The Chitty family cycle the wine trails and green ways of Burgundy, France.
We were nearing the end of summer and hadn’t yet booked a holiday so, over a family dinner, we threw a few ideas across the table. A cottage in Devon, villa in Portugal, camping in the Lake District, travelling around Cuba or perhaps a cycling holiday in Europe? Now as it was going to have to be a week in August we were concerned about paying school holiday prices and also being inundated with young families. This ruled out Devon, Portugal and most probably the Lake District leaving us with Cuba or a cycling holiday. With it being a fairly last minute idea as well we thought Cuba would demand a little more planning. Plus, flight prices were a little too high so we decided to research the cycling holiday idea further.
As a family we are spread across the south east of England with most of us now living in London so some fresh air, open space, gentle exercise, and quality time together seemed ideal. We booked it. The Eurotunnel too.
Six weeks later with the itinerary and guidebooks, a collection of padded shorts and a bag each loaded into the car we headed south towards Dover. The crossing is just 45 minutes and impressively efficient. From Calais we had a 6 hour drive, plus long lunch stop, down to our start point of Macon in Burgundy.
Arriving in the IBIS Styles Macon we were shown our rooms before being greeted, at the pre-determined time of 5pm, by the very friendly and endearing Catherine who talked us through the detailed route maps and local guides, introduced us to our bikes and wished us a bon voyage. We also took the opportunity to test her knowledge of restaurants and wine tasting venues along the route to Beaune, of which she had many.
We said au revoir to Catherine and headed out of the hotel and down the Rue de Gambetta to the bank of La Saône. Walking east we came across many locals canoodling, singing and chattering, with the youngsters coasting around on their push-bikes. The stunning Pont Saint-Laurent bridge was lit up and forms the centrepiece of the village at night. Catherine’s recommendation for food that evening rests just the other side of the bridge. Le Saint Laurent restaurant seemed to be entertaining most of the towns occupants that Monday evening, and for good reason. The view over the Saône and of the bridge was romanticised yet further by the soundtrack, an Accordion being played harmoniously by a local. The food was typically French and incredibly good, as were the wines. Set menu’s seem to be the way forward as they represent the best value for money and always include the chefs Plat du Jours.
Walking back to the hotel we weaved through the side streets and to the very impressive Place Saint-Pierre (Church of St. Peter).
First day on the bikes: Macon – Cluny
The IBIS Styles Macon offered comfortable accommodation and a quick few lengths in the pool followed by the complimentary continental breakfast got us in the right frame of mind for the first day on the bikes.
So for wine… and some cycling.
The first section of the ride follows a cycle track along the slow moving traffic out of town. After less than a kilometre we joined the Voie Verte (green way) signposted to Chalon-sur-Saône. The green ways in this area use the foundations of an old railway line, so are direct routes between villages and are completely traffic free. You cut through the beautiful countryside, past old train stations and the quant villages they used to serve. Vineyards and Chateaux’s pepper the landscape around you.
In Prissé we were recommended a couple of places for wine tasting; Domaine de la Feuillarde and Domaine du Val la Martinien, both of which produce a variety of wine appellations for you to taste and buy. Luckily the panniers on each of the bikes hold 3 bottles of wine, possibly 4 if you discover something extra special!
Note: It’s worth calling or emailing a few days or weeks ahead to book a tasting as they can get very busy and in August the staff can be on holiday or out picking the grapes.
In Roche Vineuse, another small diversion off the cycle track, you can visit Domaine Alain Nomand which again produces a number of wine appellations including Pouilly-Fuissé, Macon la Roche and Bourgogne Rouge.
Around La Roche-Vineuse we stopped off at a small bakery for lunch. Grabbing a few freshly made pizzas and baguette sandwiches, we sat soaking up the 30 degree heat, and sharing our assortment of tasty bits including a few incredible pastries.
Further along the tree lined green way, the small commune of Berzé le Châtel comes into view and dominates the landscape. The steep climb from the green way is more than worth the effort as you can take a tour of the Fortress Berzé le Châtel, one of the last remaining in France still lived in by a true Countess.
