Picturesque Auxerre on the banks of the River Yonne is one of the oldest towns in France and departmental capital. Half-timbered houses form a semi-circle around the tower which once guarded the town ramparts. Look for its fifteenth century solar clock before wandering down cobbled streets past the old houses of rue Joubert to the River Yonne. Choose one of Auxerre's open squares like place St Nicholas beside the river for lunch. Nearby Paul Bert bridge offers fine views. Auxerre was once a busy port for the wine trade but today leisure craft moor along the quay. Hire a boat for views from the river or cruise the Nivernais canal and cycle its towpath along valleys clothed in vines and sunflowers. Enjoy the bustle of Tuesday and Friday markets at Arquebuse market hall. There are festivals in summer and son et lumiere at the thirteenth century Gothic church of St-Etienne from June to September. The church dominates Auxerre's skyline of roofs and spires. A church has stood here since 400AD but surprisingly the west front of the current building (begun in the thirteenth century) is still incomplete. Inside, coloured light from beautiful stained glass plays across the airy space whilst below in the crypt the church's Romanesque origins are evident in the pillars and barrel vaulting. Visits allowed daily apart from Sunday morning mass. Auxerre's Abbey church of St-Germain is now a museum. Also built in Gothic style, its crypt is a rare example of Carolingian architecture with a honeycomb of underground chapels and some of France's oldest frescoes said to date from 850AD.
Set in the northern Morvan foothills, Vezelay is a beautiful hill-top town packed with art galleries, and antique and book shops. Spectacular views from the ramparts are well worth the climb along a winding road and the town's steep narrow streets to Vezelay's star attraction. Wonderful Basilica of Ste Mary Magdalene was founded in the 860s and attracted medieval pilgrims as it reputedly housed relics of the saint. St Bernard preached the Second Crusade here in 1146 and later Richard the Lionheart and the king of France met at Vezelay before leaving for the Third Crusade. Restored in the nineteenth century after fire and pillage, the church is now one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. Striking alternate black and white stone arches line the nave and the central doorway is a famous example of Burgundian Romanesque architecture. It displays wonderful sculptures of Christ surrounded by a host of people - including apostles, giants and pygmies - going about their daily lives. The church is open to visitors each day (though only for worship during services).
The limestone caves formed by the River Cure at Arcy-sur-Cure were once home to Stone Age man. 28,000 year old wall paintings of bears, mammoths and other animals were discovered in the 1990s. The largest cave is open to the public and has a lake, decorated ceiling and fantasy landscapes formed by water. Visits every half hour daily April – early Nov. Warm clothing advised. Tel: (00 33) 3 86 81 90 63.
Visit the illuminated underground Aubigny stone quarry near Taingy which has received major awards as a Burgundy tourist attraction. See tools and carvings in the place where master stonecutters have quarried the white stone for centuries to be used in buildings like the Paris Opera House and cathedrals of Auxerre and Sens. Open to the public since 1992, tours are available all year but need to be pre-booked. Tel:(00 33) 3 86 41 91 90
Beautiful sixteenth -seventeenth century Chateau d'Ancy-le-Franc on the banks of the River Armancon, was designed in classic Renaissance style by Italian architect Sebastian Serlio. Interiors are dressed with wonderful carved panelling, ceilings and murals. The 50 hectare park was originally designed by Andre le Notre. Altered in the eighteenth century in the English style it was re-landscaped in the nineteenth century to include flower beds and lake with an island folly amongst the 100 year old trees. Open Tues – Sun, June to mid Nov for guided tours. Tel: (00 33) 3 86 75 00 25 for times and summer costume tours by candlelight.
Like Ancy-le-Franc, charming Chateau de Tanlay was built between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Renaissance style. Water features strongly here as the chateau is set between a series of moats and arcades and a 525m Grand Canal graces the park. Huguenot chiefs met in the richly furnished interior during the religious wars. Most striking are the drawing room trompe l'oeil and frescoes in La Ligue tower. Outbuildings house an exhibition of modern art and there is even a 9-hole golf course in the grounds. Open each day but Tues for guided tours, Apr – mid Nov.
Situated in the delightful rural Puisaye area of Burgundy with its tree-lined river banks, the pink, moated and turreted Chateau de Saint-Fargeau was once home to Louise XIV's sister - the 'Grande Mademoiselle'. Le Vau, architect of Versailles, carried out renovations in the seventeenth century. Enjoy guided tours of the Chateau's splendid rooms, summer 'son et lumiere' and historical re-enactments of France's history involving 700 actors and 60 horsemen.
The village of Pontigny north east of Auxerre has surprising links with England's town of Canterbury. Its simple twelfth century Abbey church is one of the few monastic buildings of the Cistercian order still remaining intact in France. Here, amongst the peaceful meadows, England's archbishop Thomas Becket sought sanctuary from Henry II in 1164 and later archbishop Stephen Langton stayed after a dispute with the king over his title. Arguments with Henry III led a third archbishop – Edmund Rich – to retire to the abbey in the mid thirteenth century. Pontigny lies in the Serein Valley amongst hillsides of vines and sunflowers and it was at the abbey that monks first developed and refined the famous light, dry white wine we know as Chablis.
This un-commercialised little medieval town on the River Serein is a wonderful place to explore on foot either independently or with a guide. Carved, half-timbered houses within the walls, fortified towers and paths to the river all beckon. Look for the Renaissance wooded garden and Sainte Ursula's cave beside Noyers' thirteenth century convent. A great attraction is the Musee de Noyers housing an interesting mix of curios, folk and naïve art.
This most northerly town in Burgundy was an important religious centre in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, its archbishopric controlling both Paris and Chartres. The great Gothic Cathedral St-Etienne begun in 1130 dominates the town and is a lasting sign of these times. Amongst the beautiful twelfth century stained glass windows is a surprising depiction of the murder of Thomas Becket. The English archbishop spent time in the area seeking sanctuary from Henry II and through this connection one of the cathedral architects, William of Sens, rebuilt the Choir at Canterbury Cathedral. Vestments belonging to Becket can be seen in the Treasury amongst its exceptionally rich collection of French, Byzantine and Islamic embroidered silk and jewel encrusted vestments, altar cloths and holy relics. Open daily but check for times reserved for Mass. The adjoining Archbishop's Palace is now a museum housing Gallo-Roman remains and jewellery. The beautiful glazed roof tiles are typically Burgundian.
Shady boulevards have replaced Sens' town walls and fine carved timber houses grace streets like rue de la Republic and Grand-rue, now a pedestrianised shopping area. There are markets 3 times a week in the halles facing the cathedral and a trip to Paris is only an hour away by TGV.
St-Sauveur-en-Puisaye gained fame as the 1873 birthplace of one of France's most famous and prolific writers – Sidonie Gabrielle Colette. The unspoilt Puisaye countryside often features in her work. Although the home where Colette spent her first 20 years is now privately owned, a seventeenth century chateau in this little village now houses the Colette Museum where rooms re-create a flavour of life in the writer's Paris apartment. In the capital, Colette mingled with bohemian and rich celebrities of her day in a colourful mix of glamour and scandal. Museum open each day except Tues, Apr – end Oct and weekends only during the winter months. Tel: (00 33) 3 86 45 61 95.