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This destination is one of our favourites – Northern Burgundy. It is a much neglected part of France from a tourist standpoint. To the north is Champagne with its landscape of gently rolling vine covered hillsides. The towns of Champagne are steeped in wine making history and the money coming into the area keeps it looking expensively maintained. It is an area that will always delight but just to the south is a less travelled region that is more warts and all in its presentation. The towns are just that little more untouched and authentic, the countryside rural and pure, not quite manicured to within an inch of its life as in Champagne. It is a region that produces fine wine, wine that other than Chablis rarely reached the supermarkets of the UK. These wines are well worth finding when your car has an empty boot. They are astonishingly good value.
We are going to start this leg of our road trip in a small village in the French department of Côte-d’Or, in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté. When you are asked to name one or two films set in France then the usual suspects come to mind. ‘A Good Year’, ‘Midnight in Paris’, ‘Mr Bean’s Holiday’. If I ever asked the female friends of my wife then they always seemed to come up with ‘Chocolat’, the film based on the novel by English Author Joanne Harris. Starring Johnny Depp, Juliet Binoche and Judi Dench it was a popular addition to the genre. I have to say at the time of our travels I had never seen it of knew anything of the storyline. I certainly was not aware of the film location in France. Flavigny-sur-Ozerain is the setting for Chocolat and that is the village where our bed and breakfast accommodation is located. Somebody told me that film fact by the way, because you would not be aware of it when you are staying there. This rural village is just that and resolutely determined to stay one. There are no indications that it has a claim to fame, no signposts designating the places featured in the film. Certainly, there are no souvenir shops. I doubt you could even buy a bar of Chocolat. This would never be allowed to pass in England. If even an advert is filmed in the smallest of towns or villages in England they would certainly make sure you knew about it. You are absolutely not going to get the T-Shirt in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.
I cannot say I am disappointed at that. I like my locations in France to stand on their own, keeping their individual charm. Flavigny does not disappoint on first view of the village from the Northern approach road. It looks the quintessential Plus Belle Village de France as you take it in from a distance. I pull the car over on the rise with the village beyond emerging out of the lush green countryside. The dominant feature as is the case in most French villages, however small, is the church spire. Abbaye Saint Joseph de Clairval is a particular stand out example and I should have realized, features in the film. It is a promising first impression.
Entering the village, we make our way slowly along the main street and cannot miss our clearly signed accommodation – L’Ange Souriant on Rue Voltaire. I am writing this in Covid lockdown times and of course most things are closed anyway but I suspect that this establishment is no longer trading which is a shame. It would be one of the most enjoyable places we stayed at in France, despite its modest pretentions. As I have mentioned this an extremely famous village, Hollywood superstar famous. Strangely no one seems to have told it. From entering the village, we have not encountered a soul. The first person we see is our host and then again that is not straight away by any means. She is not around when we arrive, so we have to wait, explore a few side streets winding around the property. Disturbing the slumbers of a couple of cats is the best we can achieve in bonding with the locals. Finally, the lady we are waiting for comes around the corner with her three young children. The school run accomplished she warmly greets us and apologises for not being here for our arrival. She sets the tone for our visit, and we are immediately part of the family.
Her home follows the usual style of furnishing in rural France. In our bedroom large solid chunky furniture dominates our space. Throughout Burgundy and other parts of France it seems that furniture is handed down from generation to generation. Dark wood fixtures may be well out of fashion in England but not here in France and it is always oversized. It is an extremely clean and well cared for space though and the overall atmosphere is homely and generous. Having unpacked we are welcomed into the family space, the owners three children doing their homework. As always in France little excuse is needed to offer a guest a glass of wine and our delightful host continues that tradition with a lovely light Burgundy.
Soon it is time to go in search of food, a typical Burgundy auberge perhaps in another picture-perfect village. We head out through the village gates and into the expanse of countryside beyond. The light is already gently fading with the sun just obscured by the cloud on the horizon. It is a gorgeous view and completely tranquil. As we drive down the narrow lanes and pass-through various villages it becomes readily apparent just how tranquil it actually is. Apart from the odd cat and assorted cattle in a field there is no other sign of life. Despite it being dusk very few lights are flickering in the villages and although there may be an auberge sign or two gently swaying in the breeze the attached restaurants are resolutely closed. So too are any village shops. Except one that we eventually stumble upon after driving around for around an hour. Our French evening meal feast is a couple of slightly past their best chocolate croissants and a bar of chocolate all washed down with a cheeky little half bottle of sauvignon blanc of dubious parentage. Still, being able to gorge on this feast back at the village sat by the church in the deserted town square, peace all around, it is not a bad end to the day.
We explore a little more on the following morning, but Flavigny is just a pleasant, quiet Burgundian village. There is no ‘Chocolat’ tourist trail, no souvenir shops where you can buy your ‘Chocolat’ Chocolate. It is a village were the local life goes on at its slow unconcerned pace. We saw a man tinkering with a car down a side street at what I presume passes as the local garage. An old lady wanders across the church square to talk to a neighbour. That is about it really. The French do not really do celebrity transformations of their villages and that is the same story throughout Burgundy and much of France. As you tour the Burgundian countryside you pass through so many lovely villages, many are incredibly famous throughout the world. The wine villages around Beaune such as Pommard, Aloxe-Corton, Gevry Chambertain, Vosne-Romanie and so on are names to conjure with. However, when you arrive at these villages there will be just a simple village sign as there is on entering any village in France. These villages have remained small and undeveloped and if you are expecting any sort of fanfare announcing their important status then you will be disappointed. In fact if anything they discourage any additional attention. I for one am happy with that and the countryside of Burgundy remains very unspoilt and is much as it has always been. The only drawback is that because they do not overly put themselves out for the hungry tourist you can find even in summer if a restaurant only opens Wednesday to Sunday, lunch only, then those are the hours and even if there are coachloads of ready customers those hours will not change. Bring a sandwich!
Flavigny does have its charm even if you are a disappointed ‘Chocolat’ tourist, which I am not. The old walls and gateways to the village are well worth seeking out as is the area around the church. Its charm as a filming location is obvious and although a stroll around the village will be uneventful you will encounter one or two villagers and the welcome is friendly. At the entrance to the village is the one claim to fame that the villagers will acknowledge with genuine pride – the Anise of Flavigny shop and manufacturers. It is in the Benedictine Abbey in Flavigny that this tasty little treat has been made since 1591. Always produced according to the same ancient recipe, each individual aniseed is still patiently coated in thin layers of a secret delicately flavoured syrup. To the villagers sharing a sweet with a hidden aniseed at its heart is symbolic of love itself. Having a pedigree going back through more than four centuries of history, this is one of the oldest brands in France. They do last a long time so a couple of their attractive tins for the winter are a welcome addition to any store cupboard or the car glove box. One thing however, even in this shop, you are not going to find and that is a bar of Chocolat Chocolate or a Aniseed Chocolat here in Flavigny. There are no souvenirs to be had of the film location. All the better for it really, we enjoyed the quiet and to wander round the village with my camera was a photographer’s dream – no cars, no people.
Our stay at our chambres d’hôtes here in Flavigny was extremely pleasant and we bid adieu to our host and her charming children following another copious breakfast. At least this was a regular source of food for at least one of our daily meals here in rural Northern Burgundy. Flavigny is a charming village but please bring a packed lunch if you are not coming in July or August.
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