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France 2001
A Bike Tour through Alsace and Franche-Comté

Burgundy - Beaune, France

Beaune is a classy little city in the heart of the finest vineyards of Burgundy, arguably the finest in all of France. Due to the thriving wine trade the economic importance of Beaune is way out of proportion to its 25,000 people. Tourism is an important addition to the economy. We heard several languages spoken in the streets and shops of Beaune. There's a lot to see.

We visited the Hôtel des Ducs de Bourgogne, a former residence of the Dukes of Burgundy who were overthrown by the Kings of France in the late 1400's. It contains an impressive wine museum - more than one needs to know about the production of wine. There's the beautiful church Eglise Notre-Dame. In the center of town, the Beffroi, an ornate clock tower looks down on a square filled with beautiful Renaissance town homes. Beneath the streets of Beaune is a honeycomb of wine cellars in continuous use for centuries. Locations for wine tasting can be found all over. We explored the famous Hôtel Dieu for most of the morning. The Hôtel au Grand St-Jean was our home for two nights. The name has more character than the rather plain hotel. But the price is right, location is great, and the owner was gracious, friendly, and spoke understandable English.

The Hôtel Dieu is the centerpiece of Beaune. In the French language the word hôtel can have several meanings. Among other things it can designate a hotel, city hall, or in this case a hospital. The Hôtel Dieu was built in 1443 as a charity hospital by Nicolas Rolin, a Chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy. After the Hundred Years' War, Beaune and the surrounding region suffered from extreme poverty and plague. Subsequently, Rolin and his wife founded the Hospice for the Poor. They endowed it with an annual income along with additional means for future support in the form of prime Burgundian vineyards. Historians question Rolins' motive for this act of generosity. Some say he was moved to assist the poor and infirm out of genuine goodwill. Others ascribe his motive more to the practice of the time, that of making community donations in order to secure a place in heaven. Afterall, it is said that much of his great wealth as a high-level court official was gained through unethical means.

Whatever the case, the Hôtel Dieu is a treasure inside and out. The building is nearly unchanged for the past 500 years with the exception of its dazzling roof which was added about a hundred years ago. The geometric patterns of glazed tiles are a trademark of Beaune and the region. The exterior of the building is influenced by Gothic Flemish architecture. We discovered that Flanders was part of Burgundy during this period. But the real treasures were inside.

We were both in agreement as to the most significant work of art we had seen on the entire trip. Exhibited in a special climate controlled room in the Hôtel Dieu, is the nine panel polyptych titled "The Last Judgement." This magnificent work is a haunting reminder of Christian destiny. Painted by Rogier van der Weyden in the 15th century, it shows Christ observing from above as St. Michael weighs two naked souls on a set of scales. The gripping depiction of the grateful Blessed ones on the left to the horrors of the Damned on the right is unforgettable. It certainly must have made the decision a no-brainer for countless Christians to keep on the straight and narrow for the past 500 years. Originally the work was placed above the altar in the Chapel, and was only viewed by the patients on Sundays and feast days.

The center of the hospital is La Salle des Povres (the Room of the Poor). It is the largest room in the building at 165 ft. by 45 ft. and is relatively unaltered since the Middle Ages. This ward was used to treat patients from 1452 until 1971. The red curtained beds line both walls leading to a chapel at the end. The patients were cared for by the Sisters of the Hospices de Beaune. Smaller rooms include a ward for those near death, a unique 18th century pharmacy, and a museum. The kitchen is an enlightening trip back to turn of the century institutional food service. The St. Louis room containing the former bakery is an exhibit room displaying many tapestries from the 16th century.

Over the centuries donations to the Hospices de Beaune have increased its endowment to 143 acres of prime vineyards along with additional agricultural acreage. An annual auction held on the third Sunday in November draws bidders worldwide for the sale of the year's wine production. The foundation, which operates the organization, has built modern medical facilities near-by that continues to meet the needs of the poor as it has for over 500 years.

Beaune offers many locations for dégustation de vin (wine tasting). We visited the Marché aux Vins, a wine distributor located across the street from the Hôtel Dieu. Housed in a former church the attraction is not on the ground floor but what is below in the cave (cellar). For a $7 admission we were given a list of wines and complimentary tasting cups. We descended into the cave and for the next hour we were on our own sampling some top-shelf Burgundies. There were no attendants or pesky salespersons to be seen. Each of the four whites and 14 reds had their own tasting station illuminated by candlelight. A rack of each vintage stood next to the stations with bottles waiting to be picked. At the end of the circuit we were in Premier Cru territory. We lingered here for awhile. These expensive reds were found near the cashier's station. Despite the exposed location we managed to drink more than our share of these fine vintages. The wine was so good we ended up buying five bottles. Unfortunately, the Grand Cru wine was not on the tasting menu. Behind a wrought iron gate we saw a young Asian couple conferring with the wine-master. They were selecting a few bottles. We saw their bill on the cashier's counter and calculated the francs into dollars. Their visit to the Grand Cru room cost $1,500!

Riding through Beaune on the morning of our departure we observed a truck parked awkwardly on the sidewalk with its overhead doors open on the sides and rear. Closer inspection showed a well co-ordinated team busy at work. It was a mobile wine-bottling unit! Inside the truck stood a large fiberglass tank of wine. Amidst the din of clanking machinery and glass a worker fed the conveyer line with empty bottles. In a few moments they were filled, corked, and taken off the line by two workers loading four case pallets. A fork-truck stood by waiting to whisk the unlabeled pallets off to their destination. Oh well, not every bottle of wine from Beaune can be a pampered Grand or Premier Cru.

Instead of biking the 30 miles to Dijon to catch a train connection back to Frankfurt we decided to board a train in Beaune and take it easy. Were we getting lazy? Maybe, but we were also hauling nine bottles of wine between the two of us. They added considerably to the weight on our bikes and were not so artfully stuffed into our panniers. We had a fine selection of wines from the Alsace, Jura, and Burgundy. Some had been carried quite a distance already. We anticipated their uncorking back home and reminiscing over a dinner of choucroute garni or boeuf bourguignon. Or at least our brave attempts to recreate the dishes.

It was readily apparent that Burgundy has a lot to offer the cycle-tourist. So much to explore, so little time. We were already planning routes through the region for a future trip using Beaune as a starting point. So with great reluctance we boarded the train for the long return to Frankfurt.

Our next trip in 2002 is a 400 mile loop bike tour on the backroads of Burgundy, France. A link to the new web site will be provided when it is completed.

We hope you enjoyed France 2001 and found the Alsace and Franche-Comté as fascinating as we did. This year's web site text was written by Ed James. Web site design, HTML coding and photo layout was created by Bob Parry. If you would like to view our other Web sites highlighting past European bike tours click on the Links below.
Au revoir!

Click here if you would like to see a slide show of Burgundy. You will need PowerPoint program on your computer and it will take a minute or two to download the presentation.

If you don't have PowerPoint on your computer you may download a viewer at: Microsoft PowerPoint Download

If you want to see the photographs individually just click on the thumbnails below.


© 2001 Bob Parry and Ed James

E-mail us if you have questions or comments.


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