Roaming in Beaune
Beaune is revered as the wine capital of France’s burgundy region. Like Langres, the city has existed since Roman times, and saw changes brought about during the Middle Ages, and later the Renaissance. As you can imagine, the city’s economy centers around wine, but it is also becoming increasingly popular with tourists. This was the busiest location on our trip thus far, and the first at which we were asked to pay a small admission fee to see the most popular sights. It was clear that the city had put plenty of their budget into restoring and maintaining its many historic buildings and museums, but the glossiness of the city did not in any way diminish the its distinctive French charm. Despite its rapidly-expanding tourism industry, Beaune remains a city of history, beauty and wonder.
Our first stop (and the primary reason for this day trip) was the Hospices de Beaune, a former hospital for the poor, established in 1443. Guys, I wasn’t kidding when I said this place is rich in history. The hospice was built in response to The Hundred Years War, which left much of the country extremely poor. Today, the hospice functions as a highly informative tourist attraction, offering an inside look at some of the treatment methods, food options and living conditions available to those seeking refuge from their ailments. It is also the home of an annual charity wine auction, which has been in place since 1851. The building is fairly spread out, so we explored in pairs and small groups.
TIP: If you get the chance to visit the Hospices, definitely splurge on the audio guides! The handheld devices are equipped with a wealth of information corresponding to certain exhibits and artifacts. In the kitchen, for example, we were treated to a lengthy explanation of the types of food available and the various tools used to cook everything. It helped to take me back to a very different time, and made the entire experience much more enjoyable.
The hospital has been gorgeously restored and maintained. It’s curators, Nicolas Rolin (chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy) and his wife Guigone de Salins, chose only the finest materials for its original construction, in the hope that their vision would last for centuries…and it has! Many of the rooms house collectibles, paintings, and relics of centuries past.
This gorgeous series of paintings, for example, is located in the Salle Saint-Hugues, a designated room for wealthier tenants. The war may have ravaged the country and left most of its citizens desolate, but some escaped with a fraction of their wealth. This room contained only six beds. Also, check out the creepy fake nurse in her chair!
Remember reading in morbid fascination about the terrifying treatments dreamt up in the Middle Ages? You can see relics of these horrors on display and learn more about how each tool was used. On the left are the tools once used to cure an ordinary headache. Doctors drilled into the head of their patients, believing it would force malicious spirits and demons to abandon their human host. It was also believed that such extreme measures could help to treat epilepsy and mental illness, as well as relieve pressure on the brain.
I think I’ll just stick with Advil.
I don’t want to go into too much detail on the remaining rooms in the hospice. This really is something you should see for yourself! Some of my other favorite rooms included the kitchen and the pharmacy, and the last room in the tour houses The Last Judgement, the world-famous altarpiece created by Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden.
The gift shop at the end of the tour really cemented the fact that we were no longer in a tourist-free zone. In addition to the regular books, post cards, magnets and other touristy items, the shop boasted a selection of best-selling wines, as well as a cellar which housed handmade tapestries. I couldn’t resist picking up a few postcards depicting my favorite spots on the tour!
We ate lunch at Baltard Café, an affordable option where we indulged in pizza. I found it to be a little too heavy on the cheese, but I realize I am one of maybe ten people in the whole world who thinks there is even such a thing as too much cheese, so…I’m sure most people would enjoy it! Lunch was a delightful affair despite the mountains of cheese on our pizzas, and I loved the atmosphere of the restaurant. It was covered in quirky little signs and knick-knacks, and had plenty of natural light coming in from the open door near our table. Dining tip: when you order water with your meal in France, be prepared to specify which bottled brand you would prefer. Tap water is practically nonexistent – even when dining at our grandparents’ home, our drinking water came exclusively from one liter water bottles.
There were plenty of things to do and see in Beaune – they really are capitalizing on their growing identity as a tourist hotspot! We visited the Burgundy Wine Museum for a nominal fee, and took a look at the history of wine in this rich growing region. The exhibits and signage were all in French, and I wasn’t immediately hooked by the first few rooms of farming equipment and early tools. My interest was piqued by a video demonstrating how a barrel is built for storing and aging wine. I guess I just took barrels for granted and never really thought about the effort that coopers must have gone through before the introduction of mass production factories. Subsequent rooms provided a look at various drinking vessels and wine bottles over the centuries, something which I was fascinated by. I loved the airy, wide open rooms and the wooden floorboards, which moaned under our feet as we moved between displays. If you are a wine lover – and especially if you are visiting to see the “wine capital of Burgundy” – make this a must-see stop on your itinerary! If you can speak or read French, even better! I imagine this museum is even more enjoyable if you are able to appreciate the history behind each artifact.
Is it even possible to surpass the beauty of Langres? After strolling around the wall, I doubted I would find a more beautiful city before our journeys took us to Paris at last. And yet, Beaune delivered on that front, with its charming side streets and enticing storefronts. I wanted to stop and have a drink at every other corner cafe, and just sit and soak up the atmosphere for a while.
Before returning to the car, we made a stop at “La basilique Notre Dame de Beaune,” a striking ivory building in the center of town. This building was different than the other buildings and cathedrals we had seen thus far in that its entrance was comprised of several soaring arches, rather than austere towers and a grand front door. It was beautiful. I took tons of photos, but could not quite capture the moment, so I purchased a postcard on my way out the door.
I really do feel that each city we visited in France was even better than the last. Beaune was one of my favorite stops along the way, and I love to look through my photos and reminisce about all the wonderful things this gorgeous city had to offer. With relatively small crowds, plenty of restaurants and attractions, and the perfect balance of old world charm and modern convenience, Beaune is well worth a visit!