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Sketches of France: Côte de Beaune

Burgundy has a precision sophistication. A patina of centuries-old ware dates everything, yet each stone is in place so perfectly that it appears they were laid yesterday. Like if lovingly inserted by an enthusiast on a scale model set. Row upon row of grapevines extended in every direction and were only interrupted by strategically planted treelines, stone walls and square stone buildings. Winding ribbons of pavement bisected the vineyards and were so narrow that they blurred the lines between roads, drives and bike paths. The bicycle would have been an ideal mode of transportation both in pace and scale and would afford the opportunity to breathe in the boUquet of the agricultural air. With Beaune mere minutes behind us, cars and bicycles were scarce to nonexistent. Only the tiny, shuttle-like, farm vehicles traversed the paths and parked on unpaved lanes among the vines.

We left Beaune in the late afternoon, free of itinerary and plan. The area holds many regions worthy of exploration and this time, we set our general direction to the south. The first village we encountered was Pommard, and while it was lovely, we encountered half a dozen nameless towns yet more quaint and picturesque with more gorgeous views. Our drive was aimless and we slowly snaked toward a pin on my map labeled La Rochepot, southwest, beyond the vineyards. I reached deep into my memory to conjure the reason for the pin only recalling vague details. The children were asleep in a heaping pile in the back seat, certainly with medieval scenes of nurses and the judgement dancing in their heads. As the terrain became more rolling it failed to support the crops and more resembled our home village of Bouilland, equidistant to Beaune but to the north. Somehow the same champagne sunlight that bathes the vineyards of the Cote doesn’t seem to penetrate the dark woods here.

La Rochepot’s homes wear their age with less grace than their wine-growing neighbors. This gives the whole area a darker, mysterious and much less affluent presence. We approached the village from below. With its dollhouse-sized homes, I was afraid our car wouldn’t fit through the extremely narrow streets. But I proceeded with hopeful caution. Above the town and half swallowed in shadowy forest was what looked like a tenth-scale model of a castle illustrated in some rough-bound book of medieval fairytales. Its course-hewn stone had me expecting to find half-crumbling walls and missing roofs. But all of its parts were safely intact. It was a vast departure from the glowing-white palaces of the Loire and more like what I’d seen in the darker forested recesses of Eastern Europe. Periodically, glimpses of the miniature Chateau La Rochepot appeared around hilly bends and over rustic variegated tile rooftops. The chateau’s Dracula-esque appearance only enhanced the brooding atmosphere of the time-stressed village, and I loved how dramatically it contrasted the beautiful wealth of Beaune just a handful of miles away.

As we arrived we were welcomed by a small crumbling parking lot with a lone tour bus and a handful of older travelers meandering back to their transportation. They offered the children a wealth of warm grandparently smiles as we passed. My growing excitement was palpable by this time. At the top of the hill, the path entrance to the chateau was blocked by a chain tied to some splintering posts. I was perplexed. Did they have a private tour? The Chateau was clearly closed and the general disrepair of the whole grounds made me wonder if it was closed permanently. The memory of my itinerary resurfaced and my palm hit my forehead as I realized that the chateau is closed on Tuesdays. I had originally penciled-in a visit for Wednesday. On just the third day I’d made an error of judgement by straying from my extensive pre-trip planning. And it wouldn’t be the last.

Disappointed yet encouraged with thoughts of adventures to come, we returned to the vineyards south of Beaune to continue our exploration. Low in the valley we stumbled on a quaint hamlet called Meursault. It proved to be a wonderful little village with a sizable main square and enough interest to warrant a stretch and a walk. We headed to the local grocery for dinner provisions that we would prepare back at the house and gummy rewards for the children.

So far gummies have been their snack of choice. While I effectively loathe the gummy today, I have a gooey spot in my heart for the gelatinous snack. On my first trip to Europe our family friend and host in Germany, Herta, packed a large bag of gummy bears in the bottom of my sack lunch. I’m stunned to think back at just how thrilled and surprised I was to have such a simple treat. It demonstrates to me the power of simple pleasures and that there might be something special about the European gummy.

There were of course no signs of disappointment when we arrived back at our Bouilland home. The only tears of the day came from Lydia after she concealed herself in some unidentifiable prickly plant during a highly competitive game of hide and seek. But they were short-lived, the sting extinguished with the wipe of a wet cloth. Framed by pink rose bushes Amanda and I watched the competition from the stone patio. We munched on a baguette and meats and cheeses in the low, harsh shadow of the high mountain ridges.

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