Nothing to Whine About in Burgundy

Nothing to Whine About in Burgundy
The Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, a medieval charity hospital known as a "Palace for the Poor." A medical facility until 1971, it is now a museum. (NIK WHEELER)
It was, without question, the most bizarre miniature golf course any of us had ever seen--tiny, rundown, seemingly abandoned, tucked away off a small dead-end country road in northern Burgundy.

But the credit card-size leisure "passes" that were available at tourist sites in and around the nearby 15th century walled town of Langres listed "le mini-golf" in precisely this spot, and if we looked carefully, we could see a crude, hand-drawn map posted on an exterior stone wall, guiding us back to a private home in an adjacent, unnamed village where, presumably, we could pick up golf balls, clubs and a scorecard.

Sure enough, we followed the directions and--voilà--there was a pleasant woman sitting in her garage at the prescribed address, happy to dig out the requisite equipment and collect 30 francs--about $4.50--for the three of us, my wife, Lucy Stille; our then-11-year-old son, Lucas; and me.

We returned to the golf course, certain from our earlier, cursory examination that on so small a course, with no one else playing, we would finish in 30 minutes, with all of us well under par.


Every hole turned out to have impossible obstacles. A brick wall right in front of one tee. Several wood-and-metal barriers in the first six feet, one after another. A mock overturned milk container and a huge piece of plastic "cheese" in the middle of a putting green. To get around the barriers, we had to hit the ball off the course--a one-stroke penalty--on at least half the holes. It was all so daunting that we spent more time giggling than hitting the ball.

On miniature golf courses at home, I usually wind up within two or three strokes of the typical par of 54; Lucy and Lucas are slightly higher. Par on this course was also 54. My score: 89. Lucy and Lucas were over 100. But the course was right next to a canal, so between errant strokes, missed putts and raucous laughter, we yelled greetings to French families floating by on their barges. The experience wound up being one of the highlights of the delightful week we spent in Burgundy last summer.

I tend to plan my vacations around restaurants, so I've always liked Burgundy--home of some of the world's finest food and wines--but the region can also be great fun for kids, as our excursion to le mini-golf helped prove. Indeed, the main reason we rented a house in this location was that it offered a little bit of everything for everyone--not just good food and wine but sightseeing, relaxation, beautiful scenery and outdoor activities.

The house, which we had rented on the Internet, was about 20 minutes from the golf course. It had three bedrooms, a modern kitchen, large dining and living rooms and a huge frontyard filled with fruit trees, rosebushes and other plants I couldn't begin to identify. It also had several fireplaces and a good selection of English-language videos--none of which we initially expected to use. After all, this was Burgundy in late July. Who would want a fire? And who goes to France to sit around watching American movies?

Guess again.

It was unseasonably chilly that week, and it rained a little almost every day--although, fortunately, almost all the rain fell while we were driving, eating or sleeping. More important, since we were on vacation we didn't have to get up early, so we could stay up late.

On three of our seven nights in the house, we lighted fires and had our own classic film festival. We saw Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday" after dinner at a casual nearby restaurant overlooking a beautiful lake. We saw Ingrid Bergman in "Indiscreet" over a simple supper of bread, cheese, wine and fresh fruit on a day when we had driven two hours each way for a spectacular three-hour lunch at the Michelin three-star La Côte d'Or in Saulieu. We saw James Stewart in "Rear Window" over a dinner that Lucy cooked after a visit to the market in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, about 35 minutes south of our house.

As it turned out, we had gone to Dijon on the wrong day--Monday, when the main open-air market was closed. We had a pleasant time there anyway--walking through the fine arts museum, which was once a ducal palace; coming upon an impromptu choral performance; admiring a 13th century Gothic church and lunching in the simple Bistro des Halles, across from the site of the market.

Even with the market closed, we were able to buy elsewhere fresh fruits and vegetables and most of the other components of the dinner we planned to have at home that night--including a strawberry cake that turned out to be one of the best desserts of the trip.

But as we left Dijon, Lucas said, "What kind of dinner will this be? We don't have a main course."

"Not to worry," I said, with more confidence than I felt. "Instead of taking the freeway back, we'll take the N74; it's the main road that runs through Burgundy. I'm sure we'll find plenty of places open with good things available."

Lucas teased me every five minutes thereafter as we whizzed through countryside that was as lovely as it was uncluttered--nary a commercial, comestible or agricultural venture in sight. Then, about 10 minutes from home, we spotted a farm with a sign advertising freshly killed chickens, ducks and geese. I pulled triumphantly into the dirt driveway.

The proprietors were out of ducks and geese, but they had chickens. We took one home. All French chickens seem to taste better than American chickens, but this one was especially flavorful--perhaps because there was a hint of vindication in its seasoning.

The next day was the sunniest and warmest of the week, so we took advantage of it to visit Lac Villegusien and Lac de la Liez, both within 20 minutes of our house. At the first Lucas swam while Lucy and I sat on the grass and read. After a picnic lunch composed mostly of leftovers from the previous night's dinner, we headed to Lac de la Liez, where we rented a pedal boat and pedaled our way around the lake for a blissful hour.

