We came to live in France for six weeks in the Burgundy countryside with idyllic thoughts of drinking wonderful wines, shopping the markets so we could cook with local ingredients, and enjoying our days living life as locals.
Burgundy was to be the last half of the European leg of our four month sabbatical, a place to stop for a while, unpack and slow down. We’d been on the move for the previous six weeks, living in London, Paris, Oslo, Amsterdam and Belgium, which, even writing those words, just blows my mind. I’m a kid from the farmlands of Missouri. I don’t even know how I got here. But time compressed in those locations at a shocking speed. Everyone knows that vacations are that way. You head out thinking ten days sounds like forever, and before you know it, you’re back at work. But three months seemed like a summer vacation, the kind that stretches out forever when you’re a kid.
Not the case! We have less than two weeks remaining in our European odyssey, and thoughts of suitcases and logistics are already creeping back into our minds, especially since there’s a magnum of champagne that Bruce fully intends to bring home! I couldn’t help but notice that there are suitcases for sale at the Intermarche, the French version of your local grocery store of choice.
Bruce says I tend to lament. Would of, could of, should of. I suppose I’ve always done that to a certain extent, comparing alternatives, what are the best options, what are the things we must see. And while I’m an extreme planner, I didn’t lay down that many plans for Burgundy, which has surprised him. He’s used to arriving in a city, and I tell him everything there is to see and do, like one of those guides, droning on and on during a bus tour. But this was far too big of a journey to plan things out “in 15 minutes increments” as he likes to say.
So France for me has been a series of unexpected and extraordinary experiences. Certainly I read about the major regional sites, and I naively thought we’d have time to take adventures far and wide, such as a couple of days down to southern France to Grasse, the International Perfume Capital, or even down to the Dordogne region, about five hours south of here. As it turns out, there’s no way! There is so much history, even 100 years from us, that we’re having a hard time getting much beyond our own back yard, especially with a view of the city walls beautifully lit at night, and nearly two dozen ducks visiting our riverside home daily, quacking for handouts!
I guess I didn’t expect to be so enthralled with all of the ancient history, which seems counter intuitive, since we landed in a rental house right in the middle of a medieval city, Semur en Auxois. I actually googled “Middle Ages” and “Medieval” last weekend for an extended history lesson. True fact. Who hasn’t heard of the Middle Ages, but when you grow up in a country where history is only really marked by the last 250 or so years, the concept of things still existing from the 5th century to the 15th century, until you actually see them, is just a concept. Some vague recollection from a chapter in a history book when you were 16 years old, or from religion class in parochial school when you were 8 years old.
But here, that history and those structures are alive and well. People live in these ancient buildings, they work in them, they restore and preserve them. Every single town you drive through is an enchanting mix of fountains, war memorials, and vine covered stone buildings often with a portal above the door containing the blessed virgin, set amidst narrow, winding, cobbled lanes. Villages compete for the title of “Most Beautiful Village in France”, or “Flower Village”. The Ministry of French Cultural Affairs has filled the highways with large historical markers letting you know what the towns along the way are all about. Coming from a culture that tears down and rebuilds constantly, this is a revelation.
Our own rental, according to our local language teacher, sits in the heart of the oldest part of the city. That’s saying something since Semur’s Notre Dame Cathedral dates back to the 12th century. But our exterior walls are measured in feet, and the house is supported by massive wooden beams more than a foot tall, which are shaved out a little in places, for people to walk under. If I have one real lament, it’s that my 6’7″ husband has to duck constantly through this house, but we both agree, we wouldn’t change a thing, with our view of the ancient ramparts and fortress towers.
I took a long drive up to the town of Chaource a couple of weeks ago to see a sculpture I’d read about, located in the crypt of the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Known as “The Entombment of Christ”, this was perhaps the most beautiful sculpture I’ve ever seen in my life. The unbearable pain on Mary’s face was extraordinary. It is not known for a fact who sculpted this marvel, known only as the Maitre de Chaource, although some scholars point to sculptor Jacques Bachot. Being alone in the church and with this sculpture, I fully spent over a half hour down there marveling at the beauty of this magnificent life size work.
On another day, I visited the Abbaye of Fonteney, the most intact and preserved Cistercian Monastery in all of Europe. The Abbaye is an entire complex of buildings, covered in russet vines as fall arrives here in central France. Again, I found myself alone, wandering along dirt floors within the towering church, and through the cloisters where monks lived and prayed for centuries. The Abbaye is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is mostly for tourists. It’s a thing of beauty, and I felt privileged to visit.
