This morning our ship was docked at Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy. All three groups for today’s Freechoice options departed the ship immediately after breakfast. One group visited a winery, another visited a photography museum (the first ever photograph was taken in Chalon), and our group drove about 30 km north by coach to visit the historic town of Beaune.

Our coach drive took us through one of Burgundy’s most famous wine regions, the Côte d’Or – Meursault, Volnay and Pommard are three of its best known wine communes. The vines are low to the ground, where they can benefit from the warmth radiating from the soil. Two types of grape are essentially grown in this region – chardonnary for white wines and pinot noir for reds. Sometimes the vineyards were enclosed by dry stone wall fences, a direct result of the amount of rocks and stones the vignerons had to extract from the soil when preparing the ground for their vines. Our English speaking guide was very knowledgeable about the regional wines of this area and she described each of them very eloquently. I recall one description of hers, that the wine was so special it was ‘like an angel peeing on your tongue’.

Beaune is a medieval and Renaissance walled town, often referred to as the wine capital of Burgundy. It’s most famous feature is the Hôtel-Dieu, or Hospices de Beaune, This former charitable home for the poor was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, a chancellor for the Dukes of Burgundy. The way our guide explained it, he had done a lot of evil things during his lifetime, and as he approached his final years he wanted to atone for this so that God would be pleased and he might go to heaven instead of descending into burning hell. So he decided to do something good. He used the money he had married into to build a huge hospital to house the poor and ill people of Beaune. They would be fed, sheltered and administered medicines and copious amounts of religion. To fund their ongoing care, another wing of the hospice was for wealthy people who were also ill. They paid fees, which funded the care of the poor. The poor slept two to a bed for warmth and were administered food and medicines from pewter implements, which eventually led to many of them dying from lead poisoning. Their sleeping quarters adjoined the chapel, so that although they may be bedridden, the poor and dying inmates were always within sight of their Maker. Unfortunately, many of them went to meet their Maker within a short time of being admitted to the hospice. Nuns and priests cared for their spiritual and earthly needs. The hospice remains in very good condition and represents some of the finest Renaissance building in France.

Today the charity still functions. It raises many of its funds from a very famous wine auction. Winning bidders pay exorbitant prices for the wine, which must be purchased by the barrel. The wine then goes to a local winemaker who nurtures the wine through an 18-month long winemaking process and eventually bottles it before shipping it to its new owner.

Following our tour of the hospices, we had another hour to enjoy a walk around the town. It’s Sunday, and in most other parts of France we’d be lucky to find anything open. But Beaune is a mecca for tourists, so there were plenty of souvenir shops and cafes open. There was also a Sunday market that we wandered through. I’d neglected to mention that Burgundy is also famous for its cheeses, and we saw some of the local produce on sale here. And of course, the wine merchants were also open, proudly displaying some of Burgundy’s most famous wines. A cooper was demonstrating the art of making wine barrels, which were also available for sale.

We’re glad we opted for the Beaune visit. It was really enjoyable and informative, and a little bit of rain did not hamper us at all. Some friends we’ve met on the ship took the wine tour option and also thought that was terrific. During lunch, our ship left its berth in Chalon-sur-Saône and began cruising south. Soon we will return to Lyon and then continue our cruise further south on the Rhône.

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