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Discover Burgundy, made of earth and sky

By Geneviève Lacroix

Values and sensual delights

Let us invite you to (re)- discover Burgundy from an historical and contemporary perspective, with both your spirit and your senses. “Ancient stones” and tastings, walks and spirituality, monks and vineyards, deepest Burgundy is all these things – the human condition in all its physical and spiritual facets. Because both are needed to live life to the full. Did you know “Burgundian” (in Dutch) means a connoisseur of the good things in life?

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Typical Burgundian landscape in Côte-d’Or (c) Pug Girl

So what is Burgundy, rich and dense, a land of confluences, on the confines? Former kingdom of the Burgundians Germans, the Duchy of the Grand Dukes of the West, rebellious, monastic, a land of spirituality and farms. Fertile lands indeed. An earth which is so lowly and so hard to work. Yet, such fertile plains provide superb local produce. Sometimes the top soil on the hillside is very thin, yet at the same time rich when the vines take deep root. A magical place.

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French manuscript 13th century (British Library)

Wine, “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” has always been honoured by religions, cults and conviviality. The wide range of soils in Burgundy provides all its richness through a myriad appellations.  Region of little plots of land, low walls and geological outcrops. Centuries and centuries of patience, research and abnegation, wine, essential to religious services, apothecaries and monks’ hospitality, is the vital link between Romanisation and Christianisation.

Burgundy has this potential and its inhabitants the talent to bring Man and Life together, earth and sky. Values and sensual delights. Even today, the Charitable almshouse of Beaune, founded by Nicolas Rolin in 1443 for the salvation of his soul and the poor in his city, still contribute revenue from their wine sales to social and humanitarian causes.

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Charitable almshouse of Beaune © Alh1

Roman villas and Romanesque abbeys

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Tombstone of a wine merchant (Châtillon-sur-Seine)

Romanisation which spread very early along the Rhine has left many traces in this comfortable region now called Burgundy. Vestiges of Roman villas, vines planted according to the most up-to-date methods of the time (as recent archaeological excavations have shown in Gevrey-Chambertin), luxury objects, linked to wine consumption in the Mediterranean, continue to attest the influence of Rome in these rich soils, which were ripe for cultivation.

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St. Benedict handing his Rule to his followers (Nimes -1129)

The Rule of Saint Benedict strongly marked the development of Christianity and monasticism in the West from the 6th century onwards. St. Benedict is still considered the patron saint of Europe, because of the significant contribution of abbeys in the intellectual, cultural and economic development of the continent. The network of abbeys was so dense and their lands so considerable that with their international exchanges the monastic orders comprised a real counter-power (a priori peaceful in nature) to the feudal political system.

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Cluny Abbey in the 12th century © Olivier Duquesne

Starting with the Abbey of Cluny, founded in 909, the expansion of the Benedictine monastic movement spread throughout Europe. Its Abbey church, considered the apogee of Romanesque style, was the largest church at the time. But gradually, a more bourgeois-style softened the rigour of the community. There were too many members, too many possessions, too many connections. Robert de Molesmes decided to begin again on new, stricter foundations and in 1098 founded a new community in Cîteaux (on a site where bulrushes grew). His reform of the Observance of the Benedictine Order drew new converts, and so the Cistercian Order was born.

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Abbey of Cîteaux (library) © G CHP

Land, vines, monks and wine

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© SQFP

The christianisation of Burgundy led the implantation of vines once again as wine was necessary for religious services in the true sense and for culinary and medicinal use by religious institutions (apothecaries, hospitals, for the disinfection of water, hospitality, etc.)

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Burgundian vine lands © Megan Mallen

Land donations enabled powerful landowners to appear in the account books of religious institutions and thus have prayers said for the salvation of their soul. However, the soil quality does not figure in the registers. Generally the religious orders were given soil that was not fertile enough for cereals and essential plants for consumption. These relatively poor plots of land turned out to be good for vines. The rocky outcrops meant that readying them for cultivation was a slow and patient process. As monks did not cultivate for their direct heirs and had time to observe the results of their experiments, considerable and valuable savoir-faire accrued over several generations. In addition, wine growing areas in the hands of the monks were never broken up, growing larger over time, through donations and successive purchases. Monks were individually poor but collectively rich. The history of the Clos de Vougeot is an excellent case in point.

The Dukes of Burgundy, the Grand Dukes of the West

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Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy

The most famous Dukes of BurgundyPhilip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold – left a considerable mark on the transitional period between the end of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance in Burgundy and the Burgundian Low Countries (today Belgium and the Netherlands).
Strategic alliances and arranged marriages, military conquests and financial acquisitions enabled them to gradually re-possess 9th century Lotharingia in an ever more structured political vision. However, the death of Charles the Bold without a direct legitimate male heir, six years after having officially broken his ties of allegiance with the King of France, put an end to this ambition.

Powerful and insightful lords, the Dukes of Burgundy had all grasped the importance of luxury and culture as a brand image. Benefactors, bon vivants, astute politicians, albeit a touch chauvinistic, they left a lasting impression on Burgundy. They exploited its agricultural potential by improving the quality of its wine, heightened its cultural possibilities by making their artists travel and helped its economic development by forging new alliances with the English Kingdom, so shunned by the French in Paris – their ever more distant cousins.

Not to be missed – a visit to the Palace of the Dukes and States of Burgundy in Dijon, which houses beautiful gothic rooms and, amongst other things, a superb Fine Arts Museum.

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Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy © MBA Dijon

Fortified Burgundy

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Châteauneuf in Côte-d’Or © Nikoretro

Bathed by the Saône and the Loire rivers, Burgundy exports its produce and its culture. It has always been an object of desire, a place of strategic importance to its overlords in the past. The fortified castles and towns enclosed in ramparts, are living reminders of its troubled past, the long military and political history of the ancient kingdom of the Burgundians and the nostalgic home of the Grand Dukes of Burgundy.

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Chateau de Saint-Fargeau

The Château de Commarin (Côte-d’Or) has been sensitively restored and offer visitors a fascinating tour. I also like the Château de Saint-Fargeau (Yonne), almost a thousand years old, as well as the castles of Rosières and Gilly, once the residence of the abbots of Cîteaux (Côte-d’Or). These three fortified residences have an advantage – you can stay there which opens up the prospect of unforgettable nights in History … You can also stay at the Château du Marais and Gérigny, in the Nièvre, which still have a wonderful period atmosphere. The vines are never far away from these treasure troves of souvenirs …

The Ménessaire Castle in the Morvan is surely worth a visit, as well as the Château de Poussignol. The latter is a bit more recent, although its roots go back to a 14th century fortified house. The rolling, slightly untamed countryside harks back to Celtic Burgundy and the Eduens of Gallo-Roman times.

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© Pierre Lannes

Welcome to Burgundy, redolent of the values and sensual delights of the earth and sky!
Then let us know your explorer’s findings below.

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