of a fresh artistic discovery.
But the Hotel Dieu is far from being the only important sight in town. The twelfth century church of Notre Dame is a remarkably well-preserved example of the Romanesque style. Don’t miss the five wool and silk tapestries behind the high altar. They were given to the church in 1500 and tell the story of the Virgin Mary. Just wandering around the pedestrianised streets is a pleasure in itself. Like Bath, Beaune is built in a warm, honey-coloured stone. Smart wine shops like the Athenaeum and Sensation Vin – and several more besides – display the great local wines with style. You can even buy a board game based on wine cleverly called “Entre deux verres”. Played intelligently it involves a certain amount of tasting as you move about.
Out of town the great wine villages can’t possibly live up architecturally to the reputation of their products. It’s the only disappointment you’ll have in the area though. After all these are working, rural communities. Their only pretensions are to produce fabulous wines through the skills of their people and through the good grace of geography. What was very strange as we drove from Beaune to Dijon was the horde of self-employed vignerons littering the rolling vineyards with their horrid white vans. White Van Man is sadly alive in Burgundy too. We drifted into Beaune simply as a break on our journey to the Mediterranean – but on second thoughts why ever bother to hammer-on south at all. Once you’ve seen one Cote d’Azur beach you’ve seen them all. Linger a while here in Beaune instead and literally drink-in the joys of Burgundy.