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The landscape of Burgundy is pockmarked with history. Between its fairy-tale villages and rolling vineyards, this wine-soaked French region is best revealed through its many chateaux.
It was almost midnight by the time we arrived in Burgundy, still cold from days spent in the mountains hiking the Alpine trail around Mont Blanc, cutting through France, Italy and Switzerland. In the final days of hiking I could almost taste the grapes as we came down from the mountains into Chamonix; I could smell their soil as we drove past Geneva, Annecy and Dijon, and into the hot valley of Burgundy.
We arrived in Longecourt-en-Plaine when the night was already deep in its summer sky, pulling our car silently to the front of the Chateau de Longecourt-en-Plaine, a beautiful, macabre behemoth of a home surrounded by a moat with swans silently floating on its glass-like surface. It was almost too perfect. A young woman emerged from the towering entrance, greeting us as if arriving at the 14th-century chateau – her 14th-century chateau – in the middle of the night was the most natural thing in the world. Felicie led us noiselessly through a large dining room and into a chamber behind a hidden door. Here in this gilded, slightly haunted feeling room, we would sleep.
We arrived in Longecourt almost by accident, intrigued as much by the chateau as by its central location in the valley of Burgundy, situated equally between villages and vineyards. Longecourt’s majesty ushered us into the dusty history of Burgundy, a region remarkably still pockmarked from the ravages of the French Revolution, with even the most pristine chateaux bearing the tolls of headless statues and streaked facades. Felicie and her uncle Roland, an elegant older bachelor who has made his life’s work the survival and preservation of the history of the chateau, are our window into this ancient, complicated, beautiful valley.
Felicie and Roland are people of Burgundy. Their histories can be traced back centuries, their manners decidedly old world, but their lives and struggles modern. Felicie attends university in Lyon and dreams of Paris. In the summers, and on school holidays, she returns to Longecourt, her ancestral home which they’ve adapted into an Airbnb – the orangery here is an event space available for rent.
Chateau de Longecourt-en-Plaine is their castle – proof of such exists in the painted family tree crawling up the walls of the chateau’s chapel – but it’s also decidedly laborious, daunting, all-consuming work. The grounds alone would take a team of dozens to remain pristine. The water in the moat has turned green, the swans, meant to produce goslings, have proved to be two males who continuously battle. Yet what I see is an imperfectly intact chateau inhabited by a family that has claimed it for generations. The building’s frescoes and exterior statues remain intact, impervious to history and the passing of time. “We were lucky,” Felicie tells me, “The Chateau was spared.”
So much of Burgundy is held together in this manner, a confounding mix of beauty and decay, of ravishing natural and architectural landscapes, and some 70,000 planted acres of vines stretched out over 100 different appellations that determine the quality and expense of the wine. The valley is cut by the constraints of the Côte-d’Or, where Burgundy’s most expensive grand and premier crux are grown. These are some of the most highly sought after vintages in the world. Burgundy in late summer means vines bursting with life, sagging under the weight of grapes ready for a harvest that has just begun.
Leaving Longecourt-en-Plaine is like leaving friends who we may never see again. We have been Felicie and Roland’s guests but we’ve also seen their hidden world, their preserved history, witnessed the struggle to keep it all alive, or at the very least, preserved. We drive, stopping at Clos de Vougeot, a museum that gives an overview of the complex and ancient history of Burgundy, with characteristic bursting-at-the-seams French pride. A former abbey, the Clos de Vougeot recounts the region’s beginning with grapes first planted by the Gallo-Romans in the first and second centuries. From here we move from tasting rooms to vineyards, places so small we feel we alone must be discovering them. Tasting for free, we leave each vineyard with a bottle of village appellation – to the French, the roughest – but to us they taste like heaven.
The thread that connects each place is the mist that gathers in each winemakers eyes when they speak of 2015 – the mythical year of Burgundy wine making – when the weather, the climate, seemingly the gods combined just so to produce the best wines they had seen in years. If we close our eyes, we think we can taste the difference.
