Saone et Loire is the seventh largest department in France, taking its name from the 2 rivers which cross it, linked by the Canal du Centre. Burgundy is known for its rich food and excellent wines and Saone et Loire follows the tradition with quality produce like delicious smoked Morvan hams, the Mercury, Rully and Givry wines from Cotes Chalonnaise and whites from Cotes Maconnais - most particularly dry Pouilly-Fuisse. Departmental capital Macon is also the centre for its wines and has held a wine fair since the fourteenth century. The modern French National Wine Fair is held in Macon each year – the 2011 date is 16 April. Contact Macon Maison des Vins about tastings and tours.
You'll find plenty of tastings too around Chalon-sur-Saone, a busy town on the river with Wednesday and Sunday morning markets and a carnival said to be the largest in France, held the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday. Chalon has festivals too, including a national festival of street artists in July and hot air balloonists' festivals around Whitsun and July. The inventor of photography, Niaphore Niepce was born here and a museum honours his discovery.
Saone et Loire is also rich in both secular and religious history. The Romans used it as a power base in their conquest of Gaul. Their legacy is strongest in towns like Autun, gateway to the Morvan hills of the north west, founded by Augustus in 10BC. Antiquities here include 2 arcaded and sculpted town gates still in use. In July and August, 600 townspeople take over the site of the largest Roman theatre in Gaul to perform a play about Autun's past, including chariot races. Bibracte, 25km away on Mont-Beuvray, was the site of an important Gallic hill fort 2,000 years ago until it succumbed to Roman domination; defeated by Caesar in 52BC. Learn more about its history (with guided tours) and folk tales of the Morvan forests in the Bibracte Museum of Celtic Civilisation in St-Leger-sous-Beuvray.
Monastic orders became important in Burgundy in the Middle Ages. The great Benedictine abbey at Cluny founded in Saone et Loire in 910 was the largest in Christendom until destroyed after the French Revolution. Its abbots were second only to the Pope in power for hundreds of years. A visit to what remains of the abbey is a must, and a tour of the region's Romanesque churches - there's one in almost every village - shows the extent of Cluny's influence. For an idea (in miniature) of how Cluny abbey originally looked visit the beautiful eleventh century Basilique de Notre Dame at Paray-le-Monial which, together with Taize, has a worldwide reputation as a pilgrimage site.
The history of Saone-et-Loire's industrial heart is recorded at the Creusot-Montceau eco-museum. Coal was discovered at Montceau-les-Mines as early as the fifteenth century and production increased after the building of the Canal du Centre for transport. An ironworks at Le Creusot grew to fame during the industrial revolution thanks to supplies of iron ore and forest timber. France's first locomotive was made here in 1838 and the first steamship a year later. The plant now makes steel for nuclear and military purposes.
There's much to enjoy outdoors in the region. Part of the Morvan Regional Natural Park touches Saone et Loire in the north west and is becoming popular as a place for outdoor pursuits. The whole park is a granite plateau covering nearly a quarter of a million hectares, providing 3,400km of marked trails. It's a land of forests, moorland and pasture with vast reservoir lakes, and gorges where river rapids encourage white water rafting, canoeing and fishing.
Explore the Brionnais area in the south west - home to Charolais cattle - and discover its treasure trove of chateaux and Romanesque churches. Green lane routes cover almost 125km from St Leger-sous-Beuvray and Charnay-les-Macon through to Chalon and Cluny using old railway tracks, rights of way and towpaths. It's a great traffic-free way to see picturesque villages and vineyards on foot or by bike with the added bonus of bike rental, car parking, picnic and toilet facilities en route.