Today I’m going to tell you about our little French adventure. As you know we took a few days off a couple of weeks ago to go and see the youngest who is living in Dijon, studying at l’Université de Bourgogne. Of all the French unis he could have chosen, he opted for the one that’s the most difficult to get to from here and with the little bit of time we could carve out from work there were two routes we could take: fly to Paris and travel down by train or fly to Geneva and drive. The second option meant that we could meander along the route des grands crus and that was the one we decided on. So let me take you with me on our Geneva to Dijon road trip – what I wore and did.
Geneva to Dijon road trip – what I wore and did
Ah… the moment when you know you can begin to power down. This was the night before our flight, we often stay at The Bulls Head near Manchester airport if we have an early take off. We’d come straight from a long day working at one of our retailers’ head offices – we have our own desks there but there isn’t much daylight so I was glad to be out in the spring sunshine. Life’s very full at the moment and it’s unpredictable – we don’t seem to have stopped since the beginning of the year. There’s a learning curve that comes with empty nesting. I look ahead and without the family calendar of term times and school events, the months ahead appear empty so I pepper them with things to look forward to but then of course work throws things in our path. And there’s more of a part to play with the boys than I’d realised – they still have occasions or need help with things now and again. I know I keep on saying this but I’m gradually accepting that I really must slow down on my filling the diary habit. Anyway, you can see by my face that I was looking a bit manic and a few days away from my desk was probably exactly what I needed.
And so here we are in Geneva the following afternoon. We were staying at Citizen M which is Mal’s absolute favourite hotel group and this one was right in the heart of the old town so it was a great base for exploring. It’s hard to get a feel for a city in less than 24 hours but the first thing that struck me was the efficiency of the free Swiss public transport system – passes were emailed to us the morning before we arrived without us even requesting them. And of course when you bear in mind that it has the headquarters of global organisations such as the UN and Red Cross, it isn’t surprising that Geneva feels utterly international but it was hard to winkle out any ‘Swissness’ at all…
The beds, pillows, blackout blinds and ambient noise were as sumptuous as ever at Citizen M so we woke feeling refreshed and decided to skip the delicious looking breakfast so that we could have a walk around the lake instead and then enjoy a long lunch in France later. At midday we headed back to the airport to collect our hire car which was a bit of a palaver. I’d read that it’s better to book it from the French side of the airport so that you don’t need to comply with additional Swiss driving regulations but as we didn’t have a boarding pass any more it wasn’t easy to get from the Swiss side to France. It’s worth knowing that if you break your journey as we did you have to get a 30 Euro taxi for the equivalent five minute walk from one section of the airport to the other. However, we soon collected our little Fiat 500, leaving with very strict instructions not, on any account, to drive into Swiss territory and where did we find ourselves? Going the wrong way on the Swiss motorway! It took a rather hairy twenty minutes to find our way back to the French border so that our road trip could begin at last.
Our plan was to meander along the non toll roads, stopping here and there for a coffee or a bite to eat so that we could wriggle our toes and relax into holiday mode. We were looking forward to revisiting Burgundy because the last time we’d been there was Easter 2003 when I was pregnant with the youngest. We travelled over with my brother and his family and it was one of those holiday weeks with young children that doesn’t quite work out. The weather was cold and because it was Easter everything was closed. Everywhere. All week.
I remember being really glad to leave and swearing we’d never go back to that part of France so this time we made a point of arriving with an open heart. And guess what. It was a bank holiday – everything was closed and I mean everything. Every bar, store, supermarket, petrol station, restaurant… We still hadn’t had anything to eat or drink at 4pm when Mal took the picture below. We’d stopped in beautiful Cluny which was busy with tourists and at first it looked hopeful. There were a few shops open – we could have had our shoes reheeled… we could buy small crocheted animals… or antique books… or a new set of cutlery… but buy a bottle of water or fill our grumbling tummies? Pas possible.
At last we found an ice cream stall and I don’t think a cornet has ever tasted so good!
Realising that Burgundy was performing true to form for us, we rolled in with the tumbleweed to the supposedly bustling village of Azé to find our Chambre d’Hôtes. Now if you’re driving up or down through France (avoid bank holidays!) this is a lovely place to stay. It’s owned by a young Dutch couple, Lotte and her husband Wouter, a sommelier who has worked in some of the world’s biggest hotels. They’ve restored an old French farm (Les Portails Bleus) and are running it as a B&B while he studies for his Master of Wine.
