Producing a rarefied concentration of what many consider the world's greatest wines and harboring a sigh-worthy collection of magnificent Romanesque abbeys, Burgundy hardly needs to be beautiful—but it is. Its green-hedgerowed countryside, medieval villages, and stellar vineyards deserve to be rolled on the palate and savored. Like glasses filled with Clos de Vougeot, the sights here—from the
stately city of Dijon to the medieval sanctuaries of Sens, Auxerre, Vézelay, and Cluny—invite us to tarry and partake of their mellow splendor.
Although you may often fall under the influence of extraordinary wine during a sojourn in Burgundy—called Bourgogne by the French—the beauty surrounding you is no boozy illusion. Passed over by revolutions, left unscarred by world wars, and relatively inaccessible thanks to circuitous country roads, the region still reflects the lovely pastoral prosperity it enjoyed under the Capetian kings. Those were the glory days, when self-sufficient Burgundy held its own against the creeping spread of France and the mighty Holy Roman Empire. This grand period was characterized by the expanding role of the dukes of Bourgogne. Consider these Capetians, history-book celebrities all: there was Philippe le Hardi (the Bold), with his power-brokered marriage to Marguerite of Flanders. There was Jean sans Peur (the Fearless), who murdered Louis d'Orléans in a cloak-and-dagger affair in 1407 and was in turn murdered, in 1419. And then there was Philippe le Bon (the Good), who threw in with the English against Joan of Arc.
Yet the Capetians couldn't hold a candle to the great Abbaye de Cluny: founded in 910, it grew to such overweening ecclesiastical power that it dominated the European Church on a papal scale for some four centuries. It was Urban II himself who dubbed it "la Lumière du Monde" ("the Light of the World"). But the stark geometry of Burgundy's Cistercian abbeys, such as Clairvaux and Cîteaux, stands in silent rebuke to Cluny's excess. The basilicas at Autun and Vézelay remain today in all their noble simplicity, yet manifest some of the finest Romanesque sculpture ever created; the tympanum at Autun rejects all time frames in its visionary daring.
It's almost unfair to the rest of France that all this history, all this art, all this natural beauty comes with delicious refreshments. As if to live up to the extraordinary quality of its Chablis, its Chassagne-Montrachet, its Nuits-St-Georges, its Gevrey-Chambertin, Burgundy flaunts some of the best plain food in the world. Once you taste a licensed and diploma'd poulet de Bresse (Bresse chicken) embellished by the poetry of one perfect glass of Burgundian Pinot Noir, you won't be surprised to see that food and drink entries will take up as much space in your travel diary as the sights you see.