French Magazine takes a tour around this department
The roll-call of Yonne’s most important tourist destinations must make some other départements turn green as a Burgundian vine leaf with envy: Auxerre, Chablis, Joigny, Tonnerre, Vézélay, Noyers and Avallon between them hold enough interest to keep even the most hard-to-please visitor amused, well fed and watered for a good fortnight. They all sit not more than three hours from Paris, and the first two alone stand among France’s most celebrated places: Auxerre  for its religious architecture, pretty riverside setting and successful football team, and Chablis for its legendary appellation wines. Then there are the forest-strewn, lush rolling hills, the medieval village-topped outcrops and the scenic waterways that typify the landscape. For a quiet, unassuming backwater, the département of Yonne has an embarrassment of riches to hunt out.
Joigny is the logical place to start the visit, as it sits just off the A6 motorway that heads south towards Auxerre. It also encompasses many of the Yonne’s most appealing facets: it has a pleasure boat port, a bustling medieval old town, ancient churches and some great restaurants. This cute, minding-it’s-own-business place is, however, no more than a precursor for the region’s main event, town-wise, namely Auxerre. This is just a short drive in a southeasterly direction.
A medium-sized town with a small-town ambience, Auxerre  grew in status thanks mainly to its geographical position, as the River Yonne that runs through it was a navigable waterway for trade heading between the Mediterranean and the North Sea. It has become a place with both functional and aesthetic value, being an administrative capital that’s very easy on the eye. For the best view of the skyline, dominated by the Saint-Pierre Church, Saint-Etienne Cathedral and Saint-Germain Abbey, go across Pont Paul-Bert, which spans the river. From here even the world’s worst photographer could manage a prized snap of this memorable vista.
The town itself bustles like any other provincial centre, especially on main market day (Wednesday) and has plenty of intriguing architecture. Worth a close look are the golden clock that sits on the arch of the Tour de l’Horloge on Place Saint-Etienne, and Saint-Etienne Cathedral’s intricately carved façade. The town’s broader appeal, though, lies in its relaxed atmosphere and, thanks to its wood-fronted shops and houses, it has a romantic feel that makes a gentle shopping meander a very pleasant experience.
Yonne is rural France writ large, to the extent that more of its 400,000 inhabitants live in villages and hamlets than in large towns. To acknowledge this, and to get a real feel for country life in these parts, you should really leave Auxerre behind and head due east for nearby Chablis . Everyone will recognise the town’s name, probably because most will have sipped a fine wine of the same name, but to visit the town of Chablis is to immerse oneself in history and tradition. Here, like perhaps just a handful of places on earth, one senses that the daily life of most residents is utterly dominated by the production, sale, drinking and discussion of wine.
Swathes of fields planted with Chardonnay vines patchwork the hills on the approach to the village, giving more than a hint of what to expect. Chablis is tiny and well-to-do, with modern buildings on the outskirts housing the big producers’ ‘dégustation et ventes’ outlets contrasting with the old village’s weather- worn stone houses and shops. Restaurants with wine-related name, such as La Feuillette 132 (a Chablis wine cask holds 132 litres of wine) serve up Burgundian classics, like Charolais steaks from the famous cow breed, snails in garlic butter and ham baked in white wine sauce. Smaller caveaux (wine merchants), which must be visited with open minds and nostrils, line the quiet lanes that pass for streets.
On either side of the village, meanwhile, yet more vines are cultivated. And it’s actually some of the smaller plots in these outskirts, such as Les Grenouilles, that produce the best Chablis Grand Cru bottlings. Anyone who leaves Chablis without going to a tasting of this and other top-notch local wines, as well as investing in a couple of bottles, should be compelled to explain why at customs.
