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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Travels with My Husband

Vacationing with Phil is rarely relaxing. It can be exciting, educational, exhilarating. It is always exhausting. It always involves getting lost multiple times. His itineraries are as ambitious as his syllabi -- there is no way you'll ever get it all done. I used to think vacations required a beach and a book. After nearly thirty years, I am used to the wild pace. Now I even enjoy it.

Burgundy was no exception. After our two whirlwind days of abbeys, chateaux, and winetasting, we spent another day at abbeys, chateaux, and winetastings. I could visit a chateau every day for a year and not get tired of them. Our first stop, though, was at a Cistercian abbey -- the Abbey of Fontenay. Yet another one founded by the tireless Bernard, this one even lovelier and more pristine than the last.

It was called Fontenay because it is located in an area of natural springs; in fact, it had to be drained over many years so the abbey could be built.

There's a stunning church, spare and stark, with an beautiful 13th century statue of Madonna and Child, the Christ child playfully pulling his mother's hair.

The Abbey has vast gardens and fountains, pools with giant trout whose ancestors were served to local noblemen, and a stream that ran a machine the monks invented to work the iron they mined from the cliffs behind the buildings.

There's a dormitory where the monks slept on pallets, and a dungeonlike room beneath where they incarcerated the locals when they misbehaved. What kinds of wickedness did they perpetrate to deserve such a grim punishment?

When we left the Abbey, we had a leisurely (by Phil's standards) lunch at an outdoor cafe, where we sat near two French women in stilettos and designer outfits, accompanied by the usual little yappy dog. They ate 3 courses with wine and espresso, while we had sandwiches and water. Then we went on to the fabulous Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin. Here, Roger de Bussy-Rabutin, "le plus celebre des libertins du Grand Siecle," lived after being exiled from the court of Louis XIV. A writer of cutting wit, he made the fatal error of penning a satire about the lives and -- especially -- the loves of the King and his courtiers. The work was never intended for publication, but one of the Count's many paramours sent it to Holland to be published and then distributed it to everyone at court. Furious -- particularly at the fact that the Count shared many of the King's lovers -- Louis banished him from court forever. (Other sources claim his disgrace was the result of taking part in an orgy during Holy Week. This is not in the official pamphlet.)

The chateau is, as its pamphlet says, "furnished with resentment." The rooms are filled with portraits of courtiers so the Count could feel as if his friends were still with him. The portraits in his bedroom are all of his lovers.

There is a special room where other lovers' pictures, each with a description (sometimes quite lubricious) hang. The ladies of court came to the chateau often to visit, and afterward they frequently sent a portrait as a gift. One gets the impression that the Count must have been very...talented.

We then traveled to Beaune, one of the wine centers of the region. It boasts a spectacular 15th century hospital, or Hotel Dieu, which Nicolas Rolin, chancelor of Burgundy, built in an attempt to ensure his entry into heaven.

Here, dozens of impoverished patients were treated -- bled, cupped, and more likely than not killed off by the doctors' lack of knowledge. Still, for the suffering poor, the place was far more luxurious than anything they'd experienced before (though often they were more than one to a bed).

The hospital includes a display of some pretty frightening medical instruments (and even scarier descriptions of how they were used). It has a chapel right in the sickroom, so the diseased could view marriages, baptisms, and funerals for their entertainment.

There was a kitchen and an extensive pharmacy, added later. We were amazed to learn that the hospital treated people until
the 1980s.

In the hospital museum, we viewed an remarkable triptych of the Last Judgment by the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. Later, at dinner, a Flemish gentleman hinted that it had been stolen by the French and actually belonged to Belgium. In those days, though, Flanders was part of Burgundy, ruled over by the duke of Burgundy. So you can draw your own conclusions.

Stopping at a Beaune wine shop, we tasted 6 red wines offered by a young woman who was uninformed but liberal with the pour. They were all lovely, and we purchased yet another, deciding to ignore the fact that there was no place to pack it.

Our room at La Cimentelle
We rushed back to our hotel for dinner, which we shared with the aforementioned Flemish man and his family, a charming wife and their teenaged daughter, who had just finished high school and would be starting at the University of Gent in the fall. The food was extraordinary. We started with gougeres and cherry wine as an aperitif, then moved on to a light broth sprinkled with fresh peas. Floating among the peas were tiny raviolis stuffed with foie gras and chanterelles. It might be the best thing I've eaten in our five months abroad. Next came veal steaks in a champagne sauce, incredibly tender. The cheese course was extensive and delicious, and dessert was a sabayon with tropical fruits, topped off with macarons. All accompanied by a lovely pinot noir, and worth every calorie.

In the morning, we decided to drive through the Morvan National Park for a little nature to offset our excess of culture. We drove around a beautiful lake and hiked a bit, coming across a group roasting a whole pig on a spit. We didn't take pictures -- they were the French version of a biker gang, and we thought they might not take kindly to photos. And then we were off to Belgium, tired but replete in every way, to spend our last night in Leuven before taking a morning flight from Brussels back to the U.S.

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