After navigating through the hamster maze that is Charles DeGaule airport (they literally have you walking through glass tubes) we got our rental car and were on our way to Beaune, Burgundy. Thankfully the folks at Sixt Car Rentals think a compact car is what we’d consider a full size in the US, and they gave us a brand new Peugot four-door with a hatchback trunk. It was like a small Subaru Forester, which for the two of us, our luggage, and the cases of wine I planned to buy—fingers crossed—was plenty of room.
The other big win is that with no extra cost it came with a built-in navigation system. After the 423 round-abouts (traffic circles) you take to leave the airport and navigate the outskirts of Paris, I can say with confidence it saved our lives—and definitely Jonathan’s and my relationship. I can only imagine the fights that would have ensued while I squinted to read a paper map expanded across the entire front seat while directing him down streets I couldn’t pronounce. With our entire European road trip in the rear view, I don’t believe I’d ever drive through Europe again without a navigation system.
This trip we’d decided to skip Paris altogether, which in hindsight with all the news about the river flooding and Parisians in a panic, I think it was the right decision. Instead, this portion of our European road trip was to immerse ourselves in all things Burgundian and hopefully leave the Cote d’Ore with at least a basic understanding of Burgundy wines.
Research lead us to believe our viticultural education should start in the city of Beaune, which many refer to it as “the heart of Burgundy.”
Beaune is nearly the geographical center Burgundy, a narrow strip of wine regions between Paris and Lyon that runs from as far north as Chablis to Mâcon about 1.5 hours West of Geneva. Some even call it the “heart of Burgundy.” Sure there are small villages and other towns where you can stay when visiting Burgundy, but you’d be a little isolated in the evenings with little to do in most of them.
Google maps said it would take us about 3 hours to get from Paris to Beaune, and we didn’t want to check into our bed and breakfast too late, so we decided to hustle. Circumventing Paris on a Saturday evening was a challenge. Not because we didn’t know where to go (thanks navigation!) but because the tunnels and highways have a lot of randomly merging lanes and everyone seemed to be going to the same place. Like New Yorkers looking to escape the city for a weekend retreat in the Hamptons, a lot of Parisians take weekend trips to Burgundy too, so remember it’s not all tourists headed to wine country. Eventually we made it to the countryside and it was a straight shot to Beaune after that.
As we sped down the A6 from Paris to Beaune I marveled at the scenery. Rolling hills of lush green grass with pockets of trees popping up here and there. Everything just oozed French countryside with lavender bushes growing like weeds along the roads, and pristine solid white cows that sort of turned their noses up at us as we zoomed by as if to say “ugh, zee A-merry-can toureests have arrived.”
Nestled in the nooks and crannies of the expansive landscape are precious little villages. Each one centered around a tall church steeple or bell tower we could see off in the distance. Centuries old stonewalls covered in lichen and moss demarcate plots of land and vineyard properties passed from one generation to the next for hundreds of years. I imagined French farmers in cream colored long sleeve linen shirts and loose fitting brown slacks building their “clos” (the stone walls defining vineyard properties) by hand, while drinking wine from unmarked bottles with stinky cheese on baguettes coming out of their pockets.
Most everything felt old and antique, as if daily life in the French countryside remained unchanged. Simple as it was originally intended with only traces of modernity sprinkled about. I felt at home. Finally I’d found a part of this world where tradition is cherished not the novelty of the new. The people living in these villages you pass on your way from Paris to Beaune are living a slower paced life. One that is steeped in ritual and “the way things have always been.”
This tradition is most evident in the wine industry and culture that permeates the region. Unlike the more modern wine regions of the world where wineries are spread out on vineyards, the Burgundy wine region is really a bunch of wineries and wine caves concentrated in these little villages with the vineyards all around them.
Since the monks first planted grapes in the 12th century, grapes have been the primary way of life in Burgundy. Day in and day out, grape growers see to the vines and during the harvest, the grapes are brought into the nearby village where they’re pressed, barreled, and stored for months before getting bottled, cellared and sold. In some cases these towns are only separated by a few hectares of grapes, and others are just a short bike ride away.
In addition to the beautiful flora and fauna of the French countryside is the sky. As we raced passed one wine village after another the sky morphed from sunny and bright to cloudy and overcast. Clouds like fresh churned cream danced across the horizon, dropping rain on a whim to tease us with pockets of sunshine. Full of character and life, the sky over Burgundy in the summer was nearly as breathtaking as the rolling hills of grass, happy livestock and wind turbines we zoomed past.
