This post comes from our talented and well-traveled guest writers, Laura and Les
We were off to the ancient heartland of the Knights Templar, not to discover their secrets (we’ll leave that to the Da Vinci Code), but to enjoy the beauty and flavours of the rolling hills and ancient towns and villages of the west of Burgundy. After an overnight flight to Paris, we cleared customs, stowed our bags in the trunk of our rental car and headed out.
The Region of Burgundy lies east of Paris with Charles De Gaulle Airport in the northeast, driving away from Paris. This made driving less stressful! The other stress buster was to book a hotel for our first night in Sens, only a couple of hours drive away.
We enjoy exploring off the beaten track on road trips meaning no big highways, if we can avoid them. It can also mean some surprises, like rounding a corner and coming upon a beautiful chateau or fields of yellow Canola in bloom or coming upon ancient little villages. It can also mean crossing the Marne River and then taking the wrong road out of Largny-sur-Marne or running into a closed road sign when we were almost at our destination. Serendipity! Our wrong turn also took us past the stone towers of Colommbiers, the historic headquarters of the Knights Templar. We’ll have to save that for another trip.
Our hotel in Sens, the Archotel, is a short walk from the historic centre and faces onto a broad park lined with plane trees and flower gardens all in spring bloom. Sens is most famous for its cathedral, one of the earliest of the great gothic cathedrals and the model for Canterbury Cathedral in London. Here the builder experimented with spreading the weight of the enormous stone structures by the use of massive interior columns and external flying buttresses. This allowed the walls to be opened up for light to pour in through beautiful stained glass windows. Two of those windows date from the 12th Century, as brilliant and jewel like as when they were created.
Sens is a pleasant quiet town on the Yonne River. Shops and a few restaurants line the square and surrounding streets. Across the square from the cathedral stands a massive iron and glass market building built in the late 1800s.We found an enjoyable outdoor spot for supper behind the market where a delightful young shopkeeper brought out a large assortment of charcuterie, smoked salmon wrapped around creamy cheese, saucisson and a potato-onion flan.
The next morning we were off, bypassing the historic city of Auxerre and winding along country roads until we found ourselves surrounded by steep pristine vineyards as we entered the village of Chablis, home of one of France’s iconic white wines. We lunched in a leafy courtyard enjoying vibrant green salads. The salade chevre came with generous medallions of fresh creamy goat cheese and the salade forestiere featured slices of smoked duck breast and earthy mushrooms. We also enjoyed glasses of Chablis Premier Cru with our tasty lunch.
Another hour’s drive and we were at our home for four nights, the historic Moulin des Templiers. The Moulin, which means, “mill” is tucked into a rugged gorge alongside the rushing Cousin River. It lies a few kilometres from the large town of Avallon, once a Celt city and later a Roman city. Only twelve kilometres away is the hilltop basilica village of Vezeley, a UNESCO world heritage site. History is everywhere in this region, No more so than the Moulin. It was built in 1157 and donated by a wealthy lord to the Knights of Templar. One building on the site, a granary and dovecote dates from the 900’s.
The Moulin is now a small three star hotel, and was most recently upgraded in 2016 with lovely modern bathrooms. After unpacking we went for a hike along the river, coming back on an ancient pilgrim’s trail on the opposite bank. Back at the hotel we enjoyed a glass of the crisp white wine of Vezeley on the terrace. In the large stone walled room overlooking the mill wheel we were served a simple, but delicious supper of homemade soup, plates of charcuterie, smoked salmon, trout, sausage, cured ham and a variety of cheeses, along with fresh crunchy baguette and more of the delicious local wine.
The next morning after a hearty breakfast that included the biggest buttery croissants we’ve ever eaten, we headed for Vezeley. Crossing the Cousin River as we wound through the narrow centre of tiny Pontaubert and past its Romanesque church. The road passed close to an old Templar church. A few kilometres on we crested a high hill stopping at the Croix de Montjoie (Cross of Mount Joy) where pilgrims had stopped as they caught their first sight of Vezeley across the deep valley, its basilica crowning the distant hill.
Vezeley is a visitor’s delight filled with ample tourist facilities but didn’t feel touristy. We strolled through the stone gate up the narrow street that winds its way up to the basilica enjoying the shops, cafes, restaurants and galleries. The basilica itself is massive and filled with history that includes when the second Crusade to the Holy Land was proclaimed from its steps in 1123. From the surrounding park we enjoyed views of the Burgundy hills, which we later spent the afternoon exploring by car. We enjoyed light lunches with more of the crisp white chardonnay of Vezeley from vintners, Maria Cuny and the acclaimed Domaine La Croix de Montjoie.
Then it was off exploring the nearby countryside. It’s a lot harder to get lost in rural France than at home because at every crossroads there are signs pointing you in the direction of surrounding towns and villages. So, if you get all turned around and see a sign saying, for instance, Vezeley, just follow the direction of that sign. It’s a lot more fun than sticking to a numbered highway. If you get back to Vezeley, like we did, you can always stop for a cup of tea, a lemon meringue tart and piece of molten chocolate cake. There are lots of places to go for walks and we took advantage of them.
Next……….. Part Two of Burgundy, France