Travel: On the slow but scenic route

Mary Lou Longworth didn't have to travel many miles to make the most of a visit to Burgundy
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The Independent Travel
The perched village of Brancion is to seven-year-olds what a fairy- tale village should look like - cobblestone paths that pass by shuttered cottages with lead-glass windows, old barns and miniature thatched huts, wild roses poking through cracks in crumbling stone walls. On the hill is a Romanesque church with sagging stone floors, faded murals in the apse, and the tomb of a saint killed in Egypt in 1250. There is even a rather plump, rather daft little man who collects your 10 franc parking fee in the lot below the village.

Our newly discovered triangle of Burgundy - which stretches from Tournus in the north, Cluny at the west, and Macon in the south - has many sweet villages like Brancion, and we were seduced enough to stop at every one (perish the thought of driving an hour on the autoroute to the better known delights of, say, Beaune and its caves).

Getting to the town of Cluny, only 10 miles south-west of our small hotel, was task enough. The drive took all day - all those village stopovers - and we arrived late. But we could hardly miss the abbey's sole surviving arch when we got there. The Cluniac order, founded here in AD910, followed Saint Benedict's original rule, which fostered the arts and intellectual pursuits. With a strong central administration and a vast ecclesiastical empire, Cluny's abbots answered only to the pope in Rome. Until Rome's St Peter's was built, Cluny's church was the largest in the Christian world. The immense wealth and opulence at Cluny caused one monk to describe life at the abbey as "like Easter everyday".

Trying to imagine what this once colossal ecclesiastic centre looked like in the 11th century is an exertion - go in with your eyes closed and mind open, a friend had warned. The town has shrunk in stature but is still full of life, its cafes packed with locals and art-school students.

How is it possible never to get further than 10 miles? How is it possible to spend three hours and two rolls of film in villages with fewer than six buildings? Blanot, down the road, was another such village.

What is meant to be a quick coffee break becomes a three-hour stop. Blanot's bar-hotel, L'Etape, is a gem lost in time. With its long wooden bar, patterned tiled floor, and antique photographs, it is a perfect turn- of- the-century hotel.

The chevre fermier signs all lead to Blanot's one-woman goat-cheese business, where a purchase turns into a chevre-tasting extravaganza. She launches into a condensed lesson on the making of her cheese, gives a tour of her spotless white-tiled cheese-making rooms, and shows off pictures of her prize goats. "Mes jolies," she beams. We buy. With postcards of Blanot's Romanesque church, earthenware bowls, and fromage de chevre (strong for the adults, mild for the children), we head back to the car, glance at the dashboard clock, and realise that, once again, we are late for dinner.

Dinner, in our case, is waiting for us at Chateau de Messey. There are many family hotels in this area, and one of the more spectacular is De Messey. The guest-rooms are in restored 15th-century wine-makers' cottages, behind a large wine-making castle and surrounded by rolling green hills and forests. Next to the cottages is a pond lined with weeping willows and spring flowers.

At 7.30pm introductions are made between the hosts, Madame (Marie-Laurence) and Monsieur (Bernard) Fachon, and the other guests (there are three guest- rooms). A four-course dinner cooked by Marie-Laurence, accompanied by wine produced at the property, follows les aperos. No fussy cooking here, just the Burgundian staples you would hope for: boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, and lots of it. The vegetables have been grown in their garden, the meat from animals that graze on their hills. "Did you get to Beaune?" Madame asks us. Embarrassed, we answer: "No, we went to Chapaize." Monsieur snorts. Chapaize is another of those tiny villages about three minutes by car from De Messey.

This beautiful place has been known since antiquity as Capasia, from the Latin campus - a field surrounded by woods. Its 11th-century Romanesque church, Saint-Martin de Chapaize, is striking in its simplicity, its honey-coloured walls precariously bulging. An absence of surface decoration always enhances architectural details otherwise hidden by paintings and sculptures - a solitary carved spiral above a column becomes stunning.

West of Chapaize lies Cormatin, and after a very good two-hour lunch (the four-course menu was irresistible ...), we spend the rest of the afternoon poking around Cormatin's chateau. The tour guide gave us an informative and entertaining lecture on what it must have been like to live in a castle like this in the 17th century. "Breathe it in," he orders. We breathe in Cormatin, and picture a 17th-century husband and wife each in separate apartments, the children in a different wing, and constant threats from wild animals or even wilder human enemies. The grounds are enchanting, with a delicate pear-tree fountain, peacocks strutting about, and a labyrinth enclosing a circular aviary.

On a tip from a chef, we visited another one-person Burgundian business, Hubert Laferrere - he makes wine, alone and with no machines - in a barn beside his house in the village of Lugny. His vineyards are in the village of Chardonnay, and are planted with ... Chardonnay grapes, naturellement.

He also makes an excellent Pinot Noir from his precious half-acre plot of Pinot Noir grapes. When asked if his vineyards are organic, he smiles and says: "I try to avoid labels. Nature takes care of everything. Every once in a while I bring home around 100 vine-leaves to examine, and I spread them around the house and watch the bugs with a spyglass. When the white bug is eating up all of the red bugs, I know all is well. It drives my wife crazy."

Mr Laferrere has been asked one of his favourite questions, and he's not stopping. "My Chardonnay vineyard is one of the few remaining in Chardonnay that has a hedge surrounding it - in the hedge live birds that eat the caterpillars who like to feed on the vine-leaves." Mr Laferrere is being modest. He is an organic farmer in the oldest sense of the word.

From fine wine back to fine art again. Housed in a tiny chapel in Berze- la-Ville, a few miles from Cluny but within our triangle, is a collection of stunning murals - all rich reds, greens, purples and whites against a blue background. The colours are still vibrant after 800 years, and the figures are very Byzantine in appearance - faces framed by curly black locks and with black almond-shaped eyes that seemed to see right through you.

Later that day we noticed a change. Crossing the imaginary southern boundary of the triangle to Pouilly-Fuisse, of white-wine fame, we felt as though something was amiss. Only 18 miles south of Chapaize, this new landscape lacked the magnificent vistas; the hills weren't as green; the sky had turned dull; the villages were not as well-tended.

We realised that we should never have ventured beyond the confines of our mystic Burgundian triangle.

BURGUNDY

GETTING THERE

TGV trains leave Paris hourly for Dijon; the journey takes 90 minutes. A return ticket, including Eurostar from Waterloo to Paris, costs from pounds 99 (tel: 0990 186186).

WHERE TO STAY

Chateau de Massey (tel: 0033 385 513383; fax: 0033 385 513382). Double rooms cost FFr400 (pounds 40). Dinner costs FFr90 per person, excluding wine. Hotel-Restaurant L'Etape (tel: 0033 385 500363). Rooms from FFr180-FFr280. Three-course meals from FFr85.

FURTHER INFORMATION

French Tourist Board (tel: 0891 244123; premium rates apply).

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