We were so very, very glad that we’d taken them up on their offer to have a kitchen supper there and we had a lovely evening along with another Dutch couple who were great company. Lotte is a very good cook – we had goats cheese salad, boeuf bourguignon (of course) and lemon tart accompanied by a corresponding wine flight chosen by Wouter with a digestif at the end. We were SO hungry and so grateful, it was a highlight of the trip.
3. Beaune via Tournus – Geneva to Dijon road trip
The following morning was my birthday and I woke up to this view from our bedroom window. After a chilly day the day before, the sun had come out, the larks were swooping over the vineyards and everything felt good. I had a lovely chat with my brother (he of the last Burgundy trip) before we went down for breakfast and we discovered that we’d pretty much passed each other the day before – as we headed north, they were driving out of Burgundy on their way to Avignon. It was too late for either of us to turn back but it was one of those very strange ‘almost’ moments.
Lotte had breakfast waiting for us and then we set off on the next stretch of our journey, delighted to see that Azé had come back to life – the boulangerie was open and the day was looking promising! We were tempted to go back to pretty Cluny and see it in a better light but instead we pressed on to Tournus. What a beautiful little town that is, if we ever go back to Burgundy I’d like to spend a night there. We wandered around the Abbey, caught a local art exhibition and stopped in this lovely spot for a birthday glass of crémant in the sunshine.
I’d saved my favourite dress of the season so far in the hope that it would be warm enough to wear it and it certainly was.
We then had the most beautiful drive along the main stretch of grands crus going through Nuits St Georges, Gevrey Chambertin, Romanée Conti… you get the idea… until we arrived at our next stop Beaune. This was another long awaited revisit. When the boys were little and we were just setting up our business we used to holiday as well as we could on a very limited budget. So we’d pack our car with camping gear and baked beans, strap our three little ones in and spend our summers meandering through France. As a treat on the way back I’d book a night in a hotel here and there so that we could have a good night’s sleep and a decent shower. Once I really splashed out on a hotel in Beaune but when we got there the boys were fractious and we both remember sitting outside a restaurant with gritted teeth promising each other that we’d go back one day without them. So I’d deliberately saved Beaune for my birthday and booked a great AirBnB right in the centre.
It was located just across the road from the Fallot mustard factory where you can see how Dijon mustard is made (book in advance).
It was an easy walk into the centre and as we went we found a spectacular gallery selling original affiches. Affiches were the subject I chose for my year abroad French dissertation so we spent quite a long time in there. I thought I might buy myself one for my birthday but unusually we couldn’t find one that we both loved so it wasn’t to be.
Beaune was busy – very busy – the people we spoke to told us that whenever there’s a public holiday in Burgundy it’s customary to take the rest of the week off as well so everybody was en vacances. We were too late to visit the famous hospices which had closed early in honour of the previous day’s bank holiday(!) so we sat at a cafe in the main square for a while and enjoyed the atmosphere. Then we headed back to get changed for a birthday dinner.
Thinking that we’d wander from place to place before choosing where to eat, we hadn’t booked in advance and most restaurants were full which was a bit of a shame but we found a spot in the end and had a lovely evening…
4. Dijon – Geneva to Dijon road trip
I wouldn’t say we loved Beaune though, I suspect it’s a bit of a honeypot like Windermere and Ambleside in the Lakes so the following morning we were up early, ready to move on… because this was the moment I’d been waiting for! Our boy rolled up on the rather clapped out bike he’s bought and christened his trusty steed (sadly minus the onions, breton and beret). He looked healthy and happy and very at home in his new city.
And what a city it is. I’d booked a very entertaining local guide to give us a history tour and he started with the beaten track, telling us the tales of Burgundy’s history as we went along and then took us into all kinds of nooks and crannies that tourists don’t know about, especially the medieval parts of the city that are hidden away. And we were especially pleased when he stopped to tell us the story of the very important building to the left of this boulangerie because it was our AirBnB.
We were up in the rafters at the top and it felt as if we were living Les Miserables (in a good way).
It was such a sweet little studio, right in the heart of the city…
… – if you go to Dijon (and you really must) I highly recommend it.
And so the boy showed us around his city. These are his halls, fifteen minutes out of the centre and they make you realise how luxurious the UK ones are. I have to say that my halls back in 1985 were nicer than this but he’s surviving!
