Burgundy Beckons and Instructs
Rural region offers much of what the world - and the French - love best about France
BEFORE they took on the French in last year's transatlantic cultural trade wars, Mickey Kantor and Jack Valenti would have done well to visit a wind-swept hillside near the village of Alesia in the heart of the French province of Burgundy.Skip to next paragraph
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Atop the hill towers a bronze statue of Vercingetorix, the Gallic leader who led his people from the site into battle against Julius Caesar's fast-encroaching legions. Around the statue's base are carved the words that history has lent him and which have inspired French chauvinism since: ``A united Gaul forming a single nation, animated by the same spirit, can defy the universe.''
Had the chief trade negotiator for the United States and the president of the Motion Picture Association of America made the pilgrimage to the site where imperial Rome defeated the Gauls in 52 BC, they might have saved themselves an exasperating confrontation over movie and video trade by learning all over again the lesson an unsuspecting Caesar taught the world: While you might win a battle with the French, you are never going to win the war.
When my wife and I recently brought our two small children from Paris for a weekend in Burgundy, it was not with any conquest in mind, but rather to surrender to the charms of a region that offers so much of what the world loves best about France.
And surrender we did. Looking out from the vantage point of Vercingetorix over the Burgundian hills and valleys all around, one gets a glimpse of what the French are fighting for when they confront the homogenizing effects of international trade in the name of another way of life.
Here is land that for more than 2,000 years has been tilled and cleared, where rocks have been gathered to build walls and ramparts and farmhouses so grand in their simplicity they can take your breath away. From this patchwork of green and brown fields, cut up in a variety of geometric shapes by centuries-old hedgerows, comes the bounty of produce that is the basis for the varied and tantalizing French cuisine. And here, too, during the last thousand years, stones have been cut and carved to raise up some of the greatest edifices in Christendom.
One of the principal interests of Burgundy for the Parisian is its combination of proximity and rural, often wooded, beauty. The ancient duchy of Burgundy, which at its height in the 15th century held lands as far away as Flanders, Luxembourg, and much of the Netherlands, today is primarily associated with Dijon, its capital, and the surrounding regions. For our weekend, we concentrated on an area closest to Paris.
Within three hours of leaving our seventh-floor apartment, our bags were in the Mansard room of our country inn and we were walking beside the rain-swelled stream whose sound would lull us to sleep each night.
It was this stream, the diminutive Cousin River, that became the focal point of our Burgundy weekend for our 3 1/2-year-old boy. ``Rushing water'' he dubbed it, and still calls it. Never mind that we visited such treasures as the basilica of Vezelay and the Abbey of Fontenay, both inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List of sites with universal value for mankind. It was to ``rushing water'' that he always begged to return.
Perhaps he was simply responding the same way young sea turtles do, when they return to the same sandy beach on which they crawled as hatchlings. We had first explored the forested and rock-walled stretch of the Cousin Valley from Avallon to Pontaubert in August 1990, when our boy was just two weeks old.
Then we had eaten at an old mill and farm transformed in 1924 into a hotel-restaurant, ``Le Moulin des Ruats.'' Won over by the setting, we had vowed to return for a stay. And so we did, but as a family of four, having added a little girl to our band.
When we finally ventured from ``rushing water,'' we started at Vezelay, a medieval hilltop village renowned for its 12th-century Romanesque basilica, from which Saint Bernard had preached the second Crusade. The 800-year-old Sainte Madeleine Basilica, with its varied and Bible-story-telling column capitals, and its magnificent, well-preserved tympanum over the central doors, is indeed a wonder.