Bicycling Burgundy – it’s not about the wine – its about the cycling, history and friends
Is there more to bicycling in Burgundy than discovering wines? When I joined the Bicycling Burgundy’s Vineyard tour with my family last fall , I discovered that Burgundy is the place to go for memorable cycling, for history and friendship. The wine was exceptional too.
Rick and Paola, owners of ExperiencePlus!, require that all employees take one tour themselves each year – that’s why. when you phone, staff here are so knowledgeable about our tours – we’ve most likely been there!
Last year, Rick recommended I go on the Venice to Pisa tour in Italy because its the best introduction to guided bicycle touring for those who have never done it before. It’s the first tour we offered back in 1972 and continues to be our most popular tour.
Although we really wanted to go back to Italy to enjoy more of that great Italian food, it was not to be.
I put my name down for 3 different tours last fall, only to see them fill up soon after I selected them. We do not overbook our tours and we were not stopping one of you from traveling with us because of staff travel!
Much to everyone’s (joking) consternation in the office, I finally managed to find a tour that was not quite sold out. It was in France. – the September Bicycling Burgundy’s Vineyards tour.
For me, my tour started with a trip to Forli, Italy ( and a chance to partake in more Italian food of course) where I worked for a week on computer systems at our European headquarters. Once everyone’s computers looked good, I took the train to Macon France for the start of the Burgundy tour.
My wife Marilyn and my 13 year old son Todd joined me on tour. They had flown into Paris and taken the TGV and our rendezvous at the hotel in Macon worked out splendidly. (Note, for our 2006 Getting To and Away guide – yes you can make it to Macon on the same day you arrive in Paris, if your flight arrives on schedule, if you speed walk through the Charles De Gaulle airport to the TGV, and if you are extraordinarily lucky!).
2005 was the first year ExperiencePlus! has offered the Bicycling Burgundy’s Vineyards tour. When we caught up with our tour leader team – John Giebler, ExperiencePlus’s France coordinator and Bernard, our native French guide. Bernard is a remarkable man – in his life, he has ridden all the famous climbs of the Tour France. John and Bernard described how they selected our routes to minimize car traffic and to show customers the countryside as well as the history of the Burgundy region. Actually, all ExperiencePlus! tours get refined this way. When a tour leader returns from leading a tour, they make suggestions for improvements. The country coordinator uses these suggestions, as well as insights from customer evaluations, to adapt next season’s routes.
This continual route refinement is possible because ExperiencePlus! uses a special system to guide you along the route – early each morning of your tour, one tour leader leaves, usually on bicycle, with bottles of chalk. The tour leader marks every turn of the route with a chalk arrow on the road. They also mark points of interest so we won’t miss them. This navigation system, unique ( as far as we know) in the world of bicycle touring, allows tour leaders to design intricate routes that get to those hard to find special places.
At dinner on the first night of the tour we met our fellow cycling companions for the next week for the first time – Sonny, Stewart, Ann, Peggy, Jessica & Frank, Jane & Joe, Colin & Jan, Bill & Kay, Dan, Mandy, John and Catherine. One of the first things we found out about each other is that many of us had trveled with ExperiencePlus! previously, so we immediately starting sharing stories of other tours and recommending tours to each other. This is typical – we see a lot of enthusiastic repeat customers. Peggy, John and Catherine had decided on this tour because Ann had invited them to join her. We notice more and more friends are choosing to bicycle tour together. ( Read more about this phenomena in Joeann Gutowski’s latest article about friends traveling together on one of our Costa Rica tours)
John and Bernard greeted us and introduced us to the history of Macon. They suggested a walking tour through the narrow streets of the medieval town. I especially liked the old Apothecary Museum in the Hotel Dieu ( hospital). The apothecary is a room about 15 feet across, with high, wood panelled walls covered with drawers and jars for all sorts of ancient medicinals.
