Burgundy by high speed rail

It’s early afternoon and, as the TGV high speed train descends through a cutting into the Ouche valley, Lake Kir shimmers in the spring sun.

Minutes later, little more than five hours after leaving London, I’m arriving in Dijon, the jumping off point for a short stay in Burgundy, arguably France’s finest wine region.

The nearest French airport to Dijon with direct flights from the UK is almost two hours away by road so, in addition to the ‘green’ considerations, travelling by train is the quickest and most comfortable way of reaching Burgundy.

My high speed train journey comprises a two hour ride on Eurostar to Paris’s Gare du Nord, a short cross city hop on the RER green line to the Gare de Lyon, and then a one and three quarter hour trip on the TGV through typically bucolic French countryside to Dijon.

Burgundy is as much an idea as a place. Created as a kind of buffer state between what is now France and Germany, its dukes allied themselves to and against France until the province was finally drawn into the French state in the 15th century.

Dijon is that rarity – a city large enough to be interesting, but small enough to explore on foot. From my base at Hotel Le Jura I was able to explore everywhere without resorting to taxis or public transport.

The town is made for walking and you can simplify this further by following a marked ‘Owl Trail.’ It begins at the tourist office in Place Darcy and takes you, via owl symbols on the pavement, to 22 key sites in the town.

The origin of the symbol comes from the stone owl found on a buttress outside Nôtre Dame Church. For centuries, passers-by have touched the bird with their left hand to make a wish. Mine was that the owl would arrange for a case of the finest Burgundy to magically appear in my room back at the hotel but, sadly, it didn’t materialise…

On a busy day I visited St Bénigne’s Cathedral, a fine example of the flamboyant Gothic and Romanesque styles of architecture, whose eerie crypt contains the remains of a 2nd century sarcophagus, and the Palais des Ducs, the imposing home of the once-powerful dukes of Burgundy which now houses the town’s finest museum, Le Musée des Beaux Arts.

In between there are chances to sample Burgundian specialities – all manner of different mustards (what else in Dijon?) as well as gingerbread (originally from China, apparently) and, of course, wine.

With gastronomy at the heart of the region’s culture, there is no shortage of places to test your taste buds. I ate memorable Burgundian fare at L’Epicerie & Cie and La Dame d’Aquitaine and enjoyed French/Oriental fusion food at L’O, in the city’s market area.

The following day again dawned bright and sunny, which was just as well since I’d booked to travel by train to Beaune and then go on a 17-kilometer cycle ride through the vineyards to Puligny-Montrachet.

Burgundy by bike is a beguiling concept. With no steep hills to negotiate and travelling à vélo along quiet by-roads, often along routes used by the growers to bring the grapes back to the village, you get the best possible view of the countryside. The most difficult part of the adventure is finding your way out of Beaune.

Once on the marked trail, you’re treated to the Burgundy countryside at its very best – gently rolling hills and vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. The names of the villages en route read as if taken from a Burgundy wine catalogue… Pommard and Volnay, Mersault and Puligny-Montrachet.

It was at Puligny-Montrachet that I met Olivier Leflaive, whose family have been making wine here for more than three centuries.

M.Leflaive has expanded the business so visitors can take in a wine tasting and enjoy a gastronomic lunch in the restaurant of the 13-room hotel he recently opened in the heart of the village. Just don’t count on getting back on your bike afterwards…

Back in Beaune, there was time to cast an admiring eye over the Hospices of Beaune, the jewel in the crown of the town’s architecture.

Somewhat austere on the outside, inside it is bathed in colour and light and the roof is covered with brightly painted glazed tiles. The hospice was founded in 1443 as a hospital for the poor and needy of Beaune and the surrounding region and was used for this purpose until relatively recently.

Beaune is a more intimate town than Dijon with many characterful places to stay, like the family-run Hotel Belle Epoque in rue du Faubourg Bretonnière, where the rooms are comfortable and the welcome warm.

Come to think of it, Burgundy is full of the things we all appreciate on holiday in France –stimulating history, fine scenery and, of course, superb food and wine.

Factfile: Rail Europe offers travel from London to Dijon. To book visit www.burgundybyrail.co.uk, call 0844 848 4070 or call into the Rail Europe Travel Centre at 1 Regent Street, London SW1.

Tim Ware