Beaujolais Medieval Village Tour - Travel Diary
Taking the plunge –Our First Walking holiday in France
Michael and Kate from Australia tell us about their independent walking holiday experience in the beautiful French region of Beaujolais, where the hospitality and food is as impressive as the quaint medieval villages.
“Bonne journée et bonne Randonnée”, exclaimed Martine, our extremely friendly host, bidding us farewell as she watched us tentatively wander out of sight. We had booked on a six day walking tour with High Point Holidays called the Beaujolais Medieval Village Tour, which explored the stunning and surprisingly quiet Pays des Pierres Dorrées (Golden Stones Country) in the southern Beaujolais.
Some friends of ours had done the same walking holiday in France the previous year and had literally raved about the Beaujolais hospitality, its great food and delightful countryside. We absolutely adore France, but our long list of visits had never included this part of the hexagonal before. Despite the glowing endorsement from our friends, we were a bit reticent, having never done a multi-day walking trip.
Don’t get me wrong, Michael and I aren’t exactly couch potatoes but we were concerned about how we would last the walking over the course of a whole week. However, some gentle words of encouragement from our friends and an evening spent drooling over their photos finally made up our minds. We would take the plunge.
And on this fresh but sunny September morning we were in high spirits after Martine had shown us around the 12th century chapel of Saint Barthélemy at Chatillon d’Azergues. Perched on the end of a ridge, this pretty village in warm ochre coloured stone would, like many of the settlements we were to discover during our week, find pride of place in the Cotswolds of England. But here in the heart of France, we had found a secret gem; the hordes of tourists you might expect to find in such a picturesque region were nowhere to be seen.
Heading north, I was still feeling full after last night’s wonderful meal. It had started with Jean-François, a slightly gruff but charming man serving us some of his moreish home-made aperitif. It’s strong – you’ve been warned. We were then treated to a scrumptious meal which included a tomato quiche to die for and a heavenly pintade farcie (stuffed guinea fowl). Our four-course meal was washed down with some very quaffable wine. For the first hour or so we sought to come to terms with finding our way. We had been provided with a detailed walking map and a personalized guide book, which in addition to the route description also detailed the history surrounding the local villages.Our worries soon eased, however, as we got used to the comprehensive notes and the array of local signs.
“It says turn right just after a large house on the left and follow a grass track gently uphill” Michael announced as we started to climb towards the charming village of Bagnols. After spotting the house up ahead, I relaxed and took a look around me. As we rose into the vine covered French hills, the views began to unfold before us like a wonderful tapestry. Some of our various hosts liked to remind us that the Pierre Dorrée in the French Beaujolais is often compared to the hills of Tuscany, and from our grassy track, I could understand why. A series of beautiful valleys and ridges spread out before us rising to the Mont Lyonnais in the West.
This level-two rated French walking holiday generally involved about 16km walking per day. We found we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the sites. During a couple of the warmer days, we even found time for an afternoon nap in a shady spot. For two occasional walkers, it was a pleasant surprise to find that we were coping well with the week, and for my part, I had only minor sores on my feet. Our luggage was carried for us between night stops, freeing our shoulders from the usual strap bruises. We soon found a leisurely rhythm, partly imposed by the unseasonal warmth, allowing us plenty of time to enjoy the delectable landscapes of the Beaujolais of France.
That first afternoon we were so pleased with our progress that we allowed ourselves a relaxing coffee in the village of Bois d’Oingt, which acts as a local centre for the Pierre Dorrée. The day continued by following an old railway line which took us through a cooling forest to reach our second night where we stayed on an organic farm.
