The last entry in this series, A Barge Cruise on the Burgundy Canal, Day 6, Part 1, Montbard to Venarey-les-Laumes, Courcelles-les-Montbard, and Alesia, was the beginning of the end. That is to say, it began describing our last day of cruising, walking, touring, eating and drinking on La Belle Epoque, a European Waterways luxury hotel barge. We visited two more towns, which I will present in this blog entry. The final chapter will cover the Captain’s farewell dinner and the sad goodbye the next morning.
As you have seen in previous posts in this series, France is full of scenic little villages. Many of them date back to medieval times and have full time populations of 100 or less. It’s not unusual for people that live in Paris or another large city to have a “country house” in one of these villages as an escape for weekends or holidays. They are equally wonderful for photographers and anyone who wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life for a weekend, a year, or forever.
On the final afternoon of our trip, we visited Flavigny-sur-Ozerain and Semur-en-Auxois, near where our barge was docked in Venarey-les-Laumes.
We came to Flavigny from Alesia, which, as you may recall from the previous entry in this series, is the site where Julius Caesar won his final, decisive victory against the Gauls in 52 BC. After his victory, he gave some of the conquered land to his most important officers. An officer named Flavinius was given a hill the troops had once camped on and collected aniseeds (more about the anise, later). Thus, the hill was named Flaviniacum (belonging to Flavinius), which became Flavigny.
The Burgundians, a Germanic-Scandinavian tribe, settled in this area in the 4th century with the permission of Rome. The Kingdom of Burgundy would survive, sometimes independent, sometimes less so, for centuries, and it remains an important region in France today, though no longer an independent kingdom. The Burgundians built a castle at Flavigny to fortify and protect the area. The first abbey was established there around 500 AD, but it was destroyed just after the Franks conquered the Kingdom of Burgundy in 534. Almost 200 years later, in 719, a Benedictine Monk named Widerard began a new Benedictine monastery in Flavigny. By the mid-800s Flavigny Abbey had become one of the largest and best fortified in the region.
This was also the period when the Vikings were raiding all over Europe. The relics of Saint Regina were brought from nearby Alise (the French version of Alesia) where she had been martyred in the 3rd century for refusing to renounce Christianity to marry the Roman Proconsul, Olybrius. Alise became known as Alise-Sainte-Reine (Alise Saint Regina) in her honor.
That is a pretty complicated thread to follow—Caesar-Alesia-Flavinius-Flavigny-Burgundians-Benedictines-Alise-Saint-Reine—but it shows just how much history was shaped by this area. The abbey prospered under Charlemagne (747-814) and continued to be an important location for hundreds of years. The abbey church, dedicated to St. Peter in 877, enhanced the importance of the abbey further. It’s monks were, more often than not, more pious than many others and followed the rules of St. Benedict for centuries. (I discussed monastic life in more detail here.)
The abbey continued to operate until—you might be able to guess this one—the French Revolution. The church and much of the abbey were destroyed and the last few monks driven out.
One operation remained, however. Remember I mentioned earlier that Caesar gathered anise seeds on the hill that he gave to Flavinius? The one that became Flavigny? The Benedictine monks began using those seeds as the base for a small candy called Les Anis de Flavigny (Anise of Flavigny). If you are not familiar with anise (or aniseed), it has aromas and flavors that will remind you of licorice, star anise or fennel. The candy is made by taking a single small seed (which is similar to a cumin seed in size and shape) and rolling it 15 times in a flavored sugar syrup, allowing it to try between layers and building up a small hard candy. The candy may be flavored many different ways—rose, violet, mint, orange and more—but the candy is always called Anise. Each candy weighs only about a gram (0.035 oz).
After the French Revolution, 8 manufacturers began producing Anise of Flavigny in what was left of the abbey and elsewhere in Flavigny. Over time, Jacques Edmond Galimard bought out the other manufacturers and consolidated all production in what was left of the abbey. In 1923, Jean Troubat bought the company, which is now headed by Catherine Troubat, Jean’s granddaughter and the third-generation head of Maison Troubat.
