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Updated: May 10, 2021

I took a detour on the way back from Beaumes de Venise – leaving after two months of relative normality, to face the rigours of 14 days’ quarantine, plus endless boring speculation (and arguments) about when it will all end. I decided to enjoy some minor exploration – largely in Burgundy. Mary had already left France to get back to London.


First stop, Tournus. This was just a pit-stop. I, and Mary, have been here many times. It’s just north of Macon and very close to the autoroute. It has a perfectly preserved Romanesque abbey church, and is a small, quiet, village on the banks of the Saône. A lovely place to stop.


My first real destination was Autun, not perhaps on everyone’s bucket list. For some reason I had long had it in mind that the cathedral has one of the most amazing works of medieval art, namely the tympanum over the entrance. It gets three stars from the Michelin guide. Although I had forgotten the word, the tympanum (from the Latin for drum, curiously) is the semi-circular carved structure above the main door into the church, normally depicting the last judgment in sufficiently lurid detail to encourage the worshippers to say their prayers.

Autun is in deepest Burgundy. It’s not hard to get to: an hour’s drive off to the left (ie west) of the main autoroute from Lyon, across beautiful rolling hills. It’s named after the first Roman emperor, Augustus, (Augustodunum) although the locals have sensibly abbreviated it over the years. It’s a lovely, well-preserved, old city, with its cathedral perched towards the top of the hill.

I stayed at the curiously named La Tête Noire. I suspect they wouldn’t get away with that in our sensitive country. Unsurprisingly, there were no blackamoor statues in the reception area – as perhaps there once were.

I had chosen it from the Michelin guide. Our friend, Petra Willoughby, with her usual concern for others, looked it up in her more recent guide and warned me that it wasn’t there. It had apparently been dropped. Oh dear! Actually, it’s reasonably central and perfectly comfortable - even though the dinner isn’t perhaps up to Mr Michelin’s exacting standards.

What about the great tympanum? I find it hard to enthuse as much as I feel I should. It was done in about 1130, which is remarkable enough, and shows the typical figure of Christ dispensing judgment, with the damned being attacked by demons on their way to hell. One unique feature is a demon of some kind trying unsuccessfully to tamper with the scales being used to weigh up the souls of the dead.

Another interesting feature is that it has only survived because the clerics in the 18th century decided that it was ugly – and that it definitely failed to reflect then current Enlightenment ideas. They had it covered up with plaster. This changed in the 19th century when people like Prosper Mérimée became keen on preserving France’s cultural past. They chiseled away and were able to discover the relatively well-preserved article.

Unusually for those days, we know who the sculptor was. Under Christ’s feet, it says “Gislebertus hoc fecit”. He was also the sculptor of the capitals on the pillars in the cathedral itself. Some of them have been moved into the chapter house, probably so that you can see them better: typically, the chapter house was closed. There was, however, a wonderful figure of Eve being tempted to eat the forbidden fruit in the nearby Musée Rolin – also probably the work of Mr Gislebertus.

Enough perhaps about medieval art. Before leaving Autun, I should note that there is an ancient Roman gateway, somewhat like a smaller version of the enormous one at Trier in Germany. Autun was a more important place in those times, as it was in the Middle Ages.


Next stop, Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. The drive there is even more splendid than the drive to Autun, passing by some of the most prestigious vineyards of the area, even of the world: Meursault, Volnay, Pommard. I have a theory that the best wines tend to come from some of the most beautiful hills and valleys – think of Napa Valley, the Mosel, Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhone.

You also pass by chateaux. One particularly striking one is Le Rochepot, still apparently owned by the family Pot, one of their ancestors having been Burgundian ambassador in London in the 15th century. I wished I had time to stop there.

Beaune itself is best known for the famous Hôtel-Dieu with its amazing tiled roofs. (See the photo above.) A Hotel-Dieu doesn’t seem to have an equivalent in England. It was a mixture of an old people’s home and a hospital. The one in Beaune was founded in 1443, at much the same time as Eton and King’s Cambridge, when Burgundy was at the height of its power.

Inside you see the great hall (also called the chambre des pôvres) on both sides of which are the most splendid cubicles with carefully made-up beds for the poor and the infirm. It all looks very comfortable indeed.

Its best-known treasure is the wonderful large painting of the Last Judgment by the Flemish painter Rogier Van der Weyden. We are seeing a lot of last judgments: more demons chasing the damned to Hell. It may seem surprising to find a Flemish painting here, but the commission goes back to the days in the 15th century when the territories of Burgundy included what is now Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and some of northern France. The Duke of Burgundy was a serious rival to the King of France.


On to Dijon, at some risk of trying to fit in too much. It’s a short drive, again passing through some of the great wine villages: Nuits-St-Georges (an attractive village); Gevrey-Chambertin (less so, at least from the road).

Dijon is a big place. It’s not easy to visit in a rush. It was after all the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy and is today the capital of the local Region.

You can’t just follow signs to the city centre. I managed to park in a street that seemed fairly central, worried that I’d never find my way back to it. But a friendly lady explained how I would find the Musée des Beaux-Arts.

The museum is too big to do justice to when you’re worried about finding your car again. But it does contain the massive and flamboyant tombs of some of the Dukes. It puts you in mind of the great days of the Duchy. It came to an end in 1477 when the then Duke, Charles the Bold, was killed in battle and Burgundy became part of France.

I did manage, without difficulty, to find the car – and drove to Langres, which has for many years been our main stopping place on the way to and from the south.


Langres is almost exactly half way between Calais and Beaumes de Venise. It’s therefore ideal for us. And the Hotel Cheval Blanc know us well – along with presumably a multitude of others from England, Belgium, Holland and wherever, none of whom probably ever spend more than a night there.

Langres prides itself as the birthplace of the philosopher Denis Diderot, who compiled an 18th century Encyclopedia. The Cheval Blanc names its restaurant after him and has some of his somewhat cryptic sayings as part of the decor. The restaurant is always great.

14 September 2020

Tony Herbert

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