Last week Chris and I left our farm and lakes in the capable hands of our two sons and slipped off to Burgundy for a few days’ cycling. We went to Morvan in Burgundy. Morvan isn’t a département but a highland area that forms the north-eastern extension of the Massif Central. It’s around 3,500 square kilometres in size, and its highest point is Haut Folin at 901 metres. More about that later! Part of Morvan has been designated as a National Park.

We set off from home about 8.30 a.m., and our first stop was at Sancoins for coffee and croissant. This is a small, pleasant town, crammed full of cafés. We had an enjoyable break, and then resumed our route. All was going to plan until a crucial bridge crossing the Loire turned out to be closed for repairs. That put a good three quarters of an hour on our journey as we had to backtrack, and then took a couple of wrong turns before finally bowing to the inevitability of having to take the motorway for a stretch to get us back on course. The intention had been to stay on minor roads all the way there.

Our next stop was at Chateau-Chinon for lunch. We dived into the tourist office, ten minutes before it closed, and grabbed some leaflets and bought what proved to be a very useful map. Then we looked for somewhere to have a spot of lunch and settled for a brasserie on the main street. I tried a tome de Morvan sandwich. I usually like tome, sheep’s milk cheese, but this was very white and squelchy. Not unpleasant, more strange really, but not something I shall pine for.

We got to our gîte shortly after two. We’d forgotten the print-out with its exact location but St Prix is only tiny so we parked the car and pottered around until we found someone to ask directions from. The gîte was up a private lane which ran alongside a field with three small, curly-horned sheep and two goats. They were very friendly and disposed of any food leftovers for us during our stay.

***Photo: Morvan Sant-Prix gite

The rustic, one-room gîte was very well-equipped and was perfect for our purposes. All we needed was somewhere to store our stuff, park our car and bike and sleep. I suspect the gîte is a similar age to our house as it had the same beamed ceiling and thick walls. We could see where a big granite sink had been. This was tiled over and made for a handy desk.

We unpacked, donned our Lycra ensembles and then set off for a ride about four. We headed up into the forested mountains behind the village, along mountain biking tracks. We missed a turn and ended up doing a very steep and long ascent, mainly on foot! But Chris was armed with a GPS and his phone so we were never completely lost, just not always where we intended to be! We got back to the road we needed and fortunately there was a café on our way back to base so we had Magnums to celebrate the start of our holidays.

On Tuesday, which was grey and damp in the morning, we headed into Autun to do some shopping and sightseeing. Autun was a Roman town, Augustodunum, and still has plenty of the amphitheatre and all its city gates left, plus sections of wall around the place. We went to the theatre first and walked around it. A big show was going to be held there the next night, and then on several dates in August, so there were lighting rigs, scenery and stage hands all over the place. I sat down on the stone seats a couple of times, trying to imagine what it would have been like to be there two thousand years ago.

***Photo: Autun Amphitheatre

We did our shopping then walked down to the nearest Roman gate, Porte de St André. It’s a beautiful structure still, but with traffic thundering past on both sides. Another gate we saw later, Porte de l’Arroux has traffic actually thundering through it. That surely can’t be doing these old gates any good. It seems a real shame that modern roads haven’t been routed well away from them to preserve them and make more of a feature of them.

***Photo: Autun Porte St Andre

We’d seen an odd-looking ruin on the hillside from the theatre earlier. Chris did some research on his phone and discovered this was another ancient relic so we set off again past the amphitheatre to investigate. It’s called the Pyramide de Couhard, and is a necropolis. There are great views of Autun from the spot.

***Photo: Autun Pyramide de Couhard

A building close by sported a plaque announcing that this was the spot marking a decisive moment in the Battle of Autun on 1st December 1870, part of the greater Franco-Prussian War which led to the downfall of the Second French Republic. Giuseppe Garibaldi of the Vosges Army defeated a counter-attack by the Prussian Saone and Loire army. The Italians began by siding with the Prussians during this six-month war, but after Napoleon III was defeated and seized at the Battle of Sedan and the Third Republic established, they switched sides. Garibaldi wrote on 7 September 1870: “Yesterday I said to you: war to the death to Bonaparte. Today I say to you: rescue the French Republic by every means.” Thus he was put in charge of the Army of the Vosges, a volunteer army, and established his HQ at Autun.

***Photo: Autun Plaque

There have been a couple of other Battles of Autun, although one is more usually known as the Siege of Autun. This took place in 356 CE. The Romans successfully saw off an attack by the Alemanni, a confederation of German tribes. (The French word for Germany is Allemagne, and derives from Alemanni. Now you know!) The next Battle of Autun was in 532 CE, when Merovingian Kings Childebert 1 and Clothar 1 saw off the Burgundian King Godomar and his army.

Fortunately these days Autun is a bustling but peaceful town.

From the viewpoint of the Pyramide, we saw what we were certain must be the remnants of the ash cone of a volcano. Our new map told us these two oddly angular hills were called the Télots. They are slag heaps resulting from shale oil mining which began in 1824 in the town. The oil was used for street lighting. An oil refinery grew up next to it in time and was of great importance to the Germans during the Second World War. The mine and refinery closed down in 1957.

***Photo: Autun Telots

We concluded our very interesting morning with a twenty-minute walk to a waterfall, which was signposted close by, and finally left Autun very impressed by its history and charms.

Photo: Autun Porte Darroux