25 Oct Trekking from Avallon to Vézelay in Burgundy Chablis Country
It was the salad dressing on the buttery greens that undid me.
“What is in this dressing?” I asked the waiter, who also happened to be the chef, as he walked through the small room of linen-covered tables, each topped with a terracotta water jug. A chalkboard with the day’s specials covered most of the brick wall just behind him.
He shrugged and puckered his lips. “Nothing special. The usual: olive oil, Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, minced shallots, salt and pepper. Just a normal dressing.”
“Normal” meant Dijon mustard from just over the hills southeast of us in Dijon. It meant the highest quality olive oil from just south of us in Provence. It meant shallots grown here, in Burgundy, which also meant that the white wine vinegar was made from Burgundy white wine.
There I was, in a traditional bouchon, a bistro-like eatery in central France, with my mouth-watering array of dry cured sausages and local cheeses, and a green salad with that divine dressing. I was already having a sacred experience and I hadn’t even hiked to the 11th and 12th century basilica dedicated to Mary Magdalene in Vézelay fifteen kilometers to the west.
That was why I had come. I was in Avallon, my home base in northern Burgundy and Chablis country, right next door to Champagne, a shared soil and climate that some say gives Chablis its bright and distinctive wines.
This part of Burgundy was wild. I had expected a groomed landscape. Instead, I found a stronghold of wild boar, red deer and wolves, thick native forest, and craggy limestone cliffs harboring signs of early humans, including Neandertals.
It is also a region thick with an ancient Celtic presence, a serious contender for King Arthur’s historical homeland and mystical isle. Here, the mythic Arthur was known as the 5th century Celtic-Roman leader Riothamus, who may have last been seen dragging himself up the hill into Avallon after being mortally injured in battle. Avallon is even pronounced like Avalon in English and may be derived from the proto-Celtic word aballo, apple—a loaded and mystical symbol in its own right.
That next morning I began my trek. I hiked west into the Morvan forest, another Celtic word meaning black mountain. I followed the trail through hills of dark granite and native forest of oak, beech, birch, and pine. As wild as it was, the trail was well marked: it’s one of the four major pilgrimage routes that cross through France, each destined for Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. My destination, Vézelay, is a pilgrimage center in its own right, harboring the remains of Mary Magdalene, purportedly brought there in the 9th century. I spent the first half of my trek—about eight kilometers—in that native forest of the black mountain.
Then I emerged into dynamic countryside: rolling green hills, fields bursting in mustard-yellow flowers, grazing white dairy cows and lush vineyards. Occasionally the trail took me back into pockets of forest. I could see Vézelay slowly emerge on a rise, its hill offering a 360°-view of the vineyards surrounding it. Crowning the hill, with a single bell tower marking its western gate, stood the medieval Romanesque basilica.
Religious orders always knew where best to build.
I climbed the hill’s apex and entered Mary Magdalene’s church. Ethereal sunshine danced off the striated black and white stone arches along the nave as an otherworldly sound echoed through the chamber. I had serendipitously arrived in time for the midday sung prayer in the old form of polyphonic Gregorian chant.
An active monastic community of nuns and monks still live in Vézelay and carry on sacred traditions as they did in the Middle Ages, including daily cycles of sung prayer. Visitors are welcome to attend. Beneath the nave, everyone is also welcome to visit the crypt where the Magdalene’s remains rest. When I went down, I discovered a nun and a monk there too, deep in prayer.
Some say—sober and rational locals and visitors alike—that Vézelay is a power spot, a place where the veil is thin, where heaven and earth connect and surge with beatific energy.
I certainly felt this surge while hiking in Morvan as well as in arriving at this hilltop. And after I fed my spirit in the basilica, I went to feed the rest of me. I slipped into a small restaurant right in the heart of the hill and folded into the new normal. I ordered what everyone else was having, the fixed-price three-course menu of the day: grilled scallops and saffron cream tossed on fresh spring greens; grilled trout with pesto sauce, braised turnips, and wild rice; and a plum tart for dessert. The waitress offered local wines throughout—whites from Vézelay and Chablis and local reds from Irancy.
This was such perfect contentment—hours of trekking in a wild native forest followed by sublime song and sustenance—that I can’t be clear about what happened next. I think that I might have sprouted wings and flown back to Avallon. (Or hiked more efficiently back than how I had arrived.)
More reasonable folk might order another glass of wine and stay the night, or better yet, get on a bicycle and peddle south through those hills, deeper into Burgundy.
Explore France’s wine country on these Adventure Collection journeys:
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