The Troubat family greatly increased production so you no longer need to go to the abbey or even to France to find the candy. It may be in a store near you, but, if not, Amazon can get to to you.
Regardless go how you feel about candy, monasteries or history, you may still enjoy a walk around Flavigny. As I first discussed in A Barge Cruise on the Burgundy Canal, Day 4, Part 1 Ancy-le-Franc, Argenteuil-sur-Armançon, Noyers-sur-Serein, Ravières, the French government has designated about 150 Villages as “The Most Beautiful Villages in France.” We visited Noyers-sur-Serein earlier. Flavigny is another of the “Most Beautiful Villages.” Here are a few photos that support the title.
If you need more evidence, you’ll find additional images in the slide show at the end of this post.
Flavigny has a more recent, and perhaps more superficial, claim to fame: it is the village where the movie Chocolat, starring Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench and Johnny Depp, was filmed.
It was a pretty good movie and, if you are a film buff or a big fan of one of the stars of the movie, this may be the most important reason to visit Flavigny.
I don’t know how the importance of this storefront and the movie will stand up in the centuries to come, but another historically significant building has been in use for centuries and, one would hope, will continue to be used for centuries to come: the Parish Church of St. Genest.
The church, which also appears in Chocolat, was built in the 13th century in a late Burgundian gothic style. However, portions were rebuilt or renovated over the next 200 years, so several style of architecture make up the current structure. The relics of Saint Reine were transferred here from the abbey in 1793. The church was left essentially undamaged by the French Revolution. Ironically, however, the statues in the church were badly damaged in 1978, when a man locked himself in the church and systematically sawed the heads off of the artwork. Some of the statues were restored and there is still plenty of beautiful artwork and architecture inside. Unfortunately, since the vandalism, the church is not open 24/7 as it had been for centuries, but it was open the day we visited.
The chancel and altar area hold several statues, including one of Christ and, under a large cross, figures that I believe represent the Virgin Mary (might be Mary Magdalene) and Saint John.
There is a beautiful stained glass window depicting the Crucifixion. Jesus is on the cross with the two thieves with Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene and Saint John below the cross.
A chapel on one side of the nave holds a statue of the Madonna (Mary and the Christ Child, not the pop singer) with a window showing women at the empty tomb on Easter morning.
I always like to examine the carvings on the pulpits in these old churches, though this one was relatively plain compared to many.
I forgot to mention that the church was straight up the main street of Flavigny, so it was downhill all the way when we left.
As we left Flavigny, I noticed two things. First, even the Most Beautiful Villages of France are not immune sign polution.
Second, there is a small park and statue dedicated to Father Henri-Dominique Lacordaire (Jean-Baptiste Henri Lacordaire b.1802, d. 1861) just outside the city walls.
Father Lacordaire is said to have been one of the greatest orators of the 19th century. He abandoned the traditional, rigid structure of Catholic sermons in use at the time and instead built his points from a quiet opening to using his powerful voice at full volume at the climax of the sermon. He was active in many areas of theology and politics and is credited with restoring the Dominican Order in France after the revolution.
With a wave goodbye to Father Henri, we were back on our vans and off to the last town we would visit on this cruise: Semur-en-Auxois.
According to legend, Semur-en-Auxois was built by Hercules, the demi-god of Greek mythology. While that may be a bit difficult to verify, we do know that the city played an important role in the history of the Kingdom of Burgundy, especially during the Hundred Years War when the Dukes of Burgundy fought against the Kings of France. The medieval heart of the town is built on a hill made of pink granite. It is surrounded on 3 sides by the River Armançon, making it an ideal place to build a fort to defend the area.
The red flag on the map shows the site where the castle/fortress was built in the 13th century. The castle was demolished in the 17th century, but the four towers that marked the corners of the fort still stand. You can see two of them clearly in the photo above, and the other two sort of peeking out behind. More on these later.
You an also see the beautiful stone bridge, Pont Joly, the crosses the River Armançon (blue flag on the map). Valeria and I walked from the town over the bridge to get this perspective. As you can tell from the light, the sun was setting and the spotlights that illuminate the towers and parts of the remaining ramparts were already on.
But let’s back up just a bit. Our vans actually dropped us in the central part of the old medieval city.
