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.

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.

Architectural treasures

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.

Innovators criticized

Vezelay is now known as ``the eternal hill,'' but walking its streets one gets the impression that all is not well here. Many shops are either empty or carry ``lease available'' signs. Small gardens are overgrown.

``We're all for preserving the old rocks, but now it's time to work on bringing this village to life before it's too late,'' says Marie Line Guyard. She and her husband, Philippe, are developing a small winery in the centuries-old underground galleries below their Vezelay home.

Vezelay receives more than a half-million tourists a year, but most come from July to October and stay only long enough to visit the basilica. In a village where nearly 30 percent of the dwellings within the medieval walls are vacant, one might expect young entrepreneurs like the Guyards to be local heroes. Instead, they have been criticized for an activity that one national weekly sniffed was ``almost industrial'' in this museum town.

``We've dug out tons of dirt and brought these old rooms to life again,'' says Mr. Guyard, pointing to the underground chambers where religious pilgrims once slept. During the upheaval and destruction of 14th-century religious wars, the rooms had been filled in. ``We'd like to think our children could have a future here.'' If anything, though, the town's view of the project is worsening, he says.

Some 40 country-road miles away is another hilltop medieval village, this one with no expectations of ever being anything but a museum and summertime home for Parisians and other ``foreigners'' - including a few Americans, we were told. At Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, our off-season visit to the narrow streets with their strikingly preserved facades hardly musters a cat.

But as in many French villages, activity takes place just behind the walls. ``La Grange'' is an old farmhouse on the church square that was converted a decade ago into a self-service restaurant featuring local products and home cooking.

Cafe's one concession

Monique Laffage is preparing for the restaurant's 1994 season. ``Right now, Flavigny is quite dead,'' she says. ``But as soon as there's a ray of sunshine, the people come out, and in summer we're very busy.'' Her chickens, rabbits, turkeys, game hens, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and desserts were once featured on the Grange's menu. Now she's semi-retired, but 10 other women keep the restaurant's stainless-steel counters full of their dishes.

``We only use ingredients that we ourselves grow or raise. So, for example, you won't find any lemon tart,'' says Marie-Fancoise Couthier, who specializes in ``naked neck'' chickens and rabbits with fur as red as an Irish girl's hair. The one non-native concession? ``We do use chocolate, because it's been used in the region for a long time,'' she says.

Not far from Flavigny, nestled in quiet woods, is Fontenay, the famed Cistercian abbey. Founded by Saint Bernard in the 12th century as a response to the ostentation and worldliness of Burgundy's other grand abbey, Cluny, Fontenay is a consecration to simplicity and order.

It's easy here, discovering the perfectly preserved cloisters, contemplating the ``scriptorium'' - the only room where the monks were allowed heat (not for their comfort, but so the ink they used wouldn't freeze) - or walking the stark gardens, to lose oneself in reverie of how life must have been in another time.

That's often the way one feels while driving the small farm roads or visiting the myriad monuments of northwestern Burgundy, from Sens to the medieval city of Semur-en-Auxois.

We brought along a small boy to bring his parents back to 20th-century Earth. ``Look, Dad! It's Mickey Mouse!'' he exclaimed, pointing down at a cafe-au-lait-colored rain puddle, to which two smaller puddles were attached as ``ears.''

There, indeed, in the Fontenay earth was a perfect outline of imperial America's universe-conquering mouse. What would Saint Bernard - or, for that matter, Vercingetorix - think of that?

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