Nouveau riches

The Beaujolais region is famous for its annual wines. But, as Ray Kershaw discovers, there are many more delights in the country around Lyon

It was, I reflected as I exercised my "manly right, conspicuously, jauntily, to do it standing up", not only literature's best-known urinal but, indubitably, also the one with the best view. I sighed with satisfaction. Here I was at last, "with that abundance of the bladder that Clochemerle wine endows", enjoying like a local the most renowned facility. The valley below shone golden with vines.

It was, I reflected as I exercised my "manly right, conspicuously, jauntily, to do it standing up", not only literature's best-known urinal but, indubitably, also the one with the best view. I sighed with satisfaction. Here I was at last, "with that abundance of the bladder that Clochemerle wine endows", enjoying like a local the most renowned facility. The valley below shone golden with vines.

When the Lyon journalist Gabriel Chevallier made Vaux-en-Beaujolais the setting for his 1934 comic novel Clochemerle, he wrote of Beaujolais, "it is not a well-known wine to gastronomes or a region to tourists". Everyone knows what happened to the wine, yet Beaujolais remains, in Chevallier's words, "one of the most picturesque and favoured parts of France reserved for its select and discerning devotees".

The real locales of favourite books often make you wish that any pilgrimage there had remained a cherished dream. But Vaux and its surroundings - the steep, vine-clad valleys rising to high summits crowned with ancient woodlands - look just as enchanting as Chevallier's depiction. And as the archetypal wine village, its pedigree is venerable: the first recorded vines were planted 1,000 years ago by monks from Cluny.

Chevallier loved the place, escaping journalistic drudge at the weekend by relaxing at the local inn. His observations of Vaux's village intrigues provided the material for a jackpot bestseller. In his story of the mayor's machiavellian scheme to erect a urinal, throwing the village into a Left and Right feud, he wittily created a microcosm of France, slaughtering its sacred cows of politics and church. The nation giggled at itself and rushed to the bookshops. And rustically Rabelaisian, steeped in red wine and cheerful fornication, the book travelled well through a war-weary Europe, confirming preconceptions of naughty Gallic ways.

Chevallier's old inn today is renamed the Auberge de Clochemerle, but has not overdone things. The chef Georges Lagarde runs the kind of good-value village hotel where you blissfully eschew calorie-counting.

Across from the pissoir is the Cave de Clochemerle, a wine-cellar bar and shop opened in 1956 by Gabriel Chevallier himself. Lined with Clochemerle memorabilia, it is the principal goal of coachloads of tourists from Lyon who buy souvenir bottles of Clochemerle-label wine and fuel bladders for photocalls in the decorative urinal. Two doors further up are Georges Dufour's unadorned cellars, whose wine, I can confide, is cheaper and better. You can lodge at his vineyard gîte for €30 (£20) for a double room.

The novel's locations are traced within an hour. The church's plaster saint, fictionally decapitated in Chevallier's glorious chapter-long brawl, still stands smugly in his niche. But the real joy of Vaux, as of the whole of Beaujolais, is its down-to-earth flavour of bygone decades, redolent of Gauloises and pre-TGV France.

Most villages have their zinc-topped bars patronised by men in bleus de travail. Even in Vaux, Roger Philibert's bar-tabac rarely sees strangers. As curious faces turn, you feel you may have stumbled on to a film set of the book. But where wine grows, so does bonhomie.

Philibert's village red works out at 30p a glass, his white Chalonnaise, imported from 30km away, an extravagant 10p more. And this is stuff worth drinking. His regulars will not squander euros on anything inferior to what they make at home. Sipping your wine, you can study the headlines in the Patriote Beaujolais, with yield and price predictions for the coming vendange. Vinous matters remain Vaux's preoccupation.

