July 12, 2004
back from France
We spent last week in northern Burgundy. We chose our location because we had found a nice and affordable house to rent for the week. It’s a fairly typical corner of rural France, not an area that's especially famous for its art and history. I don’t mean that it’s remote or “undiscovered.” Tourists travel there for the Chablis wine, to ride by rented houseboat along the Burgundy Canal, and to see the old villages. Nevertheless, it’s not one of the top destinations in France; it’s less popular than Paris and its environs, the Loire valley, Provence, Normandy, and probably even Languedoc and Alsace. Within Burgundy, the most impressive and popular destinations are Dijon and Beaune, but those cities were too far south for us to visit. Almost all the other tourists we saw were French; there were virtually no Americans.
Yet, by driving within a 30km radius of the little town of Noyers, we were able to see (listed roughly in chronological order of their creation): Cro-Magnon cave paintings of human hands and wooly mammoths deep underground … Alesia, where Caesar defeated Vercingetorix’s 250,000 Gauls and mastered France (later the site of Gallo-Roman city whose excavated ruins we visited) … a 7th century Christian church nearby, heavily restored but largely intact after 13 centuries of continuous worship … the great pilgrimage church at Vézelay, where medieval Christians believed that St. Mary Magdalen’s bones were kept; this is a vast, austere, but light Romanesque basilica with more than 100 vivid scenes carved on its capitals, also the venue of major sermons by St. Bernard (declaring the Second Crusade) and St. Francis … the monastery of Fontenay, built according to Bernard’s wishes without any decoration except one statue of the Virgin, God’s light streaming through its windows, and its pure, legible mathematical proportions … the medieval walled hilltop town of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, with its steep streets and stone buildings (where the movie “Chocolat” was filmed)… the medieval walled town of Noyers, half-timbered like a fairy-tale illustration and bordered by a lovely placid river … the little church at St. Thibault, lofty and lace-like with two layers of intricate Gothic stonework inside … the perfectly symmetrical, soberly classical Renaissance Chateau of Ancy-le-Franc, the only building actually constructed by Serlio, who was one of the most important architectural theorists of the age … the French baroque chateau of Tanlay, with its steep roofs and conical towers … and the substantial towns of Avallon, Semur-en-Auxois, Tonnerre, and Auxerre, each one rich in medieval architecture. These are the sites we saw; we passed by many more.
There are parts of Western Europe that are less dense with old art than this part of Burgundy. Northern France was more heavily industrialized (which makes it less beautiful but not necessarily less interesting than Burgundy) and was then battered by the two world wars. Germany sustained even more damage. Nevertheless, our week in an almost-random corner of France reminded me of the amazing density of beautiful and interesting sites throughout Europe. If I had barrels of money and not much civic responsibility, I could easily continue last week’s journey for the rest of my life, traveling slowly from Gibraltar to St. Petersburg (or from Oslo to Istanbul). That kind of life would contribute nothing to the world, but it would be endlessly interesting.