The days riding ends at the old dis-used Cluny train station, with our hotel for the night situated just opposite. After a much needed refreshing Pastis/beer/wine in the small café on the corner we checked into L’Hostellerie d’Héloïse. The rooms are fairly basic but again more than comfortable. That night we decided to stay in the hotel for dinner as the restaurant came highly recommended both by Catherine and the travel guide. We were not disappointed. The entire experience was incredible and we managed a table overlooking the river and bridge. Plus considering that we had pre and post dinner drinks, 5 courses and more than a few bottles of wine, very reasonably priced.
The following morning, Wednesday, we ventured into the centre of Cluny to wonder the streets and tour the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, founded by Duke William I of Aquitaine in 910. It’s a charming little town which owes its reputation to the Abbey, a must see. We then walked over to Haras National, a world famous stud farm which organises tours and shows starting from 3pm on most days. The shows seem to get more impressive as the day draws to a close so if you can go to a later showing.
After the show, so around 5pm, we unlocked our bikes from the railing outside of the Abbey and headed in the direction of Cormatin. With only 15km riding asked of us on that day we made Cormatin in good time, despite the late start time.
Cormatin is just off to the right from the green way and the Château de Cormatin an imposing building so you can’t miss the turning. We had a family room in the guest house La Filaterie which served the five of us very well. While in Cormatin you have to take a tour of the Chateaux, it is one of the most impressive in the country and for 10€ you can have a guided tour. A French history student hosted us and the tour was narrated in French for the benefit of the majority, with us reading an English script. The guide did speak perfect English though and welcomed questions so we could expand on any of the script we were most interested in. After the tour we were allowed to explore the gardens, outbuildings and orangery of our own accord.
For the evening we went to the quaint café restaurant opposite the Chateaux entrance which, for that evening, entertained purely French locals and us, another lovely experience.
To Chalon-Sur-Sâone via Givry.
Leaving Cormatin on the Thursday morning we had the longest days ride ahead of us, 30km to Chalon-Sur-Sâone. Joining the green way immediately we headed towards the Roman architecture of Malay, Saint Gengoux le National and Buxy. With vineyards all the way along the right hand side and a stream and hedge to the left, it was incredibly peaceful. We saw a total of just 8 other bikes the entire morning!
In Buxy, at the main roundabout is the Cave des Vignerons de Buxy, a cooperative that sells many local wines, all of which are available for tasting. The young lady very kindly served all 5 of us a taster of virtually every wine on offer before we settled for a box of Macon Village, a few reds and a sparkling.
Just over from the roundabout and opposite the old dis-used Buxy railway station is the tourist office who very helpfully called around the vineyards in the area to see if we could sneak in for an impromptu taste. Unfortunately, as it was the last week in August they were all too busy out picking grapes to welcome us, so we continued onto Givry.
Following the straight green way into Givry we turned off up the hill into the village and towards the large stone arch in the centre. We stopped off for lunch in a little place at the lower end of town. The owners, a middle aged couple, were incredibly friendly and even brought us a taster portion of the alternative Ox cheek from the set menu for us to try. The more popular option, steak, came simply with English potatoes and carrots and was incredibly good.
We made it to the Hôtel le Dracy at around 2pm that day in order to make full use of the pool and 35’C sun. The pool was encircled by well-heeled French and the bike store full of expensive road bikes.
After a few hours of bathing by the pool we were restless and so pulled the bikes out of the days retirement and headed to the nearest town, Mercurey, for more wine tasting. Unfortunately this is along a fairly busy A road and around 6km each way but for us, with a few hours to kill, was worthwhile. The Caveau Divin Mercurey imposes a system whereby you top-up a card which you then insert into a machine to release your taster portion. The wines varied from €9 to €35 a bottle and €.75 to €2.75 per taste.
We explored the option of heading into Dracy-le-Fort for dinner that evening but discovered that a taxi would be €60 return so decided to take the advise of Catherine and the Michelin guide, and booked a table at the hotel restaurant. A great decision. Once again the food was incredible with 5 courses of set menu enjoyed thoroughly by all. The cheese board or ‘trolley’ was possibly the highlight. With over 12 cheeses on offer it was a decision that demanded careful consideration.
