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From the Rhône to the Rhine: The Road to Dijon

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About half an hour northwest of Lyon is the tiny medieval town of Pérouges. I've never been able to understand how a small number of medieval cities scattered throughout France are able to maintain their ancient stone buildings and walls for centuries while all their surroundings are being continuously modernized. I had hoped to find some answer to this question in Yvoire and eventually concluded that the city was largely rebuilt in medieval style in the twentieth century. It was a beautiful reconstruction but I didn't feel convinced of its authenticity. Would Pérouges be any different? Apparently in the early twentieth century the town was virtually abandoned and plans were made to raze the remaining buildings but somehow a campaign against the demolition succeeded. In 1911 the French president ordered that the medieval structures be restored but there's simply no knowing at this point how much of the current stonework dates back to the middle ages, short of reviewing archives in the basement of some city hall.

The town had built a sizable lot for visitors at the base of the town but there were few cars present when we arrived late Monday morning. A dirt path wound up the hillside from the lot to the town. An archway built into a tall and thick stone wall separated the medieval town from the pleasant but ordinary little village at the base of the hill. There were so few homes outside the walls that I wondered if their only occupants were those who managed the stores and restaurants of the old city.

Pérouges was similarly sized to Yvoire so it didn't take very long to explore the small network of cobblestone lanes that connected the elliptical path on the inside of the wall. There were far fewer restaurants and stores than there had been in Yvoire and hardly any tourists, although that may have been because it was Monday. There was ivy and a few planters here and there, but far from the profusion of vegetation that had made Yvoire seem more like a giant floral arrangement than a medieval town. Overall we felt much more like we had wandered into a true medieval village here similar to the feeling we had in ancient cities of southern Italy.

All the restaurants we passed seemed to be closed and we wondered if we might need to wait for the next town before having lunch. Fortunately our apps came to the rescue and found us a perfect place with a back patio that seemed to have attracted all of the town's visitors that morning. We enjoyed a light lunch in a beautiful setting that complemented our satisfying exploration of the old town. The restrooms were decorated with graffiti imploring men to stand closer to the toilet and avoid marking their territory.

After Pérouges we cut through an area called Les Dombes which is filled with manmade ponds largely used for farming freshwater fish. The area has also become a haven for migrating birds and contains the largest ornithological preserve in France. At the northern edge of Les Dombes is an antiquated river town called Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne that is hardly larger than its name. Like Pérouges it was virtually deserted which allowed us to better appreciate its bucolic character. The narrow streets were lined with classic French eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, many of them half-timbered. The town is renowned for its Saturday market but the oak-framed outdoor market hall was empty on a Monday afternoon.

The town takes its name from the Chalaronne, a narrow tributary of the Rhône that passes just south of the old town. Several small footbridges cross the river providing beautiful and colorful perspectives on the town that probably haven't changed in a hundred years.

It had only taken us an hour to leisurely walk every old street of Châtillon. We were relieved to make it back to the car as the heat wave that had engulfed southern Europe still had not abated. We were actually quite fortunate to be dealing with temperatures in the nineties as they had surged well into the triple digits in some of our prior destinations like Bordeaux and Madrid. It was quite a stroke of luck that Mei Ling had chosen a relatively northern destination for this trip because new temperature records for June were being set all over Europe. It was a reminder that we had to be very careful creating future itineraries for southern Europe even in June. Half an hour later we crossed the Saône into Mâcon, which put us into the legendary region of Bourgogne for the first time. I didn't have any specific reason for stopping in Mâcon other than it was a familiar name to me and one of the larger cities between Lyon and Dijon. The prevalence of parking near the river told me we weren't going to be encountering many tourists here. As expected the streets were very quiet and there was only a scattering of people in the outdoor cafes. The most remarkable sight in the old town was the Maison de Bois, a five hundred-year-old wooden building adorned with intricate carvings that stands out dramatically against the adjacent structures with more conventional masonry.

I was somewhat surprised by the diminutive size of the old town and we walked a few blocks away from the river in search of something else of interest. We came across something that appeared to be a market building but there was no sign of any activity around it. Mei Ling pushed on a door and surprisingly it opened but the market inside was clearly closed. There were some booths inside that might have been food stalls but they looked very disused and the only light inside was from the sunlight entering through the windows. We were a little nonplussed that the doors had been open and we probably should have left immediately, but Mei Ling saw a sign for a bathroom and decided this would be a good opportunity to have Spenser empty his bladder. As soon as she stepped out of the main hall a deafening buzzer went off which was clearly a motion sensor alarm. Mei Ling grabbed Spenser and made for the exit while I controlled the urge to flee until I made sure I had Cleo and Ian in tow. They had already vanished and I realized they had fled the building like experienced criminals within a second of hearing the alarm. I made sure to walk out in a casual way but the buzzer was still audible in the square so we decided to put some distance between us and the disturbance we had created. A block away we came across the Église Saint-Pierre which was such a beautiful church that I had to admire it even though I was still half-expecting to be charged at by a phalanx of police.

Our last stop was the bank of the Saône which was just a sidewalk along a very busy multi-lane road. The buildings facing the river were classic distinguished French townhouses but the businesses on the ground floor were very utilitarian. Overall Mâcon seemed to be a city that just goes about its daily routine without any pretensions of beauty or grandeur. If anything the city seemed somewhat depressed given its prime location at the threshold of Bourgogne on the side of a majestic river. It was interesting to see a side of France that for obvious reasons never makes it into the guidebooks.

The final leg of the day's drive from Mâcon to Dijon took an hour and a half. We could have stopped in Beaune for dinner but I wanted the security of knowing we had access to our Airbnb before dinner. Our apartment in Beaune was a modern, renovated space in a three story building on the edge of the old town. The main advantage of the place was that it had its own tiny garage. We had to climb one flight of stairs to reach the kitchen and living room and then a second flight to reach the bedrooms. The apartment was immaculately contemporary and clean. A rear balcony overlooked a narrow walled garden filled with whimsical artwork and light fixtures.

There didn't seem to be any good restaurants within walking distance of the Airbnb that were open on a Monday night so we picked the best one we could find from the apps. We soon learned that Dijon is a much larger city than I had realized when I focused on the old town to plan our itinerary. It took us twenty minutes to reach the restaurant just to find that they were booked solid. At that point we weren't in the mood to go shooting from corner to corner of the city looking for dinner so we found a Moroccan restaurant close by. It wasn't exactly what we had in mind for our first dinner in Bourgogne but it was quite good.

We returned to the Airbnb but we were too excited to be in Dijon to go straight to bed. We walked the darkening streets of the city center as far as the magnificent Romanesque Église Saint-Philibert before deciding we had done enough for the day. Fortunately we would have all of the next day to explore Dijon and the surrounds.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:11 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family_travel macon tony_friedman family_travel_blog perouges châtillon-sur-chalaronne

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