Vineyard of Robert Sauzay, Beaujolais, France

Vineyard in Beaujolais, France

Vineyard of Robert Sauzay, Salles-Arbuissonas-en-Beaujolais, France

Wine has always been an important part of French culture, and French wine has always been an important part of the wine industry. Dating back to 6th century with the colonisation of southern Gaul (notably, Marseille), viticulture took hold in France, who made the act of wine production an art, integrating it deeply into their culture. Many grapes you’ve heard of (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah, etc.) have their roots (literally!) in France – because the ancient Gauls practised a new technique allowing them to increase production: they pruned their vines. Since then, various groups preserved the art of wine-making: the Romans, medieval monks, the French nobility. Today, France is still a top wine producer.Here, wines are identified by the vineyard, chateau, manor, village, monastery, etc. where the alcohol is produced (not by the grape itself). This is known as the ‘terroir’ (linking wines to production location – exe. see Tain l’Hermitage). The AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) system controls which grapes and wine-making practices can be attached to which geographical locations. Wine still plays an important role in today’s France – it’s consumed during special occasions but is also a household object. It is a gift to be offered to a new colleague or to one retiring, it is a housewarming present, a Christmas gift, a drink to be consumed with friends. Wine bars are popular, and wine in France is considerably cheaper than elsewhere (a decent bottle costs from €3-10; mid-range wine ranges from €10-25; anything over €25 is considered an expensive bottle). The Beaujolais is a popular wine region near Lyon, with hundreds of vineyards covering the area – whether you decide to hike through the vines, cycle by on two wheels, organise a wine-tasting tour (most vineyards offer this via rendez-vous, like the Sauzay Vineyard above), or even become a grape picker during the famous September harvest, experiencing both the wine and the vineyard is a great way to connect to French culture.

 

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Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

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Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

Ahh…The Great Outdoors. It says it all in the name – ‘great!’ No matter whether you’re hiking in Ireland or Denmark, Poland or (as in this case), France, hiking in Europe is bound to be ‘great.’ Being based a city may be ideal for working, for nightlife, for cultural outings, for restaurant variety, and for transportation connections, but breathe in the city air too long, and you’ll go crazy. We all need a good dose of the outdoors in our systems: fresh air, cool wind, natural landscapes, lack of noise, isolation, tranquility. And there are no excuses, for a hiking trip doesn’t always have to be a grand Alpine expedition – if you’ve only got a weekend, head out to the surrounding countryside (every town and city has one!) and hit the trails. Explore the unknown, and who knows what you may find? On this particular day the photo was taken, not only did we find this extensive root system, but we also stumbled across hidden ponds, forgotten manor houses, placid villages, sun-dipped fields, cheery locals and fellow hikers. Exploring the world on foot (no matter how close to or far from home) always seems to add another dimension to the final destination, somehow making that place seem more meaningful to you simply by approaching it via your own two feet. Whether that be in Slea Head Peninsula in Ireland, the Gauja River Valley in Latvia, the Val de Susa in northern Italy, Mt Esja in Iceland or the Beskids and Tatras in Poland, discovering the world on foot is all the more magical.

Beaujolais, France

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Beaujolais, France

If you’re a wine-lover, you may already know about the Beaujolais – it is a well known wine-producing location in central France. Houses (or manors) like this one are a common occurrence throughout rural France. Unfortunately, due to an interesting combination of high (and complicated) inheritance and habitation taxes, overall elevated French taxes, costly repair bills, enormous amounts of energy needed to heat such buildings, and isolation from cities and towns, manors like the one above are all too often left to live out their long days alone. In the case of this manor, as you can see, there is a perfectly functioning farmhouse less than 100 meters away – and yet the manor remains so empty that even at a distance, one can see through it from one side to the other. To avoid other beautiful buildings suffering the same fate, local economies need to be further stimulated – of which one way is tourism, which brings in people, awareness and money to rural destinations. In any case, the Beaujolais has great wine, beautiful villages, and charming country roads and trails built to hike – and beautiful rural architecture !

Dijon, France

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Dijon, France

Known for its mustard, we often forget that this name also signifies a charming French town. Dijon is a maze of cobbled streets, wallpapered with wattle-and-daub striped facades. Dijon does not have the splendour of Paris, the bouchons of Lyon, or the coziness of a Provincial village. What it does have instead is the gentle calm of the countryside mixed with the elegance found in French cities; small town quaintness found with French splendour. Another bonus,  it is at the entrance of the Beaujolais (known for its splendid red wines), on the route that carries traffic north-south, with gastronomy capital Lyon not too far away. One of the symbols of the town is an owl (inspired by a sculpture of an owl found on the cathedral; touching it supposedly brings luck); but now, it is your guide to the city. Follow the little owls all over town to discover Dijon’s charms!