Frank, a pharmacist in his "real life", was especially captivated by the history in the apothecary room, which had been preserved since the 18th century. To get there, we had walked into the hospital entrance and followed John’s instructions to find the apothecary through a doorway under the staircase – we were especially thankful that John gave us exact directions to the apothecary when we discovered we were walking around in an operating mental hospital
THE ROADS OF BURGUNDY
Our bikes were fitted. Let the bike riding begin! Our first day’s ride was a loop ride out of Macon through the hills where the grapes for Macon’s famous white Burgundy’s are grown. I had thought that Burgundy wine was always red so my wine education was just beginning. The same day, we also cycled through the Beaujolais region. Beaujolais Nouveau is of course famous worldwide because half of the region’s total production is distributed and consumed the same year it is harvested. It was on this very first day when I started to understand what was unique about cycling in France. Our route took us through farm fields, not on busy straight roads like you come to expect in America. These roads were small – one lane wide – and windy, up and down hills around the fields. These roads had almost no cars on them. And these roads were paved – all the roads, even the smallest rural lanes.
You may wonder, as I do, why there is such a density of paved rural roads in France. Is it to do with history of local politics? Socialized government? Napolean’s edict? Government edict? Competition among towns? If you know the answer to this question, please post a comment below. Whatever the reason, paving the roads in this region has resulted in some of the finest cycling roads I have seen.
But what struck me most is what happened at 1:10PM on our first day out. I was riding along with Marilyn and Todd, near the back of the group, when I called out “wait! Stop!” and we all stopped and gazed out over the farms in the valley below. And we all looked … and listened. And what we heard was …. nothing.
It was absolutely quiet.
After we listened some more to the silence, we got on our bikes and quietly, quietly cycled on our way. I was starting to understand just how superb the cycling in Burgundy is.
If quiet country lanes were not enough, Burgundy communities have also created a network of cycling paths, many of them converted rail lines or old canal horse paths. These paths are called the Voie Verte and John’s routes took us first along the Canal de Bourgogne section
and then unexpectedly we went through a mountain – we rode through a gently downward sloping, 2 km ex-train tunnel. This was a unique cycling experience. Frank and Jessica preferred the fresh air and hill climb, so they went over while we went through.
But the best was saved for last. On the last day of the tour, we ascended a small pass on our way to Beaune and then descended into an agricultural valley. The day started overcast and slightly misty so the colors of the landscape were soft and romantic. And of course, the quiet surrounded us. The downhill ride was long, for hours it seemed. Marilyn remembers this as the finest bike ride she has ever experienced.
THE FRIENDS IN THE VINEYARD
As I was cycling along past a vineyard, I heard the sound of voices up to the right. About a dozen people were up in the fields picking grapes. This is unusual. Most grapes are now picked by high riding tractor machines that straddle the
vine and blow wind through the vine and have special “fingers” that pluck the grapes off the vine. Hand picking is seen less and less often because in blind taste tests, the world’s best wine tasters ( not me!) say that machine picked grapes produce better wine than grapes picked by unskilled labor. I am told the very best wine still comes from hand picked grapes which are then hand sorted to ensure that only the best berries make it into the wine, and these are handled as gently as possible. Some entire regions (like Beaujolais) require hand harvesting by law. But with advances in automated grape picking machines, most of the vineyards we saw are picked by machine.
As I watched to see how the harvesters did their work, they waved and I waved back. Strangers across cultures. Me in my bike helmet, bright clothes and camera, speaking English and a dabble of French. while they wore dark clothes and carried baskets, speaking Turkish and French. One fellow gestured for me to come up and see what they were doing. Soon Mandy and others joined me. Walking into the vineyard, our brightly dressed group was immediately welcomed with a mixture of gesture and French, and we were encouraged to try picking the grapes, then taste the grapes ( oh, were they good!) and then to bring a basket back to the waiting truck. Here is a picture of me loading ( well. just three) grapes into the truck.