As if an icing to my already decadent French cake, the country is sprinkled with renewable energy assets: both solar and wind. Another testament to how the French are trying to preserve the environment of today so generations can enjoy it tomorrow.
Under the veil of storm clouds I saw little bursts of lightning.
“Oh!” I exclaimed to Jonathan, “did you see that?”
“No,” he said, trying to figure out why the windshield wipers randomly turned on.
“There it is again,” I said a few minutes later, but again he didn’t see it.
“Oh their automatic,” he said, impressed the Peugot had automatic windshield wipers.
We continued past one provincial town after another. Each one announced by these awesome signs on the side of the road as we approached their respective exits. In addition to the name of the village, the signs are each a graphical representation of an activity or monument the village is best known for. I’d never seen this before, but soon realized it’s something a little more common throughout the European Union.
Women posing or bathing?
The hospices de Beaune….which is where we were going.
Not long after passing Dijon, we had arrived in Beaune. Since it was the middle of June, the sun was still out at 9:30pm so we could easily navigate the unfamiliar roads, but nevertheless—we were ready to get out of the car.
Next door to one of the largest négociants (winemakers) in Beaune, Albert Bichot, is the B&B in Beaune we booked—Les Chambres de L’Imprimerie. We pulled into their private parking lot for guests, and were immediately greeted by Sébastien—one of the owners.
“Would you care for a glass of wine?” he asked, with his sexy French accent. [Yes, all French accents are sexy].
Jonathan and I had been looking forward to tasting wine in Burgundy for months so the moment we got out of the car seemed like the perfect opportunity to start.
“Oui!” we said, and he poured us each a glass of Domaine Renaud Boyer’s “Les Prevolles,” a delicious biodynamic pinot noir from Meursault, just a few villages south of Beaune.
After our first sips both of us looked at each other and thought well shit, if this is how good Burgundy wine is, I think we’re going to have a great time!
“I can see the wheels spinning inside your head, Philip.” Jonathan said with a smirk.
“What?” I asked playfully.
“I know you,” he said, “and we agreed to limit our purchasing of wine to two cases max. Remember?”
“How was your drive?” Sébastien asked before I could respond to Jonathan’s accusations that I’d spend out next month’s mortgage on a bottle of Pommard or something. Saved by the bell I guess.
“It was long and rainy,” I said, “with some lightning too!”
“Lighting? Are you sure?” Sébastien asked.
“Yes, we saw it a few times on our way down,” I said.
“Oh, are you sure that wasn’t the flash of the cameras for people speeding?”
Jonathan and I immediately turned to one another, each with a look of shock and realization that we’d been caught red-handed, having sped the entire drive from Paris to Beaune, and what we thought was lighting was just a series of speeding tickets we’d racked up on the first day of our European road trip.
We sat there sulking in silence while we slowly finished our glasses of wine, before heading to our room and going to bed. Hoping that by morning we’d have forgotten about the speeding tickets and be 100% focused on our first day of wine tasting in Burgundy.
Things to think about when driving from Paris to Beaune, Burgundy
- Splurge for the navigation system.
- Speed at your own risk. If you go more than 10 km/h over the speed limit you will get a ticket.
- The French love their round-abouts (aka traffic circles). Get used to yielding to oncoming traffic, but don’t hesitate too much or you’ll never get in.
- If you’re not traveling with an international cell phone data plan activated that will give you some kind of navigation system on your mobile device—see #1 and splurge for the navigation system. Otherwise rent (or purchase) a Garmin or Tom Tom GPS navigation device you can put it in the rental car.
- If you’re driving from Paris to Beanue pay attention to the speed limit (the number in circles on the side of the road) because they seem to change arbitrarily and quickly.
- Several locals told us that you don’t have to worry so much about drinking and driving (ie: you can wine taste and drive) as much as you have to worry about getting a ticket for speeding. If it got out that traffic cops were giving out tickets for people driving with a little bit of alcohol in their system, then everyone in France would get tickets all the time and tourists wouldn’t flock to France’s wine country as readily as they do!
- Parking in the small villages of the Cote d’Or during the day isn’t too difficult. There are usually some designated parking areas, marked by a blue sign with a white P Overnight parking in Beaune, Burgundy itself can be a challenge so make sure you read all the signs, or better yet, stay “outside the ring” where parking is much easier.
- Resist the urge to gaze off into the beautiful countryside and up at the sky when you’re driving through Burgundy and make sure to keep your eyes on the road. We were guilty of this too, but we could always tell who the tourists are as they’re swerving on the roads and driving too slow.