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What is it that gives Burgundy so much charm and romance? Partly it is the architecture in the villages which has stood the test of time and which is so pleasing to the eye. Even when the buildings are crumbling, they still have an attractive air, just reaching out for someone to give them a new lease of life. From the ‘cave’ to the attic there are details of interest.
You will come across the lavoirs, which used to be the hub of the village on washday, now more likely decorated with geraniums; the lucarnes, those little windows set in the roof line with their ornate stonework; decorative ironwork and the pigeonniers and towers where all that’s missing is the silhouette of a damsel passing by the window.
This is not about those grand Gothic or Romanesque buildings, the châteaux or churches, it is about the little details on ordinary houses that catch the eye at every turn, giving Burgundy its very special character.
Pigeonniers & Towers
Perhaps more than anything, it is the pigeonniers and towers which give Burgundian houses castle status. In the north of the region, the pigeonnier was built next to the main entrance; in the south, you will find one each side of the open gallery along the front of the house. The roof is topped off with a stone ball or a little bird for decoration.
People lived in the superb round towers forming part of the large farms, particularly found south of Auxerre in the area known as the Auxerrois. In the south around Tournus and Cluny where the towers were integrated in the building, the grandest houses have become château hotels such as Château d’Igé and Château Fleurville.
Lavoirs, Fountains & Wells
Lavoirs, those covered wash houses became the hub of village gossip. Some were fairly basic and open to the elements; others had a simple roof and basin at the centre. Then there were the more lavish affairs incorporating a catchment area for rain water.
As with all good design, the principal is clever. The stone basin has an inclined, flat surface around the edge, used for scrubbing the clothes. The fresh clear water kept flowing and the soapy water was washed away.
Lavoirs were around in the middle ages but it wasn’t until the 18thC that they became commonplace. Edme Tircuit, the Avallon architect designed some examples in the Yonne in the early 19thC such as the one at Guillon. He was influenced by the old villas of Rome, and developed a neo-classic style with arcades and an atrium. Even if the style was swish, the layout was practical, with a corner set aside to boil the laundry as you can still see in Noyers-sur-Serein.
Today, some of the lavoirs are well maintained and a tourist attraction, overflowing not so much with water but with pride – pride in the hanging baskets and pots of geraniums. Others have been replaced by fountains as in front of the church of St Andoche in Saulieu. There are decorative fountains to be found, particularly in the medieval villages, and charming wells to be spotted all over the region.
Roofs & Lucarnes
The coloured patterned roofs are one of the most eye catching sights as you travel through Burgundy. These are mainly found on the grand buildings such as the Hospices de Beaune and the merchants’ houses in Dijon but examples can also be spotted in the villages on a less grand scale. It is thought that the glazed coloured tiles came to the area from central Europe, via Flanders. The tiles are still produced today.
Often, set in the roofs you will see the ‘lucarnes’. These are pretty little a dormer windows, sometimes decorated to make an attractive architectural feature. This style is possible due to the roof design which has two slopes on each of the four sides, known as ‘mansart’ roofs after the French architect, François Mansart who made them popular.
You will notice a charming distraction while driving through the vineyards of the Côte d’Or. Occasionally dotted around there are little stone huts amongst the vines. These are known as ‘cabottes’. Using the dry stone method of construction, the huts are circular or sometimes oval, with a very low door. A fire was made in the middle of the hut and the roof tiles were displaced for a makeshift chimney. Used by the vignerons, they were also for the shepherds and their flocks in the depth of winter.
Pressoirs & Cellars
A Burgundian’s cellar or ‘cave’ is his castle, and no self-respecting Frenchman would be without one. To be invited by a vigneron into his hallowed area is an enormous privilege. This has traditionally been the male refuge where he will entertain fellow wine growers, a subterranean dive with ideal conditions for conserving wine. Never south facing, the cave needs to stay between 11-14 degrees C, with 75% humidity and have a good airflow.
The magnificent old oak wine presses have become a rarity. During the last war they were dismantled as necessity and used for firewood. There is one at Clos Vougeot in the Côte de Nuits which took a dozen men to work it, and this is on view to the public. On a less grand scale, Maison Chaudenay, a grand house with self-catering apartments in Chagny, has a grand beast in excellent condition (above).
Staircases, Balconies & Galleries
Houses throughout the region have attractive exterior stone staircases, often with a simple metal handrail, the perfect location for those pots of geraniums in summer. In southern Burgundy the style developed for open galleries on the first floor facing south where produce such as hay and corn or wood, even cheeses hung in metal cages, could be dried. Often the balconies were made of wood with deep overhanging roof lines.
Doors & Windows
Look out for the stone carving around the windows and doors of Burgundian houses as you drive through the villages. The carvings may be a bunch of grapes, a coat of arms or scroll work. Sometimes the front door has a window right alongside it, a way they used to economise by using the same stone support for the two openings. Little oval windows for added light are another feature.
Having all the components at hand, the iron ore, together with water power and wood for the furnaces, the Burgundian skills in metalwork came to the fore. Seeing the master craftsmen at work in the abbeys and churches, the local artisans learnt their trade making grand iron gates, decorative window balastrades, grills and knobs and knockers which still survive today. Chalon-sur-Saône was proud of its iron forges and Le Creusot became famous throughout the world for its iron industry. It is this decorative element, combined with the stone sculpting that has personalised the exteriors giving them the charm we find today.
Porches & Portals
The entrance to the house says much about the wealth and status of its owner. Some entrances look like fortresses. In the case of the winegrowers, their gateways are wide to allow carts or vehicles to pass into the inner courtyard for unloading. In the vineyards themselves you sometimes see portals standing alone with the name of the owner of the ‘clos’.