By K.C. Summers
Sunday, April 4, 2010;
Who: Kathy Lanciano, 52, and her husband, Joseph, of Crofton, and two friends
Where: France's Burgundy and northern Rhone regions, capped off with a couple of days in Paris
Why: Gift from the other couple
When: A week in June
Budget: $7,000 to $10,000 per couple
"We like museums, gardens, dining . . . and wine!"
Let's not waste any time being jealous of the Lancianos just because they were given the incredibly generous present of a week in France *grits teeth* and get right to the important question: What should they see and do while they're basking in Burgundy and relaxing in the Rhone Valley? Besides eat and drink, that is. Bike the wine routes? Explore ancient cities and hilltop towns? Visit Roman ruins? Learn to cook? Hike amid some of the country's most spectacular scenery?
Actually, with four days in the region, they can do it all, since most of the above activities are deliciously intertwined.
So we won't worry so much about cost this week, just an itinerary.
Here's the basic plan: The friends will fly to Paris, rent a car and drive 2 1/2 hours south to their first base, the medieval town of Vezelay, west of Dijon. After two days in green and gorgeous Burgundy, they'll head three hours south to the town of Vienne, near Lyon in the Rhone-Alpes, for two nights. Then it's back to Paris for the last two days of the trip.
When in two of the great wine-producing regions of the world, of course, the main order of business is to tour the company towns and sample the merchandise. And even if you think you know a lot, I strongly advise you to hire a guide: A crash course in winemaking, combined with tastings, field visits and some historical and geographical perspective can only enhance the experience. Plus none of you will have to be the designated driver.
Detours in France, for example (011-33-380-220-603, http://www.detours-in-france.com), based in Beaune, has a half-day guided wine tour by car or bike for about $333 for up to eight people; for your group of four, that's $84 each (bike rental is extra). A full day is $600, lunch not included. For a wine-tasting lunch at a winery, with up to 10 different wines tasted and explained over a table d'hote lunch, add $73 per person.
It's clear that guide Sarah Bird loves her work. A Canadian expat, she first visited Burgundy 20 years ago "for three months" and never left.
"The region is physically beautiful -- rolling vineyard hills, plains filled with sunflower and colza, and crumbly stone villages," she says. She likes to take visitors up into the Côte de Nuits, starting in Gevrey-Chambertin, and meander south, passing on tiny roads the villages and vineyards of Morey-Saint-Denis, Chambolle Musigny and Vougeot, with a tasting along the way. The afternoon might include the Côte de Beaune vineyards to the south: Pommard, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet.
Taste Burgundy, also based in Beaune (011-33-345-460-069, http://www.tasteburgundy.com), is another good option. A three-hour vineyard walk is $80 per person, plus bike rental. "I love visiting growers, and I only take people to growers that I purchase and drink the wines from," says guide Cristina Otel, who has studied wine for seven years.
She likes Thierry Violot Guillemard in Pommard, Gabriel Muskovac in Pernand Vergelesses, David Duband in Chevannes and Gros Freres et Soeur in Vosne Romanee, among others.
Here's what else to do while you're in the area:
-- Take a cooking class, using local ingredients. Katherine Johnstone of the French Government Tourist Office (http://www.franceguide.com) likes Atelier des Chefs in Dijon, where you can take classes ranging from half an hour to four hours in length, starting at about $23. Its Gourmet Dinner Workshop lets you create a main dish and dessert and enjoy them with a glass of wine, all in an hour, for $48 per person (011-33-380-317-275, http://www.atelierdeschefs.fr). A higher-end option: The Cook's Atelier (011-33-617-364-660, http://www.thecooksatelier.com), which offers a market tour and cooking class year-round for about $266 per person.
-- Go to church. Vezelay is a World Heritage site, famous for its Benedictine abbey church of Saint Mary Magdalene. Vienne has cathedrals galore, including St. Peter's, one of France's oldest, dating from the 5th century, and the gothic St. Maurice, begun in 1052.
-- Go to an outdoor market. Most towns and even villages have one at least once a week. Beaune's big day is Saturday; Dijon's market is open daily.
Johnstone's tip for Dijon: Look for a little door on the southern side of the market and go up the small set of stairs. "You can sneak up there for a spectacular view of the market. It's fantastic." Start early in the morning, since most markets end by about 1 p.m.
-- And speaking of food: In Dijon, Post food critic Tom Sietsema likes the restaurants DZ'envies, a chic bistro near the food hall, and La Dame d'Aquitaine, in a 13th-century crypt, as well as the town's famous food hall.
Johnstone likes Le Charlemagne outside Beaune and its in-town little sister, Le Sushi Kai. Feel like a splurge? Try Le Montrachet in Puligny-Montrachet, L'Esperance in Vezelay or Paul Bocuse's Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon.
Ah, but there's so much more. You've got to explore Beaune and its hospices: The 15th-century charity hospital built by the chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy to ensure a ticket to heaven is a must-see, everyone agrees. Save time for wandering around the historic university town of Dijon, with its fine museums and Renaissance architecture, not to mention the Abbey of Fontenay, one of the best-preserved in France. And for the love of food, don't miss Lyon.
I could go on, but we've got to get you back to Paris. Hard to believe you'll still be hungry, but just in case, Johnstone's favorite restaurants-of-the-moment there are Daniel Rose's new Table 28, Frenchie, and Chez Fernand, "full of real French people." For a good place to stay on the Left Bank, I like the Hotel Verneuil (011-33-142-608-214, http://www.hotelverneuil.com), in a 17th-century building on a quiet street in Saint Germain des Pres, with doubles from about $237 a night on Venere.com.
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