More Amazing Towns in France
  1. Avignan
  2. Vienne
  3. Annecy
  4. Nimes
  5. Strasbourg
  6. Megeve

 

Salles-Arbuissonnas-en-Beaujolais, France (Gathering)

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Salles-Arbuissonnas-en-Beaujolais, France

Weekly Photo Challenge: Gathering

A literal interpretation of ‘gathering,’ this photo is from the gathering of the grapes in the French wine region of Beaujolais, just north of Lyon. It happens every year, around August or September, and lasts between 1 and 2 weeks–and the harvest is no picnic. Grape-pickers must bend over and pick grapes for 8 hours a day starting around 7.30 am, with only midday, evenings, and Sundays for rest. Yet–the ambiance of the grape-picking harvest makes for an unforgettable experience. Home-cooked fantastic French meals, never-ending glasses of house wine, hanging out around the fire, playing games and telling stories, enjoying quiet, village life–all the while simply enjoying the silence. Gathering the grapes is no easy task–but it is an experience we all should have one day. You will never appreciate wine more–and never waste it again!

Chateau de Montmelas, France

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Chateau de Montmelas, France

Owning a ruin in the 19th century was a big thing. If you didn’t manage to own your own ruin, well, that’s no problem because you could always build one! History and authenticity was obviously not nearly as important then as it is today. What mattered more was its aesthetic value. More than that, the 19th century saw owning a ruin (real or not) aligned with owning a piece of history, being in control of the past. So if you couldn’t afford to build your own ruin, but still wanted to jump on the ruin-owning, history-controlling bandwagon, you could turn an existing building into a ruin. We saw it with Sham Castle in Bath (a folly; 100% modern), again with the Gravensteen in Ghent (modified ruin), then later with Kreuzenstein Castle in Austria (a new castle was constructed from old bits of other castles). There are countless other examples (one more: Hungary’s Vajahunyad Castle, based on older ruin).  Now, we see it again here, with Chateau Montmelas. Montmelas began its life as “chateau fort”; that is, a fortified manor house, in the 13-14th centuries. Then, some 500+ years later, crumbling and forlorn, the previous residence of Louis XV’s mistress, it was restored in the Neo-Gothic style. Turrets, crinolines, a keep, courtyards–all very medieval. And in fact, it still retains many qualities and original stonework from the Middle Ages, despite the modifications! Not only that, but it’s appearance is breathtaking. And its current purpose? A winery in the Beaujolais, as one can tell from the surrounding vineyards. While privately-owned, the castle can be visited at certain times of the year. I  guess owning a ruin in the modern day–a real ruin, mind you–is still a pretty big thing!

Salles-Arbuisonnas-en-Beaujolais, France

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Salles-Arbuisonnas-en-Beaujolais, France

For many of us, the beginning of fall means chillier weather, falling leaves and pumpkins. However, for those who happen to live in or near the Beaujolais, this season means the Beaujolais Nouveau (the new wine created by the September grape harvest!). Beaujolais is known for its famous vineyards and the bottles of red wine that they produce. Rolling green hills and medieval villages greet visitors amongst labyrinths of vineyards that continue as far the eye can see. Although less well known than other French regions, the production of Beaujolais wine actually beats that of Burgundy’s wine production! Those who want to discover the beating heart of French culture, spending time on a French vineyard is arguably the best way – especially spending 1-2 weeks working as a grape-picker during the great grape harvest. The three-course meals you will eat will be rich, hearty, delicious and never-ending, levelling out with a staggering cheese-plate and pints of coffee. The fantastic, to-die-for wine comes in unmarked bottles filled up from the vineyard’s personal barrels created by last year’s grape harvesters. Evenings end in a chorus of classically French songs sung by the whole family and accompanied by accordions and saxophones, giving one the impression that you have stepped back in time to another era. So what are you waiting for? Grape-picking might not be the easiest work…but the experience will stay with you for a lifetime.

Anse, France

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Anse, France

Finally back in France after a summer abroad, it’s time to start re-posting in order to fall in love with Europe again, one photo at a time. This here is Anse, a lovely French town plopped in the middle of the famous region, the Beaujolais, well-known both in and outside of France for its superb red wines. Small enough to be quaint but large enough to feel alive, Anse and the surrounding countryside is a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Lyon, France’s 2nd-biggest city. No need to worry about traffic on the highways or paying 5-6 euros for a drink at a pub–life is far simpler in Anse. Whether you prefer to tramp through the breath-taking countryside (all the while taking in views of French vineyards!), wander the ancient streets imagining bygone times, eat at local family-owned eateries, or do a little wine-tasting yourself, Anse is the place to be! And at a mere 30-kilometer trek from Lyon, there’s really no excuse not to go!

 

St Germain M’or, France

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St Germain M’or, France

Wander along a quiet labyrinth of stony streets, up and down steep and uneven paths, through narrow passageways twisting alongside ancient houses. Tiny cafes dot the corners. Laundry and flower-boxes hang alternatively from second-story balconies. The sun is out, and no one is hurrying. Just outside the village, you can just make out the edges of the vineyards of the Beaujolais region. Children play on bikes in the main square, friends sip coffees or wine in the corner cafes. The smell of fresh bread emits from a local bakery. You can hear the birds chirping, friendly neighbours chatting in French, the wind whistling. While the much larger city of Lyon is a mere than a half-hour’s drive, you feel so far removed from the city that you forget the others’ existence. So you stop hurrying too. You stop thinking so much. You cast aside your list of things to do, you cast away your cares and worries. You let your shoulders relax. You sit down at one of those cafes, order yourself a a glass of fresh Beaujolais wine, and bask in the quiet French sunlight.