If you’ve ever wanted to have a real medieval experience, the countryside of Burgundy is the place to do it. On a quiet Sunday morning (most everything is closed as Burgundians enjoy a true day of rest), we left our hotel in Beaune to follow the Burgundy Canal north to the Abbey of Fontenay. Along the way, there are many sites to be seen not the least of which is the beautiful pastoral countryside populated here and there with the most intriguing white cows that are much prettier and less smelly than American ones. Even the cows are more sophisticated in France.
Our first stop was Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, a medieval castle that monitored travel between Burgundy and Paris from its 2,000 foot hilltop setting. The view of the Burgundy canal and the valley from the top are your first indication that you have traveled back in time. As you walk through the tiny village, you are in awe of the quaintness of authentic medieval architecture evident in every house and building. At this time of year, flowers of all kinds are in full bloom pouring out of window boxes and surrounding the old stone structures. Having taught 7th graders about the Middle Ages for several years, it was fascinating to see first-hand some of the true origins of this period of history.
Next stop, Semur-en-Auxois, a sleepy little medieval town with a couple of notable sights. Semur boasts 18 original medieval towers that were once connected by defensive ramparts to protect the city center from invaders. The town’s main sight is a church, of course — the Church of Notre-Dame, with some original stained glass windows from the 13th century as well as a set of windows honoring Semur’s WW I soldiers. Apparently there were many men from this entire region who lost their lives in the Great War. As you climb a hill on the way out of town, you are rewarded with a magnificent view of the whole town making you feel as if you are looking at a Disney recreation of a medieval village but knowing that the people below who live there are real and not imaginary characters.
The jewel of the trip is your arrival at the Abbey of Fontenay, one of the oldest Cistercian abbeys in France, founded by St. Bernard in 1118. The purpose of the Cistercian movement was to reestablish the simplicity, solitude, and poverty of the early church. While it is a lush, peaceful, and inviting environment today, it is shocking to imagine what life was really like for those early monks for whom it is said St. Bernard created a “horrible vast solitude” among the marshy bogs (meaning of Cistercian) of Burgundy. Nevertheless, the movement spread essentially colonizing Europe religiously and lasting for almost 700 years. Since the monks had to be self-sufficient, it was necessary for them to develop talents in many areas one of which was the forging of tools such as the hydraulic hammer. Indeed, many consider Fontenay to be one of Europe’s first metalworking plants. They also grew a variety of herbs for medicinal purposes and raised huge trout to serve the nobility though, by their vow of poverty, they were never able to partake of any of it themselves.
Just outside of Fontenay we came across a small picnic area by the side of the road and stopped to have our lunch. Once rested and nourished, we were ready for our return journey. We followed a slightly different but equally beautiful winding country road all the way back to Beaune. It was such a satisfying trip because it was one of those rare experiences where the sights along the route were as appealing as the destinations.