That night we had one of the two big-deal meals we had budgeted for during the week--at Lameloise in Chagny, where we met friends from Washington, D.C., and had several Burgundian specialties--including frogs' legs, snails, pigs' feet with mashed potatoes, and assorted preparations of pigeon and duck--and one distinctly non-Burgundian dish, a lobster and mushroom risotto that may have been the best dish of the night.

Two of our three wines--all Burgundies, of course--were definitely the best of the trip: a 1998 Chassagne-Montrachet, La Maltroie, from Bernard Moreau, and a 1985 Volnay, Clos des Ducs, from Marquis d'Angerville.

Burgundy is home to some of the greatest wines in the world, and those wines were the perfect prelude to my plans for the next day--"My Wine Day," as I called it, having promised Lucy that if we went to Burgundy I would not drag her through vineyard after vineyard day after day. (Lucas, who thoroughly enjoys the wining and dining experience--all the more so in France, where they happily let him taste wines in restaurants and at vineyards--did grumble, "Why can't we go to more wineries?")

We were going to visit one of my favorite Burgundy producers, Domaine Dujac, in the morning and, after lunch, drive to Beaune, gateway to the Côte d'Or, the oenophile's version of a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

It was drizzling when we made the drive, but even though I had to strain to see the signs, I still felt my pulse race as we passed the vineyards and villages known to wine lovers the world over--Chambolle-Musigny, Morey-St.-Denis, Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée. Dujac is behind a stone wall on a tiny side street in Morey-St.-Denis, marked only by a modest sign. Jacques Seysses, the proprietor, had arranged for his son Jeremy to give us a brief tour and tasting, and after we tried barrel samples of half a dozen of his 2000 wines, Jeremy opened about a dozen bottles of the '98s and '99s. When he learned that Lucas was born in 1989, he opened an '89 for all three of us to sip--and he showed Lucas the proper way to spit out wine when you're just tasting. Then, it being lunchtime, he recorked the '89 and suggested we take it around the corner to one of his favorite local restaurants and enjoy it with our meal.


Next we were off to Beaune, the home of the dukes of Burgundy until they moved to Dijon in the 14th century. The city is best known for the annual Hospices de Beaune charity wine auction, which every November draws a large, invitation-only gathering to the medieval hospital-cum-museum known as the Hôtel-Dieu.

The Hôtel-Dieu was founded as a hospital for the poor in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, then chancellor to the duke of Burgundy. Used as a hospital until 1971, the facility was so attractively designed and so sumptuously decorated--its walls were hung with valuable works of art--that it came to be known as a "Palace for the Poor."

The building remains a stunning jewel of Burgundian-Flemish architecture, perhaps most noticeable in the steeply pitched slate roof, filled with glazed geometric patterns in gold and red and black, punctuated by weather vanes, dormer windows and a single turret topped by a 98-foot spire. The hospital has a large central courtyard and the massive "Great Hall"--165 feet long, 47 feet wide and 50 feet high, with an immense vaulted ceiling and 31 hospital beds in individual wood cubicles. The beds have been preserved as they were when they held patients--each with a red blanket and a matching set of red drapes, to be closed for privacy.

To Lucas, the kitchen was the most fascinating room in the hospital. Realistic-looking dummies of faceless nuns in habits stood over the stove and chopping blocks, one of which had six whole chickens arrayed on it. One nun was cutting up a rabbit; another was poised over a big pot, as if washing dishes.

After examining tapestries and other works of art, we strolled back out into the gray midsummer day and headed for home.

We had one more sunny day before we had to leave Burgundy, though, and that was the day we played le mini-golf. We began that splendid day by walking the ramparts in Langres, ducking into its caves and towers and sauntering through the town's open-air market. We had lunch there, sitting on a wood bench while we ate local sausages hot off the grill, then headed for what Lucas had really been looking forward to ever since we had found out about it--a go-cart course.

Like the miniature golf, the go-cart course was listed on our leisure pass, and, like the miniature golf, it was not easy to find. But once we found it, the man in charge couldn't have been more helpful--perhaps because we were his only customers.

Neither Lucas nor Lucy nor I had ever been go-carting before, and Lucy wasn't about to start in rural France. I agreed to race Lucas, though I had no idea what to expect or how this course might compare with an American track.

He is not usually a risk-taking kid, so at first I thought he might be too tentative and go too slowly to have any fun. But he is a very competitive kid, so then I worried that he would roar off at 60 mph, flip out on a curve and--well, I didn't want to think about it.

As it turned out, he was neither tentative nor reckless. He drove fast--much faster than I expected--but he did so safely, slowing at the turns (of which there were many), then accelerating down the straightaways. I made sure not to challenge him too aggressively for fear of triggering his competitive drive in a dangerous fashion.

When we finished, he was beaming. He went fast, he beat me, and his mom got lots of pictures.

What more could an 11-year-old boy ask for?


David Shaw is media critic for The Times.