We rounded a corner and stopped in our tracks. Festooned with myriad canopies and rickety carts perched atop ageless cobblestone, the Beaune farmers' market in France's Burgundy region looked so medieval that we half expected Charlemagne and his knights to march through in full regalia. ¶ One of the first stands offered cauliflower in four vivid colors; the next one, radishes in even more hues. Shortly, we came upon bread that smelled of salt and yeast and life itself. A half-dozen tables boasted cheeses so piquant and deeply flavored that each sample prompted us to wonder, "Why did we buy cheese at that last place?" At the back end, two puckish purveyors insisted that we sample a cornucopia of cured meats, somehow both silken and rustic.
The market was such a feast for all five senses -- even if my sniffing strawberries was frowned upon mightily -- that a post-shopping respite was in order. Blessedly, there was a grassy park nearby, where a toothy gentleman -- bearing a fin-de-siecle straw hat and a red kerchief tied just so around his neck -- pumped "La Vie en Rose" out of a tiny, crimson organ box.
It was the kind of moment that travelers crave, when you just know that you are a part of another country, and it is a part of you.
Burgundy oozes history, its physical beauty stirs the soul and the locals put the kibosh on the claim that France is great "except for the people." Even if that bit of bashing held true in Paris -- and it doesn't, save for the occasional taxi driver -- it's an utter canard in Burgundy.
"Burgundians remind me of the people of our agricultural communities," my friend Joe said. "The locals seem to value their own privacy and to respect yours. They also smile easily and are almost always helpful."
The wine and the food are not too shabby, either.
While Burgundy is a mecca for oenophiles, even teetotalers can find much to relish in this rolling swath of southeastern France -- especially if they are history buffs.
The duchy was established in the ninth century by Count Richard of Autun, brother-in-law of France's king, Charles the Bald. Its power peaked from 1364 to 1477 under four dukes -- Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold. During the latter's reign, Burgundy was larger than France, stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea and including all of what is now Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Today, its 12,259 square miles (one-seventh the size of Minnesota) are dotted with towns such as Noyers that appear virtually unchanged from half a millennium ago.
Replete with granite cobblestones and timber-framed fixer-uppers -- sagging from the weight of history but often having intricate carvings, timeless arches or ornate flower boxes -- Noyers was eerily quiet on the Monday afternoon when we visited. The only sounds: the burbling of the aptly named River Serein ("serene") and a whir from the occasional leather or ceramics maker plying his craft in spaces that wouldn't dare be dubbed "shoppes."
The cathedral of (what else?) Notre Dame felt even more haunted than the streets, gray and dank, truly a church of the people rather than a shrine to the powerful.
On our final meander though Noyers, as before, every turn brought a gasp or a sigh at a doorway, roof or entire block. Leaving the timeless town was painful, and not accomplished until my wife had purchased a keepsake, a straw bag that draws admiring glances wherever she totes it.
Slices of history
Like Noyers, Beaune is a walled city, and even more steeped in history. Roman-era tunnels wending their way beneath the streets serve as the "caves" for the Joseph Drouhin winery. Those and similar caves at Bouchard Pere et Fils provided nifty hiding places for locals during the Nazi occupation.
In between those eras arose the Hôtel-Dieu ("hostel of God"), a Gothic masterpiece built in the mid-15th century to give the Hundred Years' War-ravaged town a hospital. Its colorful glazed-tiled roof, a signature of the region, is just the first of many eye-catchers in these buildings, also known as the Hospices de Beaune.
The Salle des Poures ("room of the poor") has 28 beds with blood-red blankets and resplendent curtained awnings. The 52-foot-high ceiling resembles a ship's hull that points to a stunning stained glass depiction of the crucifixion.
Other rooms contain sundry frescoes, the 600-year-old polyptych "The Last Judgment," by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden, and an imposing apothecary laden with copper and crockery.
Near the hospice, the Musée du Vin displays all manner of wine-related tools, implements and knick-knacks.
It's inevitable that such a museum would exist in Beaune, for it is the literal and figurative center of the Côte d'Or ("golden hillsides"), a subregion that produces the world's most profound chardonnays and pinot noirs.
The appellations are as lilting as they are legendary: Chassagne-Montrachet, Échezeaux, Corton-Charlemagne, Vosne-Romanée.
Being cork dorks of the highest order, Joe and I were anxious to get a gander at these golden slopes. To make the treks more enticing for our sane-about-wine wives, we planned picnic lunches above the vineyards, augmenting that old saw: a loaf of bread, a slab of ham, a jug of wine, a hunk of cheese and thou.
The late-October hues were stunning; turns out that after the harvest, the leaves covering white grapes turn golden, the red-grape canopy a soft rust color. Throw in stands of trees on the hilltops, and we reveled in autumnal splendor.
We sat on aged stone walls and chuckled at the irony of eating unpasteurized cheese -- forbidden back home -- in the homeland of Louis Pasteur. We paired it with grapes plucked from the vineyard, clusters that had held bitter berries during picking time a month earlier but were now perfectly ripe.
That would have been très gauche -- and probably illegal -- before harvest. But, hey, we were on vacation, and it turned out that our brush with the law was yet to come.
We headed north, toward the top of the Cote d'Or, a village called Fixin. It's another Old World delight, but we were there for a different reason. Since my wife had moved to Minnesota from Nashville 14 years ago, her boss had often mocked one of her colloquialisms: "I'm fixin' to do that." So a snapshot of her with the town sign was an imperative.
That accomplished, we drove through Fixin for one more stunning vista. A Twin Cities wine professional and veteran France visitor had told us to ignore signs banning cars from a vineyard's dirt road, and we heeded him one too many times. When we tried to turn around in a tight spot, the right rear tire ended up dangling off the edge in midair.
As Joe and I pondered a solution on the lonely knoll, we caught sight of a family walking our way. As they approached, the two boys could not stop giggling. The father helped hoist us out of our snafu, then explained his offspring's levity.
"I am," he said in near-perfect English, "the local magistrate."
But he simply smiled and walked away with his family, perhaps wanting no part of having to see us the next day in his courtroom because of our unlawful joyride.
We started down the hill and back to Beaune, shaken by the experience but stirred by our surroundings. As Joe often notes, "Grapes like to grow in beautiful places." Small wonder that they have found such a spot-on home in Burgundy.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643