Today our river cruise ship is docked in Macon, France in the Burgundy region. The focus in this area is on wine and gastronomy. There are small villages here with four-star restaurants and the fields are filled with vineyards as far as the eye can see.
We started our day with breakfast at our assigned spot in the dining room with waiter service from the buffet. In addition to the many buffet items, they also offer a daily breakfast special. Today it was banana bread. Boris and I decided to give it a try. We were served was a thick wonderful bread, spread with fresh peanut butter, covered in fresh bananas, highlighted with honey, and topped with bacon crumbs. That’s right! It was an Elvis sandwich, the gourmet French variety of course. Rocky would be so proud that we partook.
Today you had the option of the ride to Beaune, France through the beautiful countryside, a tour of the famous Hotel Dieu, and free time in this charming town. Lunch was on your own. For something extra special, you could visit Beaune and then go on to Rully for a wine tasting, lunch, and châteaux tour at the local castle. We chose to add the castle option. Both of these tours required that you were vaccinated. A new policy in France requires that you show proof of vaccination before you can enter most indoor public spaces.
Any unvaccinated guests, could take a city tour of Macon with lunch on the boat. Only twelve guests didn’t take one of the tours into Beaune. I don’t know if they are vaccinated or not, but they missed a special day. Beginning next week, Uniworld is requiring all guests to be fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to their travel.
We had an early departure time at 8:30 a.m. for the hour-long drive to Beaune. The good news is that we were early for the Hotel Dieu tour. A line was already forming, but our prior reservations meant we got to skip the line. After just a brief stop at the Information Center for city maps, we went straight to the beautiful and famous Hotel Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune. Hotel Dieu was the name given in the Middle Ages to hospitals for the poor that were located in urban centers. This particular hospital was built in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins.
“Beaune was coming out of the 100-year war, a period of unrest and plague that decimated the countryside. It was for the poor and the most disadvantaged that this masterpiece inspired by the most outstanding hôtels-Dieu of Flanders and Paris was built.” Office of Tourisme of Beaune Pays Beaunois. Nicolas’ pious wife Guigone urged him to do something to save his soul. The chancellor was a wealthy man and already in his 60s, an old age in the 15th century. The chosen outlet for his gift was a spectacularly beautiful hospital in the city of Beaune, a Palace for the Poor.
Hotel Dieu was classified as a historic monument in 1862. The building continued to serve as a hospital until 1971. In a beautifully ironic twist, portions of the hospital are closed today and not available for touring as the space is being used to administer COVID vaccinations.
The façade is impressive, but once inside the courtyard you see what Beaune’s Hotel Dieu is perhaps best known for, its beautiful and colorful varnished tile roof. Oddly, the main building which is the oldest part of the structure has a slate roof in a uniform color. At that time in history, great wealth could be demonstrated by the quality of your roof and slate was considered the most expensive and therefore the most desirable material. We took some time to enjoy the courtyard and this wonderful setting. The polychrome roofs made for wonderful photographs, probably even better later in the day when hit by the full sun.
Next, we went inside the main hall with its 28 curtained beds lining the two long sides of the room. At the far end of The Great Hall of the Poor is the chapel. If they couldn’t restore your health, at least they could address your soul. The Great Hall is a huge space. Because of the foul air associated with illness, a large open space with windows was deemed best. Of course, this isolation was ruined by the fact that the beds were right next to each other and they put anywhere from 1-4 people in each bed. The large room was also very difficult to heat and never got above 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter so the patients would huddle together (and even closer to one experiencing fever) and then close their curtains further confining the germs.
The main hall also has the carved heads and faces of local dignitaries next to a carving of an animal they resembled. Who would want to be placed next to the carved pig? The patients probably got a good laugh when they looked up. The hall’s chapel is also very lovely. The chancellor died first and was buried in the family crypt, but his wife, who found great joy and fulfillment at the hospital, asked to be buried in the Hotel Chapel. The tile floor, added later, features individual tiles in a design intertwining the initials of the founding couple.
The opulence of the Great Hall of the Poor is striking and the poor who came here probably never experienced such luxury before. Outside of the hall, we toured more patient spaces, some richly decorated with fewer beds. We visited the Saint-Anne Room and the Saint-Hugh Room. The Saint-Nicolas Room where the straw model, medical objects, and costumes are displayed was closed to the public today. When the Sun King, Louis XIV, visited Beaune’s hotel Dieu, he was horrified that the men and women slept in the same room. He decreed they must be separated and thereafter the richly appointed spaces were reserved only for men.
We also made a stop in the hospital kitchen out of which not only the patients were served, but the community. Free bread was handed out to all the citizens. In the Middle Ages, the bread was used first as a plate or bowl and then as sustenance. We made a stop in the laboratory where equipment used to produce the medicine was on display. The medicine was probably initially brought in, but over time the sisters who staffed the facility learned how to make the medicines and took over this responsibility. The laboratory was connected to the pharmacy where the jar of Dragon’s Blood was the highlight. As the guide suggested, it might have been right out of Harry Potter. For the record, there is apparently a Dragon bush or tree in France that the substance comes from.
Our final stop in the Hotel Dieu was through the Saint-Louis Room to see the altar screen that the chancellor and his wife commissioned from Flemish artist Rogier Van der Weyden to adorn the chapel. The polyptych of the Last Judgement is housed in a separate, temperature-controlled room. In the closed position, the screen is mostly in black and white, but when opened (as it was on Sundays) a very colorful scene of the Last Judgment was revealed. As a judged soul, you definitely wanted to be headed to the left side and the beautiful golden castle, rather than the fiery right side.