Philibert explains that there is a certain crise d'identité arising from the Vaux and Clochemerle appellations. Chevallier's family owns the Clochemerle trademark, but the majority of the villagers regard this, the alter ego of their village, as an irritation. Then there is the thorny question of the "false" pissoir. The real one, M Philibert insists, is opposite his bar. And yes, it is true, there we can see another urinal, 10m from the church, as in the book. Built into an ancient wall, it does look more authentic. I sink another glass of rouge. Photos needed again.

Besides the 10 celebrated Beaujolais villages familiar from wine lists, there are 34 more producing quality wines - historic towns such as Beaujeu, which gave the region its name. Many can be reached on footpaths through the vineyards, and hundreds of small growers advertise tastings. Sampled in the proud proprietors' kitchens, the wine you accumulate later evokes memories of local faces as you open your bottles back home.

During the summer, while the grapes fill and ripen, Beaujolais basks in that illusory indolence of wine regions everywhere. But one day in September, the serenity erupts into a frenzy of activity. Mechanical harvesters whirr through the vineyards. Carts heaped with Gamay grapes queue outside presses where torrents of juices perfume the air. At the Quincie co-operative, they plunge a beaker in the stream and we taste our newest Beaujolais ever, so headily mellifluous that we wonder why they bother to ferment it.

Then, just as abruptly, like a collective contented sigh, tranquillity returns. The grape juice is bubbling, turning into wine. The district blossoms with fêtes celebrating the harvest. On the third Thursday in November the Beaujolais Nouveau, good or indifferent, will be released upon the world - but meanwhile, there is vin bourru, the young fermenting grape juice that never leaves the district, quaffed by the litre, as effervescent as champagne.

On an Indian-summer day, we set out through russet vineyards for a picnic on a wooded hill. Many grapes remained unpicked, left, an old man tells us, to comply with regulations governing yields. With a gesture encompassing the entire horizon, he invites us to eat as many as we like. We laze away the afternoon with a bottle of chilled rosé, surveying from the summit Beaujolais's valleys, now alchemised to gold.

The Auberge de Clochemerle had launched its autumn menu. Partridge salad or pheasant paté? Roe-deer tournedos or venison haunch? Chestnuts or wild mushrooms? Dilemmas as difficult as life presents. But it is unthinkable to drink any other wine than that produced in Vaux. After all, Chevallier said that this is "the best and the most Beaujolais of all the Beaujolais villages". And with two pissoirs to chose from, who could disagree?

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest international gateway to the Beaujolais region is Lyon-St-Exupéry. You can fly from Heathrow on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or Air France (0845 359 1000; www.airfrance.co.uk); BA also flies from Birmingham and Manchester. The no-frills options are both from Stansted: easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) to Lyon; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) to St-Etienne, with a bus connection to Lyon for €20 (£14) one-way, €30 (£21) return. The journey from St-Exupéry airport to the Gare de Perrache, 25km away, takes an hour and costs €8.40 (£6). Buses leave every 20 minutes (00 33 4 7222 7127). From here, take a train to Villefranche (about half an hour to the north), which is the best base for the Route du Beaujolais.

Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) has rail services from London Waterloo via Lille or Paris for around £99 return; services via Lille tend to be faster (as fast as five hours), and are much easier than making the Métro connection across Paris.

STAYING THERE

The Auberge de Clochemerle (00 33 4 74 03 20 16) has double rooms for €51 (£36), without breakfast. Georges Dufour's Caves (00 33 4 74 03 23 60) offers doubles in a vineyard gîte from €30 (£20) with breakfast.

ALTERNATIVE TASTINGS

Beaune

In the centre of this prosperous and well-preserved town you cannot move for invitations to sample the wines of Burgundy. Every enterprise on rue de l'Hôtel-Dieu seems devoted to handing out glasses of Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune. More information: l'Office de Tourisme, 1 rue de l'Hôtel-Dieu (00 33 3 80 26 21 30; www.ot-beaune.fr).

Chalon-sur-Saône

The local producers run a co-operative called the Maison des Vins de la Côte Chalonnaise on the Promenade Ste-Marie (00 33 3 85 41 64 00), which opens 9am-7pm daily except Sunday.

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