BURGUNDY (Bourgogne) epitomises two of the great French passions: wine and food. It’s the birthplace of both coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, and the home of world-famous wines such as Chablis and Beaujolais, as well as more refined appellations like Meursault or Beaune.
Unsurprisingly, much of the landscape is given over to rolling vineyards of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, interspersed with patches of forest and freshwater lakes like those of the Morvan National Park. Threading between them are graceful, tree-lined canals, which you can float along on a hired narrowboat, and gentle cycling or hiking trails, some of them based on ancient pilgrim routes.
But what we love most is exploring the medieval towns and villages. Beaune, for example, offers so much more than its namesake wines and accompanying cellar tours. There are timbered 15thC houses, medieval ramparts, flower-filled places and cobbled lanes, Beaux Arts museums and stunning Romanesque churches with glaze-tiled roofs. In Chablis (yes, it's also a town), the Sunday market brims with local produits du terroir - think rillettes de canard (duck terrine), Dijon mustard, crottin cheeses and tarte tatin, that irresistible upside-down apple tart. Hilltop Vezelay draws pilgrims (especially over Easter), who come to see the relics of St Mary Magdalene, and to hear its classical music festival every August. Capital Dijon boasts dramatic Classical-meets-Gothic architecture, notably in its Ducal Palace; Burgundy was an extremely influential duchy in the middle ages.
The area is also home to some of the most historic and magnificent abbeys in Christendom: Cluny (once the largest church in western Europe), Fontenay (one of France's first Unesco-listed sites), and Cîteaux (where the Cisterican order was born, and still inhabited by monks today). All are worth a visit, but if we had to pick one it would be Fontenay. There are castles too - nearly 100 of them in all. Visit Chateau de Tanlay for ancient moats, or Chateau de Bourbilly for fairytale towers.
CHAMPAGNE is, of course, known far and wide for its shimmering bubbly, produced from the chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier which proliferate on its rolling landscapes. Tasting tours are everywhere: we love charming Rilly la Montagne outside Reims, home to low-key producers such as Didier Herbert or Roger Manceaux. Do arrange your wine-tasting events well in advance, as everything is by strict appointment!
Reims itself is deservedly famous for its spectacular Gothic cathedral, which saw the coronations of several French kings and emperors (including Louis VII and Charles VII), the liberation from the English by Joan of Arc, and the surging anarchy of the French Revolution. Afterwards, restore your senses with lunch at the opulent Art Deco Café du Palais. Or head out to Montagne de Reims National Park to discover forests, prestigious vineyards and fairytale villages.