Just as Chablis is the Yonne’s best-known wine – its very name is so laden with kudos and reputation that other decent local wines (like Irancy and Chitry) languish in its shadow – so other towns and tourist sites struggle to grab public attention ahead of Auxerre and Chablis. Yet, only by exploring other parts of Yonne will the adventurous get a complete picture of the real Burgundy. For a start, there is Tonnerre, yet further west of Auxerre. Although unremarkable in appearance, the town hides two unusual attractions. The Fosse Dionne is the pond at the mouth of a permanently flowing spring, originating in the Vaucluse. On a good day, the water sparkles a clear azure blue, but sadly the place is quite shabby, inaccessible and clearly under-funded. Nearer the town centre is the dominating former hospice for the poor, the Hôtel-Dieu (literally meaning God’s Hotel). This enormous hall, with original 13th-century oak beams, is one of France’s largest medieval monuments. Although less lavishly decorated than the famous Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, it is nonetheless impressive. Tonnerre is in the heart of the pretty Pays Tonnerrois (like most parts of France, any area around a town is always ‘imaginatively’ named after the town in question).
To its south is Noyers, a quaint time-warp of a village often used as a location for movies that require an authentic medieval backdrop. As you wander the quiet old streets, ignore the modern cars and immerse yourself in yesteryear before taking a leisurely stroll along the ancient ramparts. The view of the River Serein (meaning serene) and neighbouring scenery from these walls is quite beautiful.
The main focus in this, Yonne’s southern region, is the town of Avallon, a sous-préfecture built on a rocky promontory that was founded on the Boulogne-Lyon trade route and has expanded accordingly over the years. Although only a few buildings there induce excitement – the Saint-Lazaire church, with its Romanesque portals, is one – it serves as a great base for exploring Yonne’s most celebrated natural wonder, the huge Morvan Forest, which extends southwards. A third of the département is covered by forest, and if you head to the viewing post at the end of rue Bocquillot and gaze along the valley of the River Cousin, you’ll get a teasing glimpse of this area of outstanding natural beauty.
When it comes to large, historically important churches sitting on hilltops, Yonne has all bases covered. For proof of this, go to pretty (and pretty busy) UNESCO-listed Vézélay. This picture-postcard delight consists of a single twisty road – crammed with terracotta-roofed old houses, boutiques and restaurants – that points up the slope to a stunning, huge basilica. In fact, just getting to Vézélay from Avallon offers its own rewards, such as the sight of pristine clusters of chilled-out, creamy Charolais cows grazing peacefully as the green Burgundy hills stretch to the horizon. Or the pretty riverside scene at Pierre-Perthuis, where two bridges, one huge and the other small, sit alongside one another as if in a bizarre stand-off.
Taking a car through the open spaces is fine, but to truly enjoy the scenery, a bike ride or ramble is far more satisfying. That way, too, at the day’s end, a plate of snails cooked à la bourguignonne (in loads of garlic butter) and a large glass of Chablis, is far more justifiable. Failing that, simply hire a boat and head up the Canal du Nivernais, the best of Yonne’s waterways. With a wide variety of rivers and two canals, Yonne is blessed with plenty of water-based touring options, but this is the best managed and most picturesque.
Near the border with Côte d’Or is the village of Montréal, set high on a naturally defensive outcrop which is home, within the church at the pinnacle, to some of the finest religious wood carvings that France has to offer. An added bonus for intrepid climbers up to the church is the breathtaking panoramic view over the Avallonais plains.
Montréal is a quiet place, tucked away and devoid of fanfare, to such an extent that there are no shops, no bars and the daily bread is delivered by van to its residents. Like the Fosse Dionne in Tonnerre, it is an unpolished gem in some need of a bit of sprucing up to show its best side, perhaps serving as a metaphor for the département as a whole. For, despite its wealth of great attractions, absolutely beautiful lush landscapes and tranquil, subdued lifestyle, Yonne seems like a shy teenager afraid to tell everyone what it can offer. Perhaps those canny Burgundians just know when a secret is worth keeping and prefer to remain tight-lipped, but plenty of people would love to hear what it has to say.
Paris is the closest city to Auxerre with an airport.
From south of Paris, take the A6 direct to Auxerre.
There is no TGV service to Auxerre. Instead, take the SNCF train from Paris-Bercy.