We’d been to Dijon before on the ill fated 2003 trip and the only thing I remember about it is standing outside the Maille mustard shop, heavily pregnant in the pouring rain and thinking what a miserable city it was. So of course we had to go back and stand on the same spot now that he’s no longer in utero. From this aspect I can see why we didn’t think much of the place and drove on – it’s a bit like standing on any busy high street but Dijon’s charm was just around the corner all along. I’ve been to many, many French towns and cities but I can honestly say that Dijon is now my absolute favourite. By the way Maille has sadly been bought by Unilever and its mustard is no longer made in Burgundy so you need to buy Fallot if you want the proper stuff.
I was asked so many questions about this dress when I posted it on my Instagram Stories that I’m adding a video to show how it moves. It’s beautifully constructed with a slightly dipped hem at the back so it isn’t quite as short as the front.
And because I was taking videos for Stories I forgot about photos for the rest of the evening but the boy took us around his student haunts which delighted his dad because the food and the drinks were cheap! The next morning we woke up to find a brocante being set up outside our apartment so we had a little wander round and then went to collect the boy because I’d booked a special morning out…
… we were going truffle hunting in the woods outside Nuits St Georges. I know it won’t be for everyone and the youngest was a bit bemused when I told him what we were doing but we spent a really interesting hour learning all about the different kinds of truffles and then went out with Tiger the truffle dog to find some.
The excitement was followed by the best meal we had – three courses staring with a pea velouté garnished with white truffle crisps…
…pork fillet with truffled pomme purée…
… and pavlova with a truffled salted caramel sauce.
When we got back the boy settled down in our AirBnB to make the most of the only decent wifi he’d had since he arrived while we wandered around the city for a while…
… it’s so very, very lovely…
… and the beaux arts was a two minute walk from the apartment…
… I completely understand why they call it petit Paris.
We caught a heavenly choir practice in the cathedral…
… with its sinister grotesques (not gargoyles as Mal would insist – to be gargoyles they have to have a water spout).
If you’ve been to Dijon you’ll know there’s a very famous little owl carving at the side of the cathedral that everybody trusts with their wishes. The guide on our history tour had explained its complex Burgundian relevance and told us that the important thing is to touch it, make your wish and then depart to its right, otherwise the hidden salamander on the left will steal your wish away as you pass and ensure that it never comes true. The majority of tourists hadn’t been told that and so we watched with some concern as they headed off in the wrong direction, little knowing that their dreams were being dashed before they’d even had a chance to fly.
There’s just so much beautiful architecture to enjoy and another reason for Dijon’s nickname as petit Paris is that some of the main contributors to the Paris landscape came from here.
Eiffel designed the market as a tribute to his home town, there are sculptures from Rude… and most poignantly for us, the sculptor Francois Pompon trained and lived here. This is another of our family stories about a trip to France with little boys who’d probably rather have been somewhere else. After Christmas in 2008 we took them for a long planned week in Paris. It was something we’d been saving towards for ages, little knowing that as the year turned my mum would be in the local hospice and on top of that, a great recession would be in its full throes and hitting our business extremely hard.
We made the decision to let our booking go but when we told my mum she insisted that we carry on with our plans – she stressed that she had never been more sure that life was for living, not fearing or dying. We headed off just as the pound and euro reached parity for the first time, seemingly overnight and so the cost of everything was so much more than we’d planned for. Having lived in Paris as a student I knew how to do it on a limited budget but I still remember our little boys with frozen fingers gazing longingly through cafe windows at people savouring mugs of steaming hot chocolate that cost eight Euros apiece.
And oh my goodness – can you see that I’d had to give them home haircuts? I remember the middle one wriggling and writhing in protest as I was doing the front and there’s a whole chunk missing!
Anyway, as you’ll know, one of the great things about being in France when you don’t have much money is that you can often find free entry days to museums and galleries and so I decided to take them around the Musée d’Orsay. I’d spent so many hours there as a student doing my six month course in art history that I knew it inside out and so I knew I could winkle out the pieces they’d enjoy. But even with so many of the world’s best paintings it’s hard to keep boys of five, seven and twelve engaged so I deliberately kept Pompon’s eponymous sculpture of Pompon the polar bear until last and the youngest was absolutely captivated by it.