I felt a bit sluggish the next morning, and it wasn’t all down to the wine. My legs were feeling a touch stiff and they complained a little as we climbed onto a glorious ridge with vast panoramic views, before making our way to Ternand. This delightful 12th century fortified village, had partly been destroyed by the barons of Adrets during the religious wars. At the entrance to Ternand, we sat on a bench and munched our way through a wonderful picnic of home-made salad, bread, saucisson, cheese and fruit. That night at our small chambre d’hôte style guest house at Montgelin, we were joined by a pair of friendly Parisians and a hilarious Belgian couple who just loved to tell a story. For me, our evening meals were one of the highlights of the week. They were taken with our hosts and any other guests, which made for a completely new experience every evening. There was an eclectic mix of our school-level French, English with all manner of accents and some impromptu hand gestures. By and large everyone made themselves understood and we discovered so much more about the Beaujolais region of France than if we had stayed in impersonal hotels.
Oingt, our first stop next day, is an ancient outpost of the sires of Lyons, who defended their territory from the sires of Beaujeu to the north. Sitting high on a limestone ridge, Oingt is classed as one of the prettiest villages in France and commands amazing views over the Beaujolais vines which are rowed up like a soldier’s parade. Our day’s walk took in a series of enchanting medieval villages and hamlets such as Thiezé and Ville-sur-Jarnioux. Their narrow lanes, which are by and large untainted by modern indiscretions, are lined by gorgeous stone cottages, glowing warm golden hues in the sunshine. In between the villages there were also plenty of sites of interest with historic chateaux, chapels or cadoles – stone shelters built within the vineyards. The only blemish was the odd abandoned field, where the vines have been ripped out; a visible legacy of the difficult times being experienced by the French wine industry. We took a refreshing dip in the pool at out our lovely bed and breakfast that evening, before enjoying the company of Fabienne and Pascal our hugely entertaining hosts, as well as David and Sarah from Winchester in England.
Rare grey skies greeted us the next morning on our walking holiday in France and we decided to take the shorter of the two possible options to give our wearisome legs a breather. It turned out to be a good idea, and not just because
The sun made a timid return the following day as we set off, starting to feel the accumulative effects of too much good food. Shortly, we reached one of the jewels of the Pierre Dorrées – the 13th century Jarnioux Chateau. Unlike many of the other chateaux of the region, its historic buildings and 6 towers have remained unmolested from attack during the various conflicts. Our visit was a surreal French experience. At one of the allotted visiting times, we stood alone ringing the bell at the enormous gated entrance. After a few minutes, the huge wooden door squeaked open and we were greeted by a kind-faced old lady. It turned out that she was the present owner and her family had descended from the Henry’s who had first become Lords of Jarnioux in the 16th century. Her English was almost non-existant, so there were some parts of the tour, where we were a little lost to say the least, but it mattered little. We could easily imagine being fired at through the arrow slits or being locked in the tiny dungeon.
Our climb to the hill top French village of Pommiers was hot, but the effort was well worth it. We were rewarded with a breathtaking view across the Beaujolais hills to the west and all the way to the triangular form of Mont Blanc on the horizon, 300km to the east. Our notes had informed us that it may be visible, but that it was often a precursor for the arrival of rain. And sure enough as we sat in the local restaurant that evening, we were glad to be indoors as lightning flashes lit up the whalebacked Beaujolais hills.
Fortunately, calm was restored the next morning. Our final day took us back to Chatillon d’Azergues via a ridgeline peppered with quaint villages. It was sad to be finishing the tour. My legs were a little fatigued, but the walking had been lovely and the hospitality shown by our hosts was first class. We both felt as if we had known some of them for a lot longer, such was the impression they had made on us.
Alas, our final morning had arrived and we were transferred back to the train station in Lyon by William. We chatted freely about our various experiences, keen to convey how much we had enjoyed the walking holiday. We had taken the plunge and now our first week-long walking holiday was over. But it certainly won’t be our last. The walking experience was more rewarding than I had expected and the Beaujolais and its warm and generous hosts had given us so many happy memories to take back home with us.
Michael and Kate went on a High Point Holidays 7 night Beaujolais Medieval Village Tour walking holiday. Includes 7 night’s full board accommodation (with the exception of one evening meal), walking holiday notes and maps, transport of luggage and transfers from Lyon.
High Point Holidays offer a number of other independent and guided walking holidays in France.
Take a look at a slideshow for the southern Beaujolais