Burgundy is huge: it starts 80km south-east of Paris and stretches past Mâcon, not far from Lyon. I particularly love the lesser-known north, the Yonne department, where I live. People are familiar with the wine areas but this area is really special.
When I was a kid my family used to drive from Paris to the south of France in a Citroen – my father smoking all the way. I always remember the scenery near the motorway exit at Semur-en-Auxois: it was hilly, soft and green, not like the wheat fields you see over thousands of acres of the country. It was pastoral, like a painting by Constable – and I loved it. The stone in Burgundy’s villages is very beautiful too: it’s a whiteish gold, less yellow than the Cotswolds.
I was drawn by the area’s medieval quality – there are lots of abbeys and monasteries. The Abbaye de Fontenay near Montbard is stunning and in very good condition. Then there’s Dijon, with the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, now an art gallery. The English are drawn to the Dordogne and the south-west, but if they gave Burgundy a couple of days, they would discover the most extraordinary historical landmarks.
There are so many incredible historical buildings in the area around where I live. In Tanlay, not far from Château de Tanlay near Tonnerre, is a lovely renaissance castle with moats and a park. It used to belong to an important Protestant family, some of whom were executed during the reign of Catherine de Medici. People think of the Loire for chateaux, but you find lots here, too. Tonnerre itself is a little abandoned but has plenty of hidden beauty. In the centre of town, La Fosse Dionne is a natural spring with a circular public laundry built around it. Epoisses also has a fairytale chateau – and one of the smelliest cheeses in France.
Visitors tend not to explore Burgundy beyond the well-known wineries. Smaller, lesser-known producers such as Irancy or Epineuil in the north are also great. If you’re in Chablis on a Sunday morning, go to the Marché Bourguignon, it’s so very French, with lots of local produce and flowers and delicious food – I always take my foreign friends. Sit at a cafe terrace with a coffee or glass of wine and buy the most amazing saucisson and cheeses.
For a great-value meal, look for a table d’hôte (set menu), in a village restaurant. Try specialities such as gougère (choux pastry with cheese), snails or beef – everything is cooked in wine, of course. In Sacquenay, there’s a B&B with great food called Ferme des Champs Penêts (doubles from €65) – it’s in a beautiful house with a view of the village and medieval church.
You may not think of Burgundy as being about water but a boat trip on the Canal de Bourgogne is a peaceful way to explore. The canal, which connects the river Yonne at Migennes with the Saône beyond Dijon, is wonderful, with people walking or cycling the towpaths and little ports in many towns. I live in an old watermill on the river Armançon. You can see swans, herons, kingfishers, otters – it’s another world.