Up the Cotes du Rhone to Burgundy: Lyon and Boeune
September 7 - 11
After prolonged discussions, guide book reviews, and internet searches, we decide to check out another famous wine region: Burgundy. After bidding adieu to the hotel staff in Avignon, we're off to the train station - destination: Lyon.
Despite hosting a series of rugby world cup quarterfinals, and the rabid fans (at least the Australians and Scots), we are able to snag a nice hotel near the old city. There is a major ceramics show going on, so we do some shopping and pick up a couple of gifts for our moms. Entertainment is a busking brass band that plays a wide range of music, from jazz to funk. As a large city, Lyon has many creature comforts, and was the first city in France to implement a public bike program. There are automated bike racks throughout the city - put in a credit card (though you need a Euro-style card that has a built in micro chip), take a bike, and return it to a rack at your destination, with a charge to your card based on the length of time you use the bike (and the first half hour is free).
Being a cosmopolitan, large city, Lyon is also blessed with a wide variety of eating establishments - even, a Mexican restaurant, but alas, it is closed! It's a crushing defeat for my plan to have Mexican food on every European trip, but at least we have an alternative to French cuisine and dine in a Japanese restaurant. The meal is pleasant, even when a group of Aussie rugby fans drops by to gloat over their victory over Japan.
Since we want to get out into the wine country, our plan is to move on to Dijon and use it as a base for exploration, but while checking out a guidebook at our hotel, Jayne sees a reference to Boeune, a small town in the heart of Burgundy. It's on the train line near Dijon, so we keep it in mind. The next morning, while waiting for a bus to the train station, we watch a mountain bike race as it wends it way through the city. On the bus, we have a nice chat with an Indian artist, Simryn Gill, from Bangalore who is preparing an installation at the Lyon Art Museum. Interestingly, she recently was an artist in residence at ArtPace in San Antonio - small world, indeed.
Though we like their mustard, Dijon is not to our liking, so after a quick lunch stop (the cuisine has changed in this region, so of course, I must have a dish of escargot - mmmm, snails), we head back to the train station and purchase tickets for Beaune.
The guide book had mentioned a bike rental operator in Beaune, so our first stop off the train is at Bourgogne Randonees, where we meet the owner Florent Leroux. Not only does he set us up with bikes, but arranges a hotel, and makes recommendations for dinner - he's a full-service operator. Our hotel is excellent - newly renovated, air conditioned, and within easy walking distance of the city center.
Beaune's main tourist draw (in addition to the wine) is the Hospice. Built as a public hospital several hundred years ago, the hospice's operations were funded from the proceeds from wine sales (over the years, donors had given the hospice title to vineyards). An annual wine auction was (and still is) held to raise funds for the facility, and the prices paid for the wine are used to set the going price for various grades of Burgundy wine. The hospice was used as a hospital until the 1970's, but now has been restored to it's 15th century style.
Walking back from the hospice, we discover a wine information center. In addition to videos describing the regional wines, they have a set of flasks containing typical aromas encountered in wines (everything from flowers to leather). You press a button to activate a blower, then put your nose to the opening of the flask to get a whiff of the aroma.
The evening is capped with a wonderful Burgundean dinner (eggs poached in wine, and a huge cheese selection) paired with a local wine. After a restful night, we walk out for a bite of breakfast (5 euro in a cafe vs 7.50 euro at the hotel) and pick up a couple of sandwiches at a bakery, then to Florent's shop to pick up our bikes. Florent provides us with route maps and marks interesting wineries and restaurants.
Heading south out of Beaune, we are directed to a well-signed bike route that winds through the vineyards. The grapes are ready for harvest and the vineyards are full of groups of pickers - some migrant workers, the rest locals. Since most of the Burgundy vineyards are small and family owned, often the picking is done by extended family groups. Unlike the machine picking of Provence, the Burgundy harvest appears to be much more selective, to the point of mobile sorting stations being set up out in the vineyards, and only the best grapes are sent to be pressed. The predominant grapes here are pinot noir and chardonnay (though they call it white burgundy).
Around noon, we reach the village of Santenay and decide since We have a sandwich, all we need is wine. Luckily, there is a winery right on the square, and the lady delays closing for lunch to sell us a bottle of white (and she even loaned us a couple of wine glasses). We have one of our best lunches sitting on a bench in the town square, munching a sandwich and sipping wine. Midway though the meal, there's a sudden cacophony of car horns and three vans come tearing through the square. Each van is decorated with grape vines and wild flowers (as are the passengers), and they come to a screeching halt in front of the decorative fountain in the square. Several young men jump out, drag one of their comrades out of the van, toss him in the fountain, then drive off. The drowned rat collects himself and trudges off, leaving a wet trail across the square. We later discover that this is a celebration of completing the harvest (and a bit of hazing for the new guy). Lunch finished, there's still a half bottle of wine left, so we share it with another cycling couple who are lunching on the square.
Deferring cycling, we spend the rest of our time in Beaune seeing the sights in town (they have an interesting wine museum) and relaxing (we are on vacation after all).
The return to Montpellier is uncomplicated - a regional train to Lyon, then the TGV to Montpellier arriving in the early afternoon. There's rugby here too (we didn't see any American fans, though the US was playing Togo). After tracking down our hotel, we do some sightseeing, have a bite of dinner (a not very tasty kebob), then prepare to head home.
The taxi is on time to take us to the airport, and soon we're arguing with Air France. They finally agree to take the bike box, after we pay a 150 euro fee (though we're still ahead, since Continental didn't charge the bike fee outbound). Other than being long (the hop from Paris to Houston takes around 11 hours), the flight was comfortable, and empty enough for each of us to stretch out across 3 seats. There are no lines at immigration in Houston, but when we get to baggage, no bike. Per Continental, all we can do is wait until we get to San Antonio and start the tracking process, so it's on to our San Antonio flight.
Continental baggage promises to begin looking for our bags, so we load up what did arrive and head for the nearest Mexican restaurant. It's great to be home!
The bike finally made it home Saturday morning after spending an extra day in Paris.