After the tour we were given free time to explore the town. Boris and I first found an ATM machine to get cash in Euros. We have found the best exchange rates through ATMs rather than the exchange shops and kiosks in major cities or airports. We wandered through the town and made a stop at the Romanesque Church, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Beaune. “Despite its relatively modest size, [the cathedral] is one of the last great Romanesque churches in Burgundy.” Trip Advisor.
Knowing we were going to a tasting and lunch directly after our visit in Beaune, we didn’t bother with a café. It was Monday morning and most of the shops were closed, which is typical. It is also August and many French shop owners close during this month to take their own vacation. We found ourself at the square near our meeting point and sat down and watched the children enjoying the carousel. We have seen carousels in many French villages and towns on this trip and well as on other visits to France. I got a kick out of hearing songs from Disney’s The Jungle Book movie being sung in French as the carousel made its rounds.
Beaune is also famous for its annual wine auction held annually on the third Sunday in November. 85% of the premier crus and grand crus sold at this auction come from the 60 hectares of wine estate associated with the Hotel Dieu. Gifts of vineyards to support the Hospices de Beaune were being made as early as 1457. Christie’s auction house now organizes and runs the sale, considered the “most famous wine charity auction in the world.” Proceeds support the Hotel Dieu. Office of Tourisme of Beaune Pays Beaunois.
From Beaune, we made our way through the countryside passing field after field of vineyards and the occasional restorative sunflower field. Our destination was the hamlet of Rully for our lunch and castle visit. The Count de Rully welcomed us into his home and wine estate. We made a photo stop just before our arrival so we could take pictures of the castle, as it appeared from this vantage point. A castle is a military structure. Many were later converted into residences, as this one was. In France, a structure of this type used as a residence is called a chateau. The structure at Rully was at one time a castle and is now a chateau. Rully also has the distinction of being a wine estate. I asked the Count and he shared that Rully Castle has never been attacked.
The castle once had a ten-foot dry moat surrounding the perimeter and a drawbridge. You could still see the hinges for the drawbridge that was removed by the Count’s great grandfather. Once inside the courtyard, we were greeted by the rather young and unassuming Count de Rully, Raoul de Ternary. He is very personable. He is married with three young sons. His eleven-year-old is slated to be the next count. He struck me as rather impoverished. The French government gives no assistance for the upkeep of the estate, so the Count offers meals, tours, and receptions to maintain the structure which dates from the 1190s.
His estate includes vineyards and we went first to the wine cellar where we sampled two of his chardonnay wines. The first is produced by a collective whether the local growers share their good, but not the top-rated grapes. About 10% of the grapes in this wine came from his estate. It was a light, fruity, and rather drinkable wine. These grapes were often machine picked and fermented in metal containers. The second sample was of his grand cru. These grapes are hand-picked from a small plot on his estate just behind the chateaux. Regionally, they do not want a very oaky chardonnay, so the aging is done in second- or third-year-old oak barrels.
The wine tasting was followed by lunch in the converted former stables, still sporting some of the estate’s old carriages and family portraits. It was a very tasty lunch of beef bourguignon, a potato casserole, fresh bread, and the estate’s pinot noir. I did not care for the wine, but the food was excellent. Dessert was a beautiful apple tart.
We finished our estate visit with a tour of some of the historic family rooms. The castle was started back in the 12th century, beginning with the towers. The towers were originally the only portions of the castle where anyone lived. The castle eventually expanded to four towers and two courtyards. The ramparts are still in place. The chateau has 40 rooms, including 20 bedrooms. However, heating is an expensive exercise, so the count only maintains a portion of the rooms. On the tour you won’t see the spaces the family currently lives in. Instead, you tour the ground floors rooms including the main sitting room or salon, the large dining room, the billiards room (designed to be used only by the men), a small library which served as the family chapel, the ladies’ boudoir (or gossip room for the ladies), and the oldest section of the chateau which housed the original kitchen.
In each room, there are many family portraits and paintings by family members. The Count can trace his lineage back for 46 generations. The family’s last name has changed over the years. If there was no male heir, the female heiress married and took on her husband’s name. The current family name is De Ternary as it has been for the last three generations. In one room the Count pointed out the portrait of the chateau’s lady, Marie Fernand de Vaudrey. The Count de Rully described her as “the most important woman in the family’s history other than his wife”. She was the mother of 14 children. Already a widow at the time of the French Revolution, she was beloved by the community. As nobility, she was imprisoned only briefly during the revolution. It was the local community that petitioned for her release. Because the family was able to survive through this period, the title is preserved to this day.
The last stop on the tour was the chateau’s kitchen that was part of the original structure. The kitchen was last renovated in the 1800s when a new tile floor was installed and an oven made its first appearance. This was still the only kitchen in use when the Count was a boy. Today they have a modern kitchen. The Count said the castle does have a cellar, but he has no idea where to access it. He suspects that the trapdoor is under the kitchen’s tile floor.
You could purchase postcards with the castle’s recipes printed on them. The Count also sold his estate wine. I got a bottle of the grand cru chardonnay. The Count de Rully signed the bottle for me. I enjoyed the visit, mostly for the reality check on what surviving nobility live like.
We drove back to Macon through the lovely vineyards. The ship sails tonight from Macon and returns to Lyon for some touring there when we will be more rested than on our arrival day in Lyon. Just before arriving at the ship, the guide made a few announcements including that my suitcase had arrived at the ship. I gave out a cry of joy. Natasha will be dressing in style for the Captain’s Welcome Reception tonight. Never have I ever been so happy to forgo a nap in order to unpack my suitcase. More adventures in Burgundy and Provence (in clean clothes) to come.