One of the best things about living an unsettled existence is that you end up with friends who live all over the world and are often similarly unsettled. This means… lots of mutual travel mooching! You crash with them, they crash with you, and everybody has a travel party.
A friend I met through TAPIF has returned to France this summer to lead pricy luxury bicycle tours in Burgundy. She lives in a house with other tour leaders in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere and helps guide week-long trips around the region. Last week, she had time off, and invited this lucky duck to fly out (OK, take a six-and-a-half hour, multi-train journey) to Les Boonies for rent-free relaxing, hiking, and playing with expensive bikes.
The heart and essence of France is not Paris, it’s the cultivated countryside. It’s turned-over soil and dumb-eyed cows and tidy houses with light blue shutters. It’s yellow fields and stone bridges and rolling hills, roaring tractors and massive harvesters and bales of hay. Though the climate and topography vary, much of France’s landscape is open farmland dotted with church steeples, each one presiding over its own dense little (little) village. Even when you’re hiking in what feels like wilderness, you’re rarely truly isolated because civilization is within walking distance (and sometimes sight). French professionals often retreat to the campagne for vacations (it’s so common that just about every other French movie revolves a group of adult friends hanging out in the countryside, drinking and telling each other what they’ve really been thinking all these years; there’s no shortage of holiday rentals.
In the most rustic, sparsely populated villages, though, residents sometimes seem astonished to come across a stranger. My friend is based in one such town, called Vault-de-Lugny, home to just a few hundred people. It has ONE store (a small “bio”a.k.a. organic grocery), a gentle river named Le Cousin (more like an ambling puddle), an impressive château (complete with moat into which a drowsy mailman is rumored to have driven his van a few weeks ago) and one resident who careens through the fields in a pick-up truck shooting wild boar (small towns…) Like most communities in France, it also has a mairie (town hall), a mindblowingly old church no one seems to notice, a war memorial, and a few houses with lovely flower boxes. Most important to my friend and me, the GR13, one of the long national hiking paths, dips into Vault-de-Lugny on its way through Bourgogne (the tastier-sounding French word for Burgundy).
This was the plan: hike the GR13 from Vault-de-Lugny to Vézelay, a hill town famous for its abbey/basilica, and back. We’re both pretty vigorous hikers and it looked like a total distance of about 15 miles– piece of gâteau!
Our hike started off like gangbusters– in fact, we made it all the way to Vézelay without incident. We crossed shining expanses of wheat and hay and patches of thick shady forest on our way through part of the very northwestern appendage of the Morvan National Park.
It was a mostly well-blazed path (famous last words) and we soon found ourselves in Vézelay, checking out the basilica and eating sandwiches from a shop on the sloped main street of the town. I liked Vézelay – it’s obviously a tourist town, but the stores weren’t kitschy, most of them featuring local products and strange odds and ends rather than a monotony of plastic junk.
Cocky from our easy victory, we started back toward Vault-de-Lugny, the sun now high in the sky and the temperature somewhere around 95 degrees (Fahrenheit– excuse me, I’m American). We continued to admire the quaint farmland views…
…but after a while we realized they were the wrong ones– we’d missed a turn. We were really starting to broil, so to avoid backtracking up a big hill we decided to detour and return to Vault-de-Lugny by the nearby road. The thing about signage in France, especially on trails, is that there is no guarantee of consistency. Long stretches of high detail and clarity lull you into a false sense of security; you think the trail’s got your back and won’t let you down. And then suddenly the trail is MIA and you’re standing in cow shit.
Our smartphones (I know, cheaters!) assured us that the road was a straight shot to Vault-de-Lugny, and we congratulated ourselves for getting back on track so quickly. Less than an hour later, we were- you guessed it- standing in shit. Somehow the road had petered out into cow/sheep pasture high on a hill. The only good thing about this was that it gave us a clear vantage point on the surrounding area, and we were able to identify the roof of the château, which we’d somehow overshot…by a lot. We decided the best and easiest thing to do would be to keep the château in sight and head toward it as the crow flies, through the fields.
What followed was a sweaty, desperate scramble down the hill through fields enclosed by barbed wire fences, swinging gates, tall thorn hedges, and flimsy wooden boards. The ground was covered in holes, many varieties of shit, and some kind of stinging nettle. We jumped over some fences and slid under others, readjusting our course every time it started to deviate from a beeline to the château. At one point we ended up in a dry, rocky stream bed, poking our way over rotten branches and big loose rocks, through clouds of gnats.
When we finally emerged onto the road, we were covered in dirt and burrs and our skin was rising in red welts from the thorns and nettles and whatever other angry plant we’d trudged through. Less than 100 feet down the road was a yellow sign indicating the GR13, and I think I heard it laughing Frenchly.
We passed the bio store on the way back through town and I, driven to madness by our rugged off-roading and having finished the last drop of my sun-heated water more than an hour before, immediately spent an outlandish 6 euros on beverages.
It was 100 degrees out the next day, but we’d learned our lesson: we kept our bicycle ride short and sweet. I rode the fanciest bike I’ve ever ridden in my life, which glided along the road like a shark through water (I too, had to keep pedaling or die). We looped about 15-20 miles just outside of Beaune, then ditched the bikes and wandered around town. Beaune is known primarily as a center for buying and selling wine, but has some architectural and social landmarks, as well. We didn’t explore these very thoroughly because it was so hot.
Before returning to Vault-de-Lugny, we drove a short way into the world-famous vineyards that grow in a corridor from Dijon to Santenay. This corridor is known as the Route des Grands Crus (Grand Cru being a distinction for top-notch wine) and it’s a major tourist draw. Each wine district is marked along the road and even the wine-ignorant (me) can recognize some of these names.
We finished off the day with a free, chilled bottle of Chablis (another of my friend’s work perks), enjoyed outside as the dusk fell and the country birds chirped. From slithering under barbed wire to clinking glasses of fine wine: not too shabby a trip trajectory.