This was a spontaneous connection with people I would never meet again. As I was leaving, the man who invited me up offered to swap his canvas bag and his hat with my camera, helmet and bicycle. I declined. We all laughed. Our worlds separated again.
THE BURGUNDY WINE EXPERIENCE
Through the eight days of our tour, John and Bernard gave us a crash course on French Wines. Allow me to say I am a wine novice. Each evening, John and Bernard set things up so we could taste regional wines of the district we were cycling through. Wine is the major business of this region. Where in America, you might see national companies taking over local companies, in Burgundy, the wine business goes on as it has for centuries. There are many small vineyards usually with a "cave" (wine cellar) in the village. The names of the wines are marked on the signs as we go by. If I had been a wine connoisseur, I could have jumped with recognition at each sign, but I’m not so John and Bernard had to tell me which names I should have recognized. Another delight on this tour was visiting the wine cellars. A door would be open, I’d prop up my bike and then visit the tasting room. Generally a greeter woman would appear and let us taste the wines they sold. Just a little you understand, because I still needed to ride my bike. If I liked a bottle, I would pay for it and then leave it at the desk, taking note of where this Cave was. When I next saw the ExperiencePlus! van, John would go back to the wine cellar and pick up the bottle for me and carry it to the ending hotel. Each of us came back with several bottles of French wine. But the best drink was not wine – Todd did not like the idea of tasting wine, so the accommodating hostess at the Michel Sarrazin Vineyard noticed Todd’s distress and told us to wait a moment – off she went and came back with a 2 liter plastic soda bottle full of – grape juice harvested just hours before – pulled right from the vat. Todd loved it. I loved it. Everyone switched from wine to grape juice. Thank you Todd!
John and Bernard saved the piece de resistance of our wine education for the last night when we were treated to a tour of the Patriarche wine cellar, the largest in Burgundy. After days of visiting roadside wine cellars, which had at the time looked immense, I was blown away by this wine cellar in Beaune. In fact, I can show you what we saw, through the miracle of QuickTime movies – just follow this link and then click on “Guided Tour – video”. As we walked through the cellars, we happened upon a choir group from Scandinavia who decided to sing in the cellar, their voices reverberating through the darkened 5 km of passageways and 5,000,000 bottles and wine kegs. Beautiful. Of course the wine tasting was superb, even for a person with a palate as poor as mine. We were given a special silver tasting spoon, and told what to look for using all our senses. We could check out the color in the traditional way, by candlelight. And our hosts were masters not only of wine tasting but marketing. We started with the cheapest wines and worked our way up to the more expensive wines. “This one is too expensive, we will not be tasting this one”. “OK, I have decided to let you taste this wine but it costs 50 Euros a bottle”. It was really good – probably the most expensive wine I will ever taste. “Oh yes, if you do decide to buy some of wine, of course we will have it delivered to your house back in America”. Many of us did decide to buy a bottle – when else would we have the chance to buy such excellent wine at such a good price? Marketing. But with an exceptional, time proven product.
But the tour finally came to an end. It was a treat to cycle with, and get to know everyone. Jan and Colin went off to Paris where Colin proposed to Jan at the top of the Eifel Tower – “tres romantique”, Jan reported. Kay, when she left, took a little of the tour with her – Kay is a well known water color artist and, unbeknownst to us, had been creating sketches of our tour. That is her painting of one of our fine rides at the top of this article. To me, this sketch catches the spirit and the superbness of our cycling trip together. You can see more of Kay’s paintings on her web site,
There is so much more I could describe about our tour – exploring the ruins of power in a different age at the Cluny Abbey, the castle of Bancion, chatting with people on barges on the canals, stopping to buy goat cheese from a farm along the route, cycling through small villages and around stone-walled vineyards, exploring the maze at the Chateau de Cormatin, the personal tour of the oldest Bicycle Museum in France,
If you are looking for a tour that combines riding paved, quiet rural roads with an introduction to wine, history and friends, I recommend from personal experience the Bicycling Burgundy’s Vineyard tour.