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Sketches of France: Châteauneuf-en-Auxois

The high grass made a crunching sound as my feet increased their speed to a runner’s pace. I had left the car idling in the center of the narrow country. I was slightly concerned about sliding down the grassy slope and tumbling into the thicket of dense brush that acted as the pasture’s barrier. I had surprised even myself by being compelled to achieve such a velocity. Reaching into the small bag that bounced and banged against my hip I grabbed the short lens, carefully twisted off the cap and swapped it with the one attached to the camera. Sensing I had reached a satisfactory position I raised the camera to my eye. The only sound breaking the silence was my slightly labored breath. Soft rolls of green filled the frame: pastures, wheat fields, natural hedge boundaries. Specks of white charolais cattle dabbed the green in a randomized pattern. Silhouetted against the blue sky above them were the spires and conical rooftops of a castle. Instinctively, and without a thought, I made a clicking sound with my mouth followed by a second indescribable call – techniques I learned at an age too young to remember. Raising their heads first, as though hearing a long-lost, friendly voice, the herd of a dozen or so cattle answered my call and approached the road. While their ears still perked, I pressed the shutter button and the camera made a pleasing snapping sound.

The castle high on the horizon was Château-de-Châteauneuf-en-Auxois. This was not the first time we had seen it from a distance. We drove by on our way in from Paris, and I nearly put the car in the ditch crooking my head to get a clearer glimpse through the rain streaked windshield. It loomed large in the low setting sun and it was very difficult to let it drift beyond the horizon behind me. I didn’t know then that it was already pinned on my map and carved out of the itinerary.

The kids were exhausted as was evident in their uncharacteristic silence. Beaune had proven to take a lot out of them. Almost as soon as we were on the road Gigi was stricken with car sickness. This is something that’s a real risk when traveling with kids. Thankfully, it wouldn’t affect us enough to require more attention than the average remedy. It wasn’t long before all three kids were comfortably asleep and the sickness vanquished. The forty minutes to Châteauneuf-en-Auxois was a welcome reprieve and we took our time exploring the region and allowing the children to rest. The small country roads carried us by sleepy medieval villages, unique churches – some crumbling and one adorned in exquisite wood carvings – several ancient cemeteries and even a glorious chateau turned five star hotel. I stopped as frequently as possible, almost to the extent of stalling, and got out to explore. Soon we were crossing still waterways on understated bridges. They were canals flawlessly formed by precision tools and they lend an uncustomary order to the natural environment.

When the castle came into view marvelous vistas over the rolling countryside and of the meandering canals carved into winding land beneath were abundant and ever changing. The steep, narrow road that climbed out of the valley to the town was like a wormhole. The farther we climbed the farther back in time traveled. It was clear the modern world had yet to find its way to Châteauneuf. Atop the hill a single cramped entrance gave access to the small walled village, and I wondered if the compact Citroen would clear the pinched gates and blind corners. Inside the walls, Hobbit-sized buildings lined a twist of narrow medieval streets. Most of the structures exposed their 500-year-old stone walls or were in the process of peeling their plaster. Aged rose bushes covered full facades. Cute windows concealed the contents of tiny rooms and some doorways too short for an average human to pass unbent were adorned with the crests of nobility. There must not be a secret in town as there were no more than three lanes and barely that many connecting passages.

Châteauneuf-en-Auxois is legitimately tiny and the chateau is appropriately sized to match. There are only a handful of shops servicing the few tourists that visit the town: a couple of cafes, a corner craft shop or two and an inn. It was far from a bustling tourist draw and only one of the cafes was open. Of the handful of people milling around maybe half were tourists and the other half locals. Rick Steves had suggested in his book to skip touring the chateau, which I felt was illogical advice. The town exists to serve the chateau and the symbiosis should be recognized. Five Euros was the least we could contribute to ensure its future preservation. It would be easy for the chateau to fall into neglect and disrepair, yet someone had been actively going to great lengths to maintain and restore it. A large building had been fully reconstructed and its new white stone almost glistened in the sun.

A cute, dollhouse-sized drawbridge crossed a rather deep and surprisingly formidable moat and we passed unaccosted through the main gate. The shifting gravel underfoot was the only sound to be heard in the inner courtyard. The children dispersed with vaporous speed powered by boundless imagination. I felt comfortable just letting them go considering the small size and relatively tourist-free nature of the castle. They examined every corner looking for secret passages and trap doors that could lead to dungeons and mysteries long gone undiscovered. Across courtyard expanses and up staircases Bobby led great exercises in mock sword fights, complete with sound effects, leaping, slashing and thrusting, and dramatic death performances. We paid the entrance fee if only to allow the drama to unfold in every available space. There were no history lessons nor long list of pedigrees nor begats necessary to understanding Châteauneuf-en-Auxois. I even refrained from digging too deep myself in order to enjoy the interpretive show happening around us.

A quick five minute stroll around town, which encompased the entire circumfrance, offered some interesting perspectives. It’s a strange mix of authentic medieval castle living, destitute poverty and modern adaptation. The atmosphere was intriguing, and the views from the high vantage were inspiring, and I petitioned to soak in it longer with a beverage on the lonely cafe patio. But Amanda reminded me that the sun was lowering and, as uniquely attractive as Châteauneuf-en-Auxois was, we had our own private garden to enjoy before the fall of darkness.

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