We left Burgundy via the now very familiar and wonderful D974 – la route des grands crus – and onto the D981, studiously avoiding all signs to the motorway and la route de soleil, remaining steadfastly on the right bank of first the Saône and ultimately the Rhône, as the valley widens and the Côte d’Or recedes.
As we tootled south through the french countryside towards Taizé, home of that great twentieth century monastic renewal, we drove past church after church bearing the signature romanesque architecture of the great monastic movement based at Cluny. In the tenth century this originally benedictine community redefined its purpose and its work, and became hugely influential throughout Europe.
Cluny suffering a minor eclipse when the religious community of Cîteaux only 100 km to the north embarked on its massive expansion in the 1300s. Within 30 years there were large communities scattered all over Europe : think Rievaulx, Byland, Tintern. By 1350, these Cistercian communities owned and worked (sheep, largely) 25% of English farm land. (See Robert Winder’s brilliant The Last Wolf for that back story and The Plot by Madeleine Bunting on the powerhouses that were Rievaulx and Byland)
It all started here – southern Burgundy – and their legacy still graces the landscape.
Fleurie was our lunch destination, aware that the very rural Beaujolais appellation might not be well furnished with restaurants. The humid weather had given way to bright clear skies and serious heat. We made it into the town’s main hostelry, a bar next to the main church (which unlike so many we had seen, was open for business that Sunday) shortly before the menu board was hauled in, around 13.30. The house Fleurie was true to type; the salade composée simple.
Onwards, south, via Morgon, and the little matter of Lyon. There was no avoiding this third largest city of France which has the A6 and the A7 go right through its middle. The Saône and Rhône converge, the motorway crosses and recrosses as it snakes between them, ducking under tunnels and over elaborate flyovers.
As soon as possible we reverted to the D86 hugging the right bank of the huge river Rhône, so vital a part of communication and transport since roman times. On through St Romain-en-Gal (with handsome Vienne gracing the other bank) which we visited a couple of days later in a non-vinous holiday moment. The roman musuem is awesome; built on the site of this ancient urban hub.
The mosaics were breath-taking; now displayed only metres from where they were laid at the very start of the common era. Their designs were deeply influenced by roman craftsmen trained in Africa.
The colours, the skill, the artistry…. don’t miss the Musée Gallo-Romain….but do give its reataurant a miss. It has the best view in town of the river and Vienne, but the food was overwhelming. A sort of french version of all you can eat…
From St Romain-en-Gal the N86 leads directly south running along the extraordinary Côte Rôtie with its mind-bendingly steep slopes, and on to Condrieu. We arrived in the early evening of Sunday. It was alarmingly quiet; no bars, no restaurants, no people.
Condrieu has seen better days, and its gentrification is yet to begin though the vandal stage of development seems well-established. Our chambre d’hôte – strangely named MT1937 – has had serious attention lavished on it, and our hosts were assiduous in their welcome, though not for the first time we were treated to quirky art of a slightly disturbing kind. (Lips and mouths not dissimilar to heart valves… or worse..)
Here we had to fall back for the first time on our school french, which collapsed with embarassing frequency into slightly better italian. We weren’t entirely surprised that all the restaurants bar one in this small, unprepossessing town were closed on Sundays. The evening stroll along the cycle paths was enhanced by the strong valley winds, though shabby Condrieu was not inspiring. The hotel Beau Rivage, with its riverside views of passing barges, offered an expensive Gourmand menu, with accompanying local wines. It is a measure of the quality of the wines we now routinely taste that these were disappointing. The wasps – guêpes – detained the waiters more than their guests. We walked back in the warm dusk to the MT1937 past a bright new build which turned out to be the new hospital. Duly noted…..
The next evening, after an exhaustive search, this time avoiding the huge and depressing cemetery and the high walls at the top of town, we confirmed what we feared: Monday is another jour de repose, and this time only the Sushi bar was open. Grateful for that, nevertheless, we took our food to the pleasant garden of the MT 1937 clutching a bottle of Condrieu purchased at the only shop open – an alternative holistic vegetarian outlet. Our fellow guests were middle-aged cyclists who had set off from Switzerland to cycle the Rhône. It was hot; they and their sturdy heavy bikes laden with water and panniers planned another 60 km tomorrow. Made me feel very feeble….
Despite the lack of air-conditioning we slept well in our under the roof apartment with windows wide open to create a through draught. The Rhone wind makes all the difference. The stormy weather had given way to bright continuous sunshine, for which the vine growers were deeply grateful after a wet May and rampant mildew.