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A cyclist finds his special spot in vineyard-rich Burgundy by taking a different path

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Here’s what I discovered on my recent and first trip to the Burgundy region of France: What’s good for the grape is good for the cyclist.

Especially if you enjoy climbing some of the many rocky ridges that line this beautiful, vineyard-filled region in east-central France. It’s up there, off the beaten and popular path, that I found my spot, a circus of sorts and perhaps the perfect and most picturesque vantage point in Burgundy.

During my 11-day cycling adventure in Burgundy, I peddled along the popular Voie des Vignes (Route of Vines), through numerous and famous wine villages, along rivers and canals, past chateaux, cathedrals and abbeys. There’s an endless and always-scenic variety of riding routes in Burgundy waiting to be explored by bicycle.

Dijon is the region’s historic capitol city, the mustard capitol of France and home of the impressive Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. The train ride from Paris takes about 90 minutes. From Dijon, I took a short connecting train ride to Beaune and eventually Tournus and did day-trip rides from my two “base” towns. Beaune is a walled city surrounded by vineyards; Tournus, on the banks of the Saone River, features an impressive Romanesque cathedral.

The region’s pinot noir (red) and chardonnay (white) wines are considered among the best in the world, and the well-marked Voie des Vignes route from Beaune south to Santenay (about 14 miles) is the perfect introductory Burgundy ride.

I was immersed in vineyards and weaved my way along the narrow, well-paved and mostly flat access roads through Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, familiar names to oenophiles. These villages are lined with tasting houses and cafés, and several have old, stone churches, a fountain of some sort and statues dedicated to wine or the people who make the wine.

The grapes were just beginning to appear on the vines, and workers were scattered about in groups of two or three, carefully clipping, pruning and tending. The limestone and clay soils that vines sink their roots into are part of why Burgundy wines made from their grapes are so complex, tasty and prized. Cliffs help shield the precious vines from the wind.

The cliffs and ridges also presented a challenge I couldn’t resist. I’ve learned over the years on numerous cycling trips that the panoramic views from up high almost always make the climb worthwhile.

And so, from Santenay, instead of heading back the way I’d come, as many cyclists do, I decided to explore the ridges. The first five miles to the village of Nolay were a gentle climb on a bike path through vineyards, forests and then fields of wheat.

And then the real climbing began.

I’m an experienced and fairly confident climber, but the next two miles were a bit of a challenge. And by a bit, I mean a relentless, heart-pounding, leg-quaking ascent that topped out at a little over 500 meters (about 1,640 feet). I made it to the summit of the ridge, and then down the other side to Orches, an old stone village resting below a long line of cliffs.

Those cliffs hadn’t been visible from the Voie des Vignes.

“I wonder if I can get up to the top?” I asked myself, and started another climb.

Once at the top, I walked carefully (the only way to walk while wearing clip-in bike shoes near the edge of a rocky, slippery cliff) as close to the edge as I dared. The view was panoramic and spectacular. The cliffs stretched out to the left and right and below were hillside villages and then the vineyard-filled valley. I could see Beaune off in the distance.

I had found, by a fortunate accident, the Cirque du Bout du Monde. Translated, this means Circus at the End of the World. Cirque also means a steep-walled and semicircular basin on a mountain or steep ridge. That’s exactly what this was, although the end of the world part is puzzling. This seemed like the start of the world to me.

The Cirque du Bout du Monde is off the bike-route radar and I had the cliffs and views all to myself.

I took several photos, some videos and then … I stopped and stood there, taking it all in for several minutes. There was a big smile on my face, and I was filled with joy as I listened to the birds chirping and marveled at the view. Finding unexpected treasures like this is one of my favorite things about cycling trips.

Over the next several days, I rode to the medieval, hilltop village of Brancion; through the mile-long Tunnel du Bois Clair, a former railroad tunnel and now the longest bicycle tunnel in France; to the famed Chateau de Cormatin and Abbaye de Cluny; on bike paths along the Saone River and the Canal du Bourgogne; and on an endless string of small country roads.

Despite all these scenic cycling routes and historic sights, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Cirque du Bout du Monde. And so, I returned and made the climb to the top of the cliffs on my final day of riding. The views were just as spectacular as I had remembered.


Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio.

Associated Press