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Saône-et-Loire is a department in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of central-eastern France. When it was formed during the French Revolution, as of March 4, 1790, the new department combined parts of the provinces of southern Burgundy and Bresse, uniting lands that had no previous common history nor political unity and which have no true geographical unity. Thus its history is that of Burgundy, and is especially to be found in the local histories of Autun, Mâcon, Chalon-sur-Saône, Charolles and Louhans. In the west, its industrial heart is in Le Creusot and Montceau-les-Mines, formerly noted for their coal mines and metallurgy.

In general, it’s a pretty region with pockets of industrial blight. The countryside is littered with castles, very high-end vineyards, and rolling hills. I’ve documented the northern regions in the post on Autun.


Belleville

Belleville is one of many Beaujolais towns, largely unremarkable except for a large late Romanesque church with a beautiful, recently restored facade. The **Church of Notre-Dame is the only vestige of an abbey of Augustinian canons founded in 1158 by the lords of Beaujeu. The church, begun in 1168 and consecrated in 1179, was both an abbey, parish and necropolis of the sires. The interior is striking different, interesting on its own but quite dark and retaining a surprising amount of historic decorations.


Berzé-le-Châtel 

The ***Berzé-le-Châtel Fortress is a surprising charmer – you can’t see a ton (people live there), but they let you wander the grounds and explore the outbuildings. It’s super “castelly,” makes for awesome photos. Takes about 30 minutes to tour.


Bourgvilain

A small town – more a collection of houses, with a destination-dining restaurant, **Auberge la Rochette. Food was very good. Worth a stop if you’re in the area.


Brancion

At the midpoint of the Romanesque road linking the abbeys of Tournus and Cluny, perched on a hill, the village of Brancion & the **Brancion Castle include a wealth of architecture from the Middle Ages: a fortified gateway, a keep overseeing the small village, and a Romanesque church. We visited in mid-April on a sunny Saturday and really enjoyed our visit – low crowds, great views of the surrounding countryside, a very interesting castle tour paired with a good audio guide. I imagine in mid-summer it could be a bit of a zoo, perhaps aim for mid-week. Allow about 90 minutes to tour leisurely. Notable sites include:

  • The ruins of the logis de l’An Mil, one of the few known examples in France of a large seigneurial hall from the early 11th century. 
  • The 12th- and 13th-century Seigneurial castle with the Beaufort dwelling and its defensive towers, the Treasure Tower and the 20-metre-high keep
  • The 14th-century ducal castle with the Beaujeu dwelling, whose magnificent poly-lobed bays and monumental fireplaces bear witness to its past grandeur.

Cluny

**Abbaye de Cluny is a former Benedictine monastery. The abbey was constructed in the Romanesque architectural style, with three churches built in succession from the 4th to the early 12th centuries. The earliest basilica was the world’s largest church until the St. Peter’s Basilica construction began in Rome.

It’s architecturally important, and the experience does a good job of helping you visualize what was there (because so much is gone now). It’s not the most exciting of tours, and tends towards crowded. The surrounding town isn’t very appealing – stay somewhere else.


Corcelles-en-Beaujolais

**Château de Corcelles is one of the many castles in this region – in this case it’s an events venue and winery. It’s not a standout experience and the wine is definitely on the lower end, but it’s a pretty location and there’s a decent audio tour.


Cormatin

A short drive north of Cluny, Cormatin is a rather pretty small town with several restaurants, and a picturesque castle with formal gardens – the **Château de Cormatin. It’s not huge, quite manageable for a 90 minute visit. There’s an impressive moat.

We had a very good lunch at **Chez l’oncle Jules, recommended.

The remains of ***Saint-Hippolyte Church in tiny berg Bonnay-Saint-Ythaire are well worth a detour from Cormatin (it’s a very short drive away). Associated with Cluny, the remains of the current fortified church date from the end of the 11th century. The nave collapsed in the 15th century. It’s a very photogenic spot.


Cuiseaux

***Le Bistrot Gourmand is a hidden and rather wonderful find in a small town on the edge of the Jura. It’s very regional, but with some range (think Jura wines, the best of Lyon cuisine, bresse chicken). 


Igé

*Château d’Igé is the main site in Ige (aside from a few other hotels & B&Bs). It’s very tired, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it. Rooms are worn out, service is lackluster, breakfast is just bad. Mixed experience with the fancy restaurant – Galen’s meal was good, mine was bad. Pool area is nice. Skip. 


Mâcon

Mâcon is a fairly working-class small city, but it has a nice cheerful energy, good pedestrian traffic, a well-marked walking tour, and a decent amount of intact medieval (and older) architecture. Our food choices so far have been lacking, but the area is packed with restaurants and it’s worth continuing to try. 

  • **Musée des Ursulines is a small regional art museum with a surprisingly good collection. I especially liked the landscapes.
  • We had an excellent Bistro lunch at **The Wooden House.
  • *Brasserie Bar de l’hôtel de ville du centre (just in front of the cathedral) is very average, I’d skip.
  • On the edges of town there’s a higher-end and popular outdoor furniture store, Fermob.

Montmerle-sur-Saône

Montmerle is a fairly unremarkable spot along the Rhône with a very good restaurant. Historically, it has a few distinctions of note – it was originally named Muntunulum by Vercingetorix himself, and was one of the last Gallic villages to resist the Romans, earning the town inhabitants the nickname “Gallic heretics of the Alps.” The Montmerle horse fairs were very famous in the Middle Ages: they lasted a full month of rejoicing and commercial transactions. 

We really enjoyed our meal at ***Restaurant Emile Job, which has a great position and outdoor dining area overlooking the water, as well as a nice indoor space. The food focuses on the classics (frog legs, vol-a-vent, Bresse chicken), all very well prepared, at a reasonable price for a fine dining establishment.

To walk off the meal, we took an easy stroll to the **Parc des Minimes and the Tower: the area is under construction, but it has nice views and a (reportedly) interesting church dating back to the 11th century or so; it was closed during our visit. 


Tournus

Tournus is a bit off the beaten tourist track, but has some renown as a foodie destination (Michelin calls out four restaurants, including two one-stars), in the middle of vineyards and the “castle row” of Burgundy.

The **Abbey of St Philibert and its convent buildings dominate the town. Saint-Philibert’s relics were brought here in the 9th century when vikings attacked western France, and in whose honor the abbey was built – but earlier than that, in the 2nd century, it was here that Valerien preached christianity (and was beheaded by the Romans), so Tournus has been an important religious center from a very early time. The abbey church is probably the oldest Roman style church of its kind in existence, and the only surviving group of monastic buildings dating back to the 12th century which exists in Europe.

St Philibert’s story is the centerpiece of signage at the church itself (I saw no mention of Vikings). The building is austere and carefully restored (including recent work in this century, which uncovered 12th century mosaics). It’s a nice stop, though not particularly memorable.

We took about an hour to tour the town itself, following the marked walking tour. It’s a bit run down, though with several historic buildings and a pretty river. I’d consider the walk optional – on a sunny day, pleasant; could be a bit grim in the winter.

Onto the food – ***L’Écrin de Yohann Chapuis (one Michelin star) was wonderful. Dining is indoors and fairly intimate (I’d guess they could serve a max of 30 people). The wine list is a bit traditional for my taste (though very good), but everything else was perfect – seasonal, well-plated, interesting flavors, good portions. 

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