A wet morning gave way to a better afternoon – and the opportunity to explore the medieval streets of Vézelay, ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France.’
In times past, Vézelay was a sacred place of pilgrimage. The Benedictine abbey there was founded in the 9th century. The magnificent 12th Century basilica which now crowns the summit takes its name from the reputed relics of St Mary Magdalene held within.
Miracles attributed to the relics drew pilgrims to Vézelay. The shrine was so important that it is associated with the start of both the Second and Third Crusade and marks the beginning of The Vézelay Way, one of the four routes of pilgrimage through France to the shrine of St James at Santiago di Compostela. The outstanding Romanesque architecture led to UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1979.
Atop its ‘Eternal Hill’, today’s Vézelay attracts lovers of culture and wine. In 2017, in recognition of their character, Vézelay’s dry chardonnays were given their own designation AOC Vézelay, to distinguish them from generic white Bourgogne (Burgundy).
A twenty-minute walk from the campsite took us into the heart of Vézelay’s quaint, cobbled streets. We stopped in the Tourist Office to buy walking maps of the area. With a mixture of bemusement and glee, the lady proffered her view of Brexit. “Now, you will be prisoners in your own country!”
We assured her that it was not our choice and would certainly make our travelling lifestyle more difficult – although we believe that there is always a solution.
Maps in hand, we continued uphill past gorgeous, well-preserved 15th and 16th century buildings, explored a few of the narrow medieval streets and peered into elegant courtyards. The stands of trees and gardens surrounding the Benedictine Abbey and basilica offered commanding views over Morvan and the Cure Valley.
Extensive renovations denied us a view of the basilica’s renowned Central Portal, but the soaring nave was certainly built on a scale to impress. The knowledge and vision of the architects is summed up in a wonderful detail. At noon on the summer solstice, nine pools of sunlight fall into the centre of the church to form an illuminated path to the altar. Click here to see how magical it looks!
On our way back, we bought a Vézelay cake, made with almond and cassis (blackcurrant). It was tasty, but for me, not on a par with a Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewell. A honey gingerbread, typical of the area, was much dryer than I expected, but captured all the delicious, floral taste of the honey. It was the perfect foil for a lovely, lovely cuppa, a luxury now available to me following my recent reunion with my supplies of PG Tips!
The weather forecast did not bode well for putting our walking maps to good use, so we decided to chase east towards Italy, our ultimate destination for the winter. Toll roads shortened our crossing of South East France by two hours, but quickly ate through €50. Even so, it was still a long and difficult drive in torrential rain. After being told to shut up on our last outing together, the satnav had sent us to Coventry, so we had to be extra vigilant at junctions. Mark had tried to find an interim stop to shorten the journey, but in late October, every campsite en route was now closed for the season.
Unnerving motorway signs warned of Vents Violentes – Strong Winds; always a concern when towing a caravan. However, the signs gave no details of when, where or how bad, which was unnerving. A town called Ars lightened my spirits and, despite the damp, grey backdrop, Burgundy’s vineyards criss-crossed the hills with a surprisingly vivid patchwork of yellow, gold and red. (Click here for advice on the safety or otherwise of towing in high winds.)
Our campsite for the night was Le Coin Tranquille – The Tranquil Corner, in the Isère department of the Rhône-Alpes. We were now near the BIG mountains. In a brief dry spell, Mark set up Kismet and I gave the pups a stretch in a field at the end of the site. When the rain returned with vengeance, I speed-squelched back to the caravan. However, I still felt a flutter of raw excitement. Behemoths blocked the horizon. The primal energy of the mist-swathed Alpine peaks that surrounded us stirred my soul.
I managed to ask whether dogs were allowed in the restaurant and check-in all in French. On the back of this mighty linguistic triumph, we treated ourselves to a night out; tartiflette and a litre of beer. We didn’t realise that the litre of beer didn’t come in a jug for sharing! In our twenty-first year of marriage, I feel very blessed that date night with me darlin’ is just as special as when we first met. The pups behaved impeccably. The tartiflette came with a plate of charcuterie, which both Ruby and Kai resisted, despite having their noses positioned just inches from such tempting treats.
The vents violents made themselves apparent during the night. Scared puppies snuggled in as the storm raged around us. At 8am, after a restless night, I checked the Meteo and put it to Mark. Severe weather warnings obliterated the entire map of the region. Thankfully, he agreed that it would be wise to stay put.
The day turned out surprisingly pleasant, if windy – a good drying day. Caravanning at this time of year, particularly with dogs, can mean being up to your gills in mud and wet clothing. It was a relief to do some laundry and get the caravan clean and dry.
There were few options to walk straight from the campsite. We had intended to stay for just one night, so we had left Big Blue and Kismet hitched and didn’t want to drive anywhere. Some small, forested hills nearby looked inviting, so we set off towards the village of Les Arbrets.
The sharp report of gunshots echoed across the valley. It provided a timely reminder; La Chasse – it was hunting season. Brimming with blood lust, Frenchmen armed with traps and firearms are definitely best given a wide berth by both humans and their pets. We were forced to pare down our perambulatory perspectives and just let the pups burn off some steam around the fields locally. (To find out more about La Chasse and other hazards of taking your dog to France, see my post on Killer Caterpillars, Gunmen & ‘Chien Interdit!’)
As I booked us in for an extra night, my wonderful command of French swiftly added €8 to our bill. It was punishment for successfully answering the receptionist’s interrogation, “Aimez vous le restaurant? Vous avez quatre chiens, n’est ce pas? – Did you enjoy the restaurant? You have four dogs, don’t you?”
I felt that she might have looked a bit triumphant when I was forced to answer, “Oui” on both counts. However, she didn’t press the issue of the €8 missing from the previous night’s bill.
Which left me with a conundrum.
Should I be disgruntled about the higher charge for our extra night or content with yesterday’s reduction?
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My latest book Dogs ‘n’ Dracula – A Road Trip Through Romania documents last year’s rather surprising trip. A finalist in the Romania Insider Awards, it is available now on Amazon.
With Christmas on the horizon, it will make a great gift to the travel / caravan / dog lover in your life!