Chablis Joigny and Auxerre

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June 1st 2016
Published: June 17th 2016
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Think of those travel and movie clips where the tourist is driven around African wild game parks feasting their eyes on the wildlife in a natural habitat. To me, touring Central France is like that except that I drive around a great big drive through museum. It’s not really a museum, but on every street, there is a diorama of modern life set amongst houses and other structures from as far back as 11th and 12th centuries. To modern residents of the region, their solid stone houses are home, a warm refuge, their place in the world, where retro-fitting of facilities and appliances has modernised life.

Three towns that we have just visited in the central France region are Chablis, Joigny and Auxerre, all in Burgundy, oozing medieval history and while outwardly showing museum-like appearances, are modern commercial centres. Agriculture and horticulture in this part of France are foundation industries with tractors and farm machinery moving along the same roads we traverse. Every surrounding village has its own claim to excellence in viticulture, in a countryside littered with wineries offering degustation and sales. We see vineyards on the slopes, grain crops on the flats, and Limousin or Charolais cattle grazing on ridges with every square meter pushed to produce. Last year I saw what I thought were perfect wheat crops, with strong stalks supporting fully developed heads of seed standing in brilliant sunshine hardening to a golden ripeness ready for prime hard flour milling. Crops were planted right up to the edge of the roads we travelled. But I am saddened to report that this year the wheat crop appears to be under threat. Too much rain during winter has sodden the ground, stalks have grown too tall and now easily bend under the weight of grain heads that have possibly developed too soon, and already some stems show yellowing. I hope that is not a symptom of rust, a crop dooming disease. Stalks that I saw were leaning over after incessant rain in the time I was in the area, and numerous paddocks looked in dire threat of producing a sub-prime if not worthless crop. That is farming life.

In the Chablis area vineyards have been severely hit by hail storms. In other places, it appeared that farmers had not planted this year, perhaps because of the incessant rain during cultivation and planting time, maybe for economic reasons. Whatever the reason, some potentially productive farms sprouted only feral crops born from the unharvested seed of the previous season. On close scrutiny, the verdant external appearance of the Burgundy region’s farms told a less than rosy picture with crop damage and looming disillusionment for farmers.

Cultural and historical features of the region

Both Joigny and Auxerre have narrow medieval streets and a myriad of attractive ancient houses, often with half-timbered facades.

Auxerre’s Cathedral St Etienne claims beginnings date back to the 11th century with modifications continuing to the 16th century. I was particularly interested in the craft work of carvings around the doorway. Legend has it that St Patrick trained under the bishop of Auxerre before hunting the snakes out of Ireland.

In Auxerre the marina carpark on the bank of the Yonne River provided us with an excellent place to camp, just across from the old city, watching the river in full flood at the time.

In Joigny, we walked beside some medieval ramparts that once protected Joigny, and passed through the original arched stone doorways to early castle walls. When we walked into the Church of Saint-Thibault, built in the 16th century, a lady was putting flowers in the church. She pointed out main features and told us about their significance.

‘This church was originally called Saint Jacques, but the dedication was changed to St Thibault when his relics were transferred here in 1076. Saint Thibault was a great horseman. We have an icon of him here on his horse overlooking the little square where people were publicly punished for their misdemeanours.’

As we walked through the narrow streets of the old town we read of historic fires and rebuilding in the 16th and 17th centuries. Fine townhouses with carved facades from that era continue to be inhabited. These medieval towns continue as living commercial centres and centuries-old buildings remain as viable community infrastructure.

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