This may have been the central square in medieval times. There are a number of shops and cafes, as well as the Office of Tourism. If you turn and look behind where I was standing to take the photo above, you will see the Hotel de la Cote d’Or.
In centuries past, this building was a coaching inn. Stagecoaches carrying passengers and mail coaches carrying the mail would stop here to eat and spend the night or simply to get a fresh set of horses. The building underwent a complete, 3-year renovation in 2006-2008 and is now reputed to be one of the nicest hotels in the area.
One of the shops on the square displayed these rather demonic-looking figures.
I have no idea where they are from or what they are, but the sharp teeth are often symbolic of an evil spirit or demon. One is clearly female, one male, and the third looks like one of the famous ancient astronauts from another planet.
Old buildings with colorful Burgundy tile roofs lined several streets.
One of the historical and architectural highlights of the town is La Collégiale Notre-Dame (The Collegiate Church of Our Lady; a collegiate is a church run by monks).
Construction of the church began in 1220 AD, but the history of the site does back to at least the 9th century when it was mentioned in some documents from Flavigny Abbey (home of the anise candies discussed above). At that time, a priory, which is basically a small, satellite home of monks that reports to an Abbey. In this case, the Semur Priory reported to Flavigny Abbey, which is about 10 mi (16 km) away. The priory included the traditional cloister, which was incorporated into successive enlargements and upgrades to the structure and is still the heart of the church today.
In the mid-1100s the priory was expanded and became both a priory church and the parish (local) church.
The beautiful gothic structure that still makes up the bulk of the church was built in the 13th century, but construction of one kind or another continued until 1739, when it became a collegiate. A major restoration occurred in the 19th century under the direction of the famous French architect, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879). He was also the engineer that designed the interior structure of the Statue of Liberty. He was famous for his “restorations” that usually included adding something to the structure he was restoring. His restoration of Notre Dame in Paris, for example, included not just replacing the spire (flèche,from the French for arrow) on the east end of the church, which had been destroyed during the French Revolution, but enlarging it and making it considerably more ornate than the original.
The gothic spires on Notre Dame Semur-en-Auxois date back to the 13th century, though they have been repaired over the years.
If you are feeling a bit hungry before or after visiting or worshipping in the church, there is a famous delicatessen located right across the square.
Looking in the window was enough to make me hungry! If that wasn’t enough, this bistro is not much more than a block away.
Those chalkboards are covered with various fixed priced (fixe prix) menus that included everything from salads to fish to beef burgundy and steaks. You are never far from food—almost always delicious food—in any town in France.
Walking back toward the Pont Joly, we passed the towers that are all that remain of the 13th century fortified castle that the Dukes of Burgundy relied on to defend the area.
The cracks running up the side of the Tour de l’Orle-d’Or make it look rather fragile, but the tower is still sound after 700 years of service.
Various figures are still visible on the sides of the Tour de la Gehenne, which translates “Tower of Hell,” a reference to the Valley of Gehenna outside of Jerusalem.
I was not able to determine when these figures were put on the tower. Original? Later additions? Don’t know.
The bridge was an impressive sight from the town side of the river,
We walked across the bridge to get the view in the image that starts this section of the post.
Looking a little left of this image, the church can be seen above the skyline of the town.
I don’t know what this building is or was in the past, but the autumn foliage was beautiful in the floodlights and setting sunlight.
And then it was time to head back to our meeting point and board the vans for the short ride back to La Belle Epoque. We would spend the night enjoying the Captain’s farewell dinner, and wake the next morning to say farewell to the crew and ride back to Paris. Those events will be the subject of the next, and last, article in this series.
The author participates in the Amazon Affiliate Program, but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the businesses, locations or products described in this article.
All images were taken with a Canon 5D Mark III camera and a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens or a Tamron AF 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di LD VC Aspherical (IF) Macro Zoom Lens (now discontinued; replaced by Tamron AFA010C700 28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di VC PZD Zoom Lens) using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins.
THE SLIDE SHOW INCLUDES ADDITIONAL IMAGES NOT SHOWN IN THE TEXT ABOVE.