Slept very well – individual pillows tonight, instead of the French style tube pillow. Breakfast was a bit of a letdown: a 50 person group had descended locust-like upon breakfast before us, and we found ourselves having to scrounge for the last pieces of bread and drops of coffee. It was a really foggy morning, so we couldn’t take advantage of the nice garden with its view over the countryside. Instead we decided to go for a little walk along the ramparts before heading for Vezelay.
We first stopped in at a pottery next to the Ursulines. The potter was a very old lady – but she was quite the business woman and drove a hard bargain. We found a nice little glazed vase to take home as a souvenir. The ramparts themselves were very impressive. The town is on a hill top with steep sloping sides, so the amount of earth and stone that had to be moved in order to create the terraces and walls around them is staggering.
On the way out of town we came by the Janus Tower – a 3 story high remnant of a roman-era temple. An ancient relic, sitting in the middle of the fields, and taken completely as matter of course by the people living in the nearby houses.
The drive to Vezelay was very pretty, though the rolling hills of the Morvan nature park. We really liked the patchwork look of the fields, consisting of forest, fields, and bordering hedges. Everywhere, the white Charolais dotted the hill sides. Farms are like self-sufficient little fortresses, presenting impressive stone walls to the approaching visitor. In a small village along the way we stopped to pick up a picnic lunch: fruit, cheese, baked goods, and of course a red wine of the Bourgogne. At first we were a little surprised by the wines of the region – quite light and very dry – not what we were expecting from a ‘big wine’; but slowly we are coming around and finding it is quite tasty in its own way.
Today, we decided to try a chambre d’hote instead of a hotel room. We first stopped in St. Pere at the Sel en Val. It’s a beautiful old house in a really quaint old village. Nowhere before had we seen so many picturesque stone-walled houses, all honey and earth tones. We were quite in love with the place. Sadly, the village church was badly vandalized by art thieves a few years ago. We were tempted to stay, but decided to check out another place in Vezelay first, before making a decision.
It was lucky we did, because it turned out to be quite extraordinary. Just steps away from the basilica in the heart of the old town, it is run by a sculptor and his wife. Clearly, they’ve done most of the remodeling themselves, and the place is charming and unique (though it wouldn’t pass a code inspection). Best of all, we’re on the top floor in a room with a private 50 sq.m terrace commanding an incredible view of the surrounding countryside. We celebrated this lucky find with glasses of 2005 Les Clouzots grand vin de Bourgogne and delicious cheeses (Wendy’s favorite: Reblochon), taken in a brief moment of sunshine on our terrace.
After a little nap we went to explore. First of all, the basilica. It lives up to its reputation: it is huge, ancient, and awe-inspiring. Inside, the series of Romanesque arches are very beautiful in their simplicity. The crypt with the relic of Mary Magdalene, hewn from the solid rock underneath the center of the cathedral, conveys a sense of power and mystery. It’s not hard to imagine that thousands of pilgrims once congregated here. The tiny group of faithful gathered for the 6pm mass are in stark contrast to the former glory.
Afterwards, we wandered around town taking in all the sights. As in Autun, the ramparts and terracing are really impressive. Hard to imagine how this was done with only simple tools and manual labor – it must have taken hundreds of peasant laborers, and many decades of effort. Naturally, tourism is the primary source of income; though artists and writers also seem to be drawn to this place of natural beauty and spiritual significance.
Again, it wasn’t that easy to find a place for dinner. In Autun, many restaurants were closed Mondays; well here they like to close on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I am slowly beginning to suspect a conspiracy. Eventually, we did find a good meal at the Coquille, just opposite of our chambre d’hote. Highlight of the meal was Epoisses – a regional semi-soft cheese that is very creamy and flavorful (some might say ‘stinky’, but in a good way). The dessert was also very good – a local specialty called Nonette de Dijon (a spiced cake) served with cinnamon ice cream, sabayon, and peaches.