When we were planning a trip to Spain last year, I read a lot about the “Way of St. James”, which is an ancient religious pilgrimage trail, crossing many parts of Europe, coalescing in Northern Spain, where there is one path, east to west, crossing the entire country, to reach Santiago de Compostela, a massive cathedral and the burial place of St. James. Pilgrims have walked these trails for centuries in search of spiritual atonement and religious enlightenment. I can’t imagine it really. I’m lucky to lug my way up into town here, let alone to walk across France and Spain. As it turns out, the pilgrim trails and Christian relics for parts of the French routes are all within an hour or less from us.
My husband will tell you that if there is a cathedral within reach of any town we visit, that I have to stop and ponder, walk through and take pictures. And he would be correct. By right of marriage, he has seen some of the greatest cathedrals in the world from Rome to Paris to London, and now rural France. Perhaps it’s my Catholic heritage, but I’m enthralled with the history embedded in these old churches and cathedrals. Throughout the ages, many, if not most of a town’s artisans, masons, carpenters and money were put into building and maintaining these massive, beautiful structures, sometimes taking centuries to build. They have survived wars, revolutions, pillage, neglect, restoration, and other tests of time.
When my sister Deb and her partner Lori visited our first week here, we went to the Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene in Vezelay, a ponderously beautiful, powerful, towering stone cathedral, and former monastery. As we wandered through, whispering in awe at the scale and beauty, Deb and I had one of those sister moments, like we just couldn’t believe we were there. Down in the crypt are the relics of Mary Magdalene, so we quietly made our way down and back up, as individuals sat huddled in prayer and contemplation.
On another day, Bruce and I visited Autun, a former Roman fortification, with town walls and the ruins of an amphitheater dating back to the first century. That’s 1st Century, the time of Caesar Augustus!! Seriously incredible. Climbing way up a hill in the city like pilgrims before, we reached the Cathedral of St. Lazarus, reported to house his relics. There are varying accounts of how his relics wound up there, as the brother of Mary Magdalene, including the fact that town leaders realized that Vezelay was making a lot of money so they built their cathedral on the pilgrim route. Regardless, the church was magnificent with splendid sculptures on the capitals that support the vaulted ceiling. I felt a great sense of peace in that church.
Most recently, and perhaps most profoundly, we took a long drive through the Morvan National Park to the city of Nevers, also on the pilgrimage route, which houses the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette, formerly of Lourdes. In the mid 1800’s, Bernadette had 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in the grotto at Lourdes during which time a spring spontaneously sprung up at the site, which continues to flow to this day. There are 69 confirmed cases of inexplicable healing amidst the millions of sick who visit the site annually. As one might imagine, there was a lot of pressure and political infighting amongst city officials on what to do about the situation, so Bernadette eventually made her way to a convent in Nevers, where she lived to the young age of 35, succumbing to asthma and tuberculosis.
Thirty years after her death, the Catholic Church decided a Beautification was in order, so they exhumed her remains, finding her body completely intact, or as its known, “incorruptible”. They placed her back in the grave for 10 years, only to find her in the same state. They removed small relics from her body for Lourdes, and placed her in a crystal coffin in the church at Nevers, where she has lain undisturbed since 1925. Her outer skin had suffered a little from the washings they had done to her body after exhumation, so they hired a French artist to place a very thin film of wax on her face and hands. Otherwise, her body remains intact to this day.
Not being the summer pilgrim season, we had some time to sit near her, just the two of us alone for a little while. It was beautiful, peaceful and miraculous to see her lying there as she has for decades. We watched The Song of Bernadette, the other night after my friend reminded me of the old 1943 film. Hers is a remarkable story. I did a little research and found there are a few incorruptible saints in existence such as St. Vincent de Paul, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Cecilia.
I think it will be a long time before I fully absorb and realize all that I have been privileged to see and do. Yes, we’ve had lots of wonderful Burgundy wines, and we have shopped and cooked the local markets. We’ve taken a few French lessons with a local language instructor living in an old convent across the road from us. We’ve visited Roman Ruins, a Burgundy Truffle Festival, toured the Museum of Beaux Arts in Dijon, and wandered the fairytale streets of the village and Castle of Chateauneuf.
And so, without a lot of planning, I have found myself on a pilgrimage through time and place, amidst countless reminders of war, religion, and miracles, in the most beautiful and ancient of settings in the French countryside.
Lorie McMillin, Burgundy, France, October 2013