When you look back over the years of raising your children you can sometimes spot the points where their minds lit up and their lives took a turn can’t you? The one souvenir I splashed out on that holiday was the storybook of Pompon’s nightly adventures when the gallery is closed. It’s in French and it was always one of the youngest’s favourites. We’d read it at bedtime and he’d ask me to explain what each word meant again and again – probably to delay the ‘lights out’ moment at the time but he puts it down to being one of the reasons that he fell in love with languages. And so you can imagine how special it felt when I received an excited text from him in his first few days in Dijon telling me that not only did Pompon come from the city but one of his original bears was there.
Here we are having one of those moments that holds you together; we all have these threads with our children, they’re unique memories that we’ve woven together and they differ as widely as families do but they’re the warm pulse that will always beat throughout our lives and theirs.
And so, as we stood besides Dijon’s Porte Guillaume we told the boy that he could choose anywhere he liked for dinner. He was the one who from a young age would happily munch on snails so I thought he’d have somewhere special he’d been longing to go to as I did when my parents visited me in Paris…
… and in his way he did – a decent burger was what he wanted and once again his dad was delighted by his moderate desires!
… although I insisted that we at least washed it down with a good bottle of wine (you’ll spot the beer on the table though – they ordered that when I went to the loo). It’s hard to believe that thirty minutes after this photo was taken we were stranded at this table for two hours by the most spectacular thunderstorm. We watched as the rain hammered down around us, lightning rolled and thunder roared overhead – it wasn’t the worst place to be marooned as we spent our last bit of time with him.
5. Annecy – Geneva to Dijon road trip
As we packed up the next morning it was still pouring down over Dijon. We’d planned to drive back to Geneva the other way, through the Jura, but when we looked at the weather forecast we changed our minds and decided to go back down the route des grands crus in our tiny car to chase the sun. We found it in beautiful Annecy which is a place we’d have missed if the weather hadn’t been so bad. We had a long lazy Savoyard lunch of tartiflette and then spent the afternoon basking by the lake in the sunshine.
A couple stopped us as we were crossing this bridge on the way back to the car and told us we must pause for a kiss. It’s Annecy’s pont des amours and apparently it means your love will last for a lifetime so we’ll be ok now!
And that was our six day Geneva to Dijon road trip. We’re trying out a few different kinds of travel this year as we work out what it is we really enjoy doing and this adventure turned out to be much more enriching than I’d imagined. We know France well and so I wasn’t especially excited about it other than having our boy at the heart of it but it was good to be back. With Burgundy being so rural I was forced to speak a lot of French and was surprised to find that I’m nowhere near as rusty as I imagined. That’s really given my confidence a boost, there’s something still there that I thought I’d lost. I’ve always wanted to spend an extended period of time in Spain to regain fluency in my favourite language. Now maybe we’ll also spend a few months in France at some point so that I can get my French back properly too. There are quite a few things about France and gallic ways that don’t chime with me but I’d happily spend more time in Dijon especially as we didn’t have enough for time for proper guided wine tasting and with hand luggage only we couldn’t bring any back which was a shame.
The thing that we’re finding about the empty nest is that you head into it thinking you know yourselves well and then you realise that you’re still growing and changing – in fact probably more so than you have for years. You also rediscover things you loved that you can bring back to life. I’m finding that I’m opening up new doors in myself – and also unlocking some that I thought were closed (metaphor overload I know, sorry).
We packed so much into our six days that when we arrived home we felt as if we’d been away for weeks and that’s another benefit of a trip rather than a classic ‘flop’ holiday – although I still love those too. In a way I feel as if I could do with one right now, it’s been busy since we got back. We went straight over to Newcastle last week to see (and take part in!) the middle one’s graduate performances but that’s another story and I’ll tell you about it soon. He has a viva today and then that’s his time at university over. Already.
I have a lot of work on and as I sign off I’m heading for a nasty little bit of minor dental surgery called an apicectomy. My dentist has told me that I may have a black eye with bruising and swelling afterwards – if that’s the case then next week’s post might be on the following Tuesday rather than next Friday because it involves a few outfit pictures and I’m sure you won’t want to see me looking as if I’m on the wrong side of my old gym buddy Tyson Fury! I’m slowly catching up with your comments though – thank you for all of your thoughtful words and to those who have gently suggested that my HRT might need a bit of a boost, Newson agree and so I have blood tests next week to see if anything’s awry. I know some of you find my HRT experience useful so I’ll let you know – and hopefully I’ll be back to my usual super-energetic modus before too long. Enjoy this wonderful burst of summer we’re having and I’ll be back soon.
Disclosure: ‘Geneva to Dijon road trip – what I wore and did’ is not a sponsored post