Day 5: Chalon sur Saone – Chassey le Camp
A kilometre or two through a forest, followed by a short wiggle along quiet roads took us to a point where we crossed the busy D5, from here we weaved past a War Memorial through a couple of fields and onto the canal tow path. This tow path, part of the green way, would take us all the way to Remigny. Again a very quiet path with just a handful of other cyclists and walkers. The very gently flowing waterway to our right, vast expanse of green to our left and the blue skies above made for very pleasant cruise through La Loyere and past Fontaines. We then took a left off the path and aimed for a recommended lunch spot in Rully, Le Vendangerot. In the heart of quant and tranquil Rully this was another typically French restaurant. We had been pre-warned that the service wouldn’t come with a smile and accurately so, however the service was efficient and food extremely tasty and good value.
Over chocolate tarte and end of lunch coffee it was decided that the group would split, with those carrying tired legs heading straight back to the tow path and onwards to the Hotel in Chassey le Camp, and the others putting the coffee and 3 courses to the test with an uphill climb to Château de Rully. Built on the highest point in the area, this castle dominates the whole region. For the un-princely sum of 6 euro each we were guided around the property by a relative of the owners and occupiers. He in fact was currently living in the castle and conducting guided tours as part of his school summer holidays. As with all of the Chateaux’s in France, this had its own quirky history which was explained to us enthusiastically in perfect English.
That night we stayed in Auberge du Camp Romain which sits quite isolated up on a hill with tennis courts, pitch and put golf and a 30 odd meter outdoor pool. With the temperature still in the 30’s at 5pm we sat around the pool and relaxed into a book or some music with the occasional dip. Dinner that night was spent in the hotel, the very friendly staff including the slightly eccentric owner made for a great night although at this point in the week we were all feeling a little jaded so made it an early one.
Our sixth and final day on the bikes took us through some the worlds most famous Grand Cru vineyards, Santenay, Puligney-Montrachet, Meursault, Volnay and Pommard. The landscape of this part of the cycling holiday was the most stunning. Impeccably maintained vineyards as far as the eye can see, with only small collections of stone buildings and the odd Chateaux to disrupt the perfect lines of vines laden with the ‘fruit of the gods’. As it was early August we came across teams of pickers trawling the vines in methodical harmony.
Beaune is the wine capital of Burgundy and by far the touristiest stop off on the trip, having had to get by on our extremely limited but enthusiastic attempts at communicating in French throughout the holiday thus far we now found ourselves being spoken to in English by many. The highlight of our day was the old market (Les Halles) which had clothes, leather goods and most importantly many local foods for sale. We each walked away with at least £30 worth of cheeses, meats and other miscellaneous cooking goodies to take home with us. Fresh figs provided the essential immediate snack. There are many wine tasting venues and museums in Beaune if you choose to visit them, and as with every city with such a rich history, the architecture needs to be appreciated. The 15th century Hospices, the Beffroi (clock tower), and the collegiate church of Notre Dame are of greatest significance.
Beaune is peppered with wonderful restaurants and many which carry a Michelin star. One of Catherine’s strongest recommendations throughout the trip was for the restaurant in Beaune which she had been to recently and absolutely loved. The Restaurant Caveau des Arches does, as the name suggests, use an old wine cellar to entertain. The focus of the menu is on traditional dishes from the region so the top choices were Escargots de Bourgogne with Garlic and Hazelnuts for starter and Bœuf Bourguignon for main, followed naturally by a vast selection of local cheeses with baguette. Probably our most extravagant meal of the week but one which will not be forgotten for quite some time.
The train back to Macon the following morning was just an hour and the service shames that of the UK. In Macon we collected the car, loaded up and headed north out of Burgundy and back towards Calais and home. Now in the car we decided unanimously that if you wanted to lose weight this sort of holiday is probably not for you, however if want to unwind, relax, cleanse your lungs with fresh air, eat wonderful food, drink stunning wines, experience the local cultures and a vast proportion of a region intimately, plus exercise daily and earn your sleep then this type of holiday is unbeatable.
So, was this the best family holiday? Cycling in France? I think we are going to have to try another before we make our decision, perhaps visit Champagne, Bordeaux, or further afield on the Venice to Lake Garda tour…?!