We go further from any village into the countryside down sweeping lanes cutting through cow pastures until we reach Saint-Martin-de-Commune, a blink-and-you-miss-it village with a storied chateau where Dutch-American couple Jitske and Matthew welcome guests to the castle’s restored outbuildings now functioning as both their home and their inn.
Jitske and Matthew have left the Chateau de Digoine purposefully in ruins, a crumbling fairy tale of a place complete with romantic – verging on schmaltzy – turrets added in the early 19th century. Inside is a catacomb of rooms of peeling plaster and tiles. Stacks of plates stand on a table, clothes hang on a wire, papers litter the floor. A grand piano waits to be played. They live side by side this perfect ruin, their Icelandic ponies pasturing outside, their dogs and friends coming and going. It’s the outbuildings – the barns, the orangery – they’ve renovated, meticulously curated to be their family home and lodgings for guests. In the morning they spread dozens of cheeses and meats and the ripest plums I’ve ever seen out before us. France, Burgundy, Saint-Martin-de-Commune, the tear-down chateau they purchased decades ago, is their adopted kingdom. We eat in awe.
Somehow living next to, rather than living in a potentially haunted castle seems a waste. We can admire its beauty, yet not reside within in. They’ve preserved it but not restored it. They are foreigners who are meticulously curating this experience for themselves and others. I can’t help but want it lived in, people dancing in the parlors, someone playing the piano on a particularly hot afternoon, the bedrooms, too numerous to count, there for us all. But this will only ever be a museum to a lost era of excess, to a time in history to which none of us have a part.
This stretch of countryside is so removed from civilisation that the milky way covers the sky, seemingly pierced by the turrets hanging on by just a stone. For the days we stay here we exist with Jitske and Matthew in the Burgundy of now, where there is no point or reason to restore. This isn’t their history, it’s an adopted land and the castle, almost a novelty. It seems wrong and haunting yet altogether practical too. I have a lingering pit in my stomach imagining Roland and Felicie here, the devastation of a long-loved home slowly crumbling into the earth.
We’re close to Beaune, the majestic jewel-box town of Burgundy that is largely taken over by tourists who pass through in the summer. A few hours here – just enough for the Saturday market and a tour to marvel at the architecture of Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune and we’re longing for the countryside, for the fields already golden with early autumn. Vault-de-Lugny will be our last stop before Paris and before home.
We drive to Chateau de Vault-de-Lugny, an exquisitely restored castle that now stands as one of the great hotels of Europe, welcoming guests who arrive in brightly coloured Porsches and Maserati – and us, with our hiking backpacks still dusty from the Alps. The interior is classic but modern, they’ve freed themselves of any obligations to Louis XIV furniture. Peacocks and pintards roam the grounds. In the back an extensive garden bursts with over-ripe tomatoes and still-firm pears. The garden supplies the food for the spectacular restaurant that in itself is reason to be here.
The meal is the main event, served downstairs in the old kitchen. Oysters from Brittany accented with edible flowers from the garden, cucumber, apple, and kiwi jelly, followed by pasta with Burgundy truffle. Permanent residents of the chateau are two Italian truffle-hunting dogs – one too old and the other too young to find the truffles that are served with pasta at dinner. But no matter. Next is trout with vegetables from the garden with a 2015 premier crux. Dessert, the great, final act is a mix of cheeses so fresh you can taste the cow. This is a Tour de Burgundy and we don’t want it to end.
The night of this meal is warm and buggy. It’s already the end of summer, the beginning of harvest. The leaves are beginning to change. The juice of a tomato, eaten from the vine in the garden a few hours before, still perfumes my fingers. Everything is so fresh, so alive. It makes us want to drink deeper, stay awake, pretend this life of eating our way through Burgundy, of driving around castles, preserved and ruined, learning French one word at a time, will continue. Ageless, impervious to the decades, or our desire to keep this fairy tale alive.
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