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Visiting Beaune

My visit to Beaune was clouded in mist. I set off from Macon with the windscreen scratchy with ice, and visibility on the motorway north was down to less than 50 meters. I drove most of the way at 90 kph rather than the 130 kph indicated by the Satnav.

My mission for the day was to get to Orleans to drop off the hire car, so I was not particularly in the mood for tasting wine, but Beaune has a reputation, and I wanted to visit the Musee de Vin there. As the car approached Beaune, we drove through some of the world’s greatest vineyards. I felt a prickle of excitement as we went through Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and other iconic wine villages. Of course, nowhere was open and I’m not sure if the situation would have changed if I had visited later in the day.

Back in the UK, my friend Tom had sent me a text that said: “I hear your car broke down in the world’s most famous wine region! Hope we get you back soon”. The car had actually broken down just after Chartres, so I replied: “Sadly it gave up the ghost shortly before we reached the Holy Land”. This was my first visit to Bourgogne as a wine taster, and I think the Holy Land describes it quite well. The Cote d’Or probably is the world’s most famous wine region, although you could argue whether the crown goes to Bordeaux or Bourgogne.

The Musee de Vin turned out to be a treasure trove for information about the region. The Cote d’Or is divided into the Cote de Nuits, further to the north, most famous for its red wines, and the Cote de Beaunes to the south, which is home to some of the world’s greatest white wines. It feels a bit like going into a church, or walking through a woodland sanctuary surrounded by trees that have been around for thousands of years.

Beaune itself is a pretty town with many ancient buildings, including a fabulous old bookshop called La Musee du Livre, full of ancient leather-bound books, many of which were being sold at reasonable prices not dissimilar to the wines I have been buying on this trip. The lady who ran the shop was very charming and showed me round in a very friendly way. I went into the Church in the main square near the wine museum and the organ was playing sonorously at full blast, an awe-inspiring experience. I made a short video of the church with my mobile phone, mostly to capture the sound of the organ.

Beaune is an ancient town, with the first reference to it found on a Merovingian coin that dates to the 7th century, when it was called Belena after the spring around which the village originally clustered. It has many half-timbered houses that give it a quaint, picturesque look, and a visit to the town is not complete without going to the Hospice de Beaune, originally built in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin and his new wife Guigone de Salins. This became the seat of a new religious order founded a decade later, called the Sisters Hospitallers of Beaune.

Several periods of turbulence stand out in the town’s history, some of which have shaped the city. These included a period in the 15th century when various powerful dukes sought to control the city, and this was followed by a short-lived revolt against the king of France. When the king took back control, a period of fortifying the walls of the town got underway, with the large towers at the four corners of the town added for greater security.

Later, the town was touched by the wars of religion that affected many other towns in the region, ending up with one of the prominent citizen’s head being displayed on a pike after he was executed for conspiring with Huguenots. The town was also affected by the Austrian wars that saw the occupation of Macon, and finally the First and Second World Wars. In the latter, Beaune ignominiously supported Marshal Petain’s collaborationist government.

Beaune has several good museums, including the Musee des Beaux Arts, which can visited with the same € 18 ticket that gets you into the wine museum and the Hospice. Starting as a collection held in the town library, the museum was moved to its current location in 1871 and has an extensive collection of archaeological finds from the local area, as well as classical paintings from France, Italy and the Dutch school. All three of the sites are within a few minutes of each other in the centre, but frankly it was the wine that got most of my attention.

The wine museum focusses almost entirely on the history of wine-making in the Bourgogne region. As you enter the courtyard that leads to the museum entrance, there is a collection of old wine presses and wooden mechanical contraptions that were used in the past to squeeze out the precious juice from the grapes. At the entrance, there is a small and not terribly well stocked shop with maps of the Burgundy vineyards, and a few books about wine that didn’t seem that inspiring; there’s also a good section of wine literature for children, which suggested to me that kids in France are exposed to wine early and encouraged to understand it.

Inside, you first go through a room with various archaeological finds related to wine. These include four beautifully preserved amphorae, a Grecian red and black vase decorated with various figures drinking wine, and a stunning frieze depicting the Greek wine gods. After this, several rooms traced the history of wine-making in the region, including the various implements and tools used, and there is an evocative simulation of the house of a vigneron.

The upper floor of the museum has a room dedicated to the history of “tonnellerie”, the French word for cooperage. As many of you know, my Austrian grandfather was a cooper, and I often watched him make the barrels when I was a child visiting my Austrian family. I have always felt quite proud of having this association with such a manual skill, and the room on French cooperage was extremely interesting for me.

Further on, the museum opens up into larger rooms with large wall hangings and paintings, and an interesting selection of old documents relating to the wine commerce in the region. There were also some lovely old books about wine from I would guess the 1960s.

Overall, a satisfying experience but my only gripe would be the quality of the bookshop which could do so much better with just a bit more effort.


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