The picturesque little city of Beaune, nestled in the fertile green vineyards of Burgundy, is a handy home base for exploring the region. While the surrounding area holds tiny hamlets and ruined abbeys, I’ve found Beaune to be a good option when in need of a historic place to stop, wander, and spend a few nights between forays into the countryside. It just feels comfortable. But even if you’re just passing through, it’s worth a wander in and of itself.
Pulling into town you’ll see signs for the Hotel Dieux, but don’t show up with your luggage and try to check in. The stunning six hundred-year-old building is not a hotel at all; it’s a medieval charity hospital. A wealthy local funded the construction in the wake of the plagues that ravaged Europe in the fifteenth century. Entire families were killed off, and many of the region’s surviving inhabitants were left destitute. Notice the intriguing woodwork patterns in the Gothic structure; it remains in incredibly good condition. There are several well-preserved rooms that offer a glimpse into how the medieval sick were cared for in a prosperous town. There is also some priceless art work and an interesting exhibit on its former life. Many of the area’s poor residents checked in; few checked out.
It’s hard to appreciate Beaune’s history and culture without appreciating the role of its wine trade. As Burgundy rivals Bordeaux in terms of production of top-quality wine, there is of course plenty of good wine to be had in and around town. The Museum of the Wine of Burgundy is a requisite stop, boasting a model of the medieval town and exhibits on the town’s long and varied history. It’s a good opportunity to understand why the vino trade was so much a part of the region’s heritage. After all, wine was the lifeblood of the city’s prosperity. It paid for the elegant medieval homes and churches surrounding you and the cobbles under your feet.
No French town would be complete without an ancient church, and the seven hundred-year-old Collégiale Notre Dame fills the bill beautifully with exquisite stained glass windows. I’ve always found old churches to be ideal spaces for escaping crowds, late afternoon heat, and the rush of modernity. Take the opportunity to sit down in the Romanesque landmark and contemplate as the sunlight filters through the colorful stained glass, causing a kaleidoscope to dance on the soaring stone columns.
If you’re in town on a Wednesday or Saturday, enjoy the colorful market happening on the place Carnot, just as it has for centuries. It’s hard to miss—most of the Beaune’s roads lead to it.
After a fine dinner and a restful night’s sleep, venture into the country lanes again, maybe heading to picture-perfect Château de la Rochepot, historic Cluny Abbey, or just joyriding past villages that have no name. Beaune is well-situated at the intersection of some of the area’s main roads, so with a car and a good map you’ll be able to get out of town and amongst the vineyards in no time (just don’t get stuck on the ring road). If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the neighborhood, consider checking it out.