Burgundy by bicycle: Saddle up for a vintage ride through wine country

No way am I wearing these,’ says my 14-year-old daughter Hannah. She’s referring to a pair of padded undies that were recommended by a friend when she heard we were going on a cycling holiday in France. Admittedly they’re little more than hot- pink nappies, but they should help prevent saddle soreness, so I pack them anyway.

Twenty-four hours later and we arrive in Macon, southern Burgundy. I’ve hired e-bikes, which have a built-in electric motor to give us a helping hand when the going gets tough on our four-day cycle.

We begin pedalling along the Voie Verte – a cycle path we’ll follow north for the first couple of days. The greenway bisects lush meadows from where cows watch us with interest, especially when Hannah has a change of heart and puts on the ugly undies.

The Mail on Sunday’s Jo Kessel and her daughter went on a cycling holiday in France

While Burgundy is renowned for wine, it’s less known for its family-friendly cycle paths – all 600 miles of them. They’re mostly flat, easy to navigate and have chateaux and abbeys lining their routes.

And thanks to a luggage-transfer service, which picks up your bags from your hotel in the morning and delivers them to that evening’s destination, we’ve planned a 100-mile loop with plenty of stops on the way.

Every morning we breakfast on croissants, compote and cheese and set off before 9am. Today’s target is Cluny – a distance of 20 miles. I’d thought Burgundy was all about red wine, but the vineyards we pass are ripe with white grapes. We stop at winery Chateau de la Greffiere, where we’re allowed to taste chardonnay straight from the barrel. Dry and crisp with hints of peach, it hits the spot nicely, as does Hannah’s non-alcoholic grape juice, called Nectar de Chardonnay.

Whenever we cross paths with cyclists they bid a friendly ‘Bonjour’. And they cry ‘Allez!’ when we head up what turns out to be a very steep road towards Chateau de Berzy-le-Sec – a hilltop castle with fairytale turrets once home to the Duke and Duchess of Bourgogne. Thank goodness we have e-bikes – we need their boost. Even so, it’s a huffing, puffing ascent, but a stroll around the castle’s ornate gardens allows us to catch our breath.

We don’t want to leave, but it’s time for the final push. It starts easily enough through the mile-long Tunnel de Bois Clair, the longest bike-only tunnel in Europe, which is eerily dark save for spotlights which make it feel very Phantom Of The Opera. But soon the gradient increases. The bikes stutter, thighs wince and it is a relief to reach the abbey town of Cluny. At the B&B, as if by magic, our suitcases are in our room.

The conversation over dinner isn’t about how we cycled 20 miles, it’s about how the undies fared. The answer: very well. So it’s surprising when we return to the Voie Verte the next morning and, instead of wearing the undies, Hannah attaches them to her saddle with hair bobbles. ‘That’ll never work,’ I say. But she does it anyway. Teens!

The Voie Verte has been built on a disused train line and the scenery changes constantly. At first fields are filled with poppies, then rapeseed, and every couple of miles we pass what were once remote train stations now converted into houses.

Jo and daughter Hannah (pictured) hired e-bikes, which had a built-in electric motor to give them a helping hand when the going got tough on their four-day cycle

Jo and daughter Hannah (pictured) hired e-bikes, which had a built-in electric motor to give them a helping hand when the going got tough on their four-day cycle

We’ve been assured that today’s 25-mile ride to the medieval town of Buxy will be easier, and so it proves. We stop twice. First for a picnic of quiche and salami-filled baguettes, and then to visit the Chateau de Cormatin – France’s only chateau with authentic 17th Century decor from Louis XIII’s reign. Its lavish interior drips with gold leaf and lapis lazuli. It’s divine.

Sometimes it’s tricky to find our accommodation once we’ve left the bike path, so it’s handy to have a teen who can download and operate a GPS app. But any aggravation is quickly forgotten after tasting a few grands crus, as I discovered when Laurent Cognard pours me nine vintages to try at his winery in central Buxy, four of which are named after his children.

There’s no bike path for the third section of our loop, so we have to cross Burgundy from west to east via dirt tracks and country lanes.

I had booked a guide to lead the way (I hadn’t bargained on Hannah being so GPS-savvy), but it’s still hard on the legs.

However, I slip into a rhythm and suddenly appreciate the joy of cycling. I’m getting from one place to another under my own steam in fresh air. How brilliant is that?

Chateau de Berzy-le-Sec, a hilltop castle with fairytale turrets once home to the Duke and Duchess of Bourgogne

Chateau de Berzy-le-Sec, a hilltop castle with fairytale turrets once home to the Duke and Duchess of Bourgogne

The guide deposits us in Tournus, on the River Saone. Its abbey is older than nearby Cluny’s, celebrating its 1,000th anniversary last year. The piece de resistance, however, is the town’s Hotel de Dieu – a former convent hospital. The beds, wood panelling, apothecary and leech jars are all as they were when built in 1675. It’s classed as a museum, but it’s so much more. It’s living history.

It’s the first time I’ve been away with just Hannah on an active holiday and we joke over dinner about my speed (or lack of). Whenever I mention my aching limbs, she reminds me that hers don’t hurt in the least. This only spurs me on to pedal harder.

All too soon it’s the last leg, using the Voie Bleue Moselle-Saone a Velo, a new cycle path stretching all the way from Luxembourg to Lyon. Our section flanks the River Saone, which sparkles under a hot sun, but even though it’s our easiest path so far, my legs start to quiver from cycling four days in a row. I’m in a hurry to reach Macon, return the bikes and flop by the pool at our hotel.

I have a longer shower and more wine with dinner than normal, but it feels well deserved. Yes, limbs ache, but the sense of accomplishment is immense. Never before has a holiday combined so much physical activity with such rich heritage.

Would we do it again? Absolutely. And guess what? Those undies will be coming with us again.


Jo Kessel was a guest of Burgundy Tourist Office. A five-night cycling holiday in southern Burgundy, including two nights’ B&B and three nights’ half-board, with two sharing, from £435pp (bourgognerando.com). London-to-Paris train tickets (eurostar.com) from £78 return. Trains from Paris to Macon Ville or Macon Loche TGV station (oui.sncf) from £58 return. bourgognefranchecomte.com

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