Letter from Europe

On the edge of Burgundy: the Morvan hills

Issue no. 2021/16

Picture above: Landscape of the Morvan hills (photo © Boulanger Sandrine / dreamstime.com).


There is one very distinctive area in the north-west reaches of Burgundy. And that's Morvan - an upland block defined by its striking granite landscapes which communicate a sense of wilderness not encountered elsewhere in the region. We touch down in an area of France with a strong regional identity.

Dear fellow travellers

We stopped off in Autun a couple of weeks ago. Prematurely as it turned out, for today – 1 September – is really the date when those in the know make time for this small town in rural Burgundy.

Burgundy merges imperceptibly with other French regions. The busy A6 motorway tracks north-west from Beaune, climbing up through lush vineyards around Savigny to reach the tamer, undulating country which separates the heart of Burgundy from the Greater Paris region. This land between the capital and the Saône Valley is an unsung part of France, and we have twice crossed that area in the last month, on each occasion taking time to explore a little.

There is one very distinctive area in these north-west reaches of Burgundy. Morvan is an upland block defined by its striking granite landscapes which communicate a sense of wilderness not encountered elsewhere in the region. Morvan is a thickly forested mountain massif that rises to 900 metres above sea level.

The hill country of Morvan historically suffered from poor roads and transport links, so the business of everyday trade and commerce was conducted not in the hills themselves, but in the gateway towns around the edges of Morvan. Avallon and Saulieu to the north and north-east of the hills were important markets, but preeminent among these trading centres was Autun, a community in the Arroux Valley south-east of Morvan. Autun enjoyed good communications with the rest of Burgundy.

Livestock and produce from Morvan were traded in Autun’s markets on a regular basis throughout the year, but there was no greater annual barometer of the Morvan economy than the great fair held on 1 September each year. In Autun, this bustling annual market is dedicated to Saint Ladre, after whom the town’s main square is named.

For centuries, the Saint Ladre fair on 1 September in Autun saw the town full of visitors from Morvan – an upland that, though not very large, covers part of the territory of four different départements. That could so easily lead to a community being pulled in many different directions, but inhabitants of Morvan are quick to point out that their home area has a very strong regional identity with its own distinctive dialect, culture and vernacular architecture. In an area with prolonged winter snow, the annual rhythm of work in Morvan was very different from those prevailing in the rest of Burgundy.

With acidic soils and steep slopes, rye and oats were always better suited than wheat to the poor land of Morvan. In the nineteenth century, the region relied considerably on the timber trade, with logs being floated down the north-flowing rivers to heat distant salons in Paris. French geographers of that period remarked on the backwardness, poverty and inaccessibility of Morvan, and even today it remains a place apart.

With improved communications in the twentieth century, the relative proximity of Paris gave Morvan the comparative advantage of offering a touch of wilderness and a sense of isolation not too far distant from the French capital. Just as the forests of Fontainebleau had been discovered by French artists, so too was Morvan. The mottled greys and pinks of local granite featured in the work of Pierre Bonnard and his protégé Balthus. And these days, it’s not just artists who head for Morvan. It’s a useful getaway for residents of Paris and the cities of Burgundy looking to enjoy a deeply rural region that still has no busy highways.

Morvan may be untouched by autoroutes, but millions of rail travellers have had a brush with Morvan without perhaps realizing it. Forty years ago this month, France opened its first high-speed railway. That was the line from Paris to Lyon. The high-speed route follows a broadly straight line, trimming 85 km off the distance by the traditional railway between the two cities. About an hour out of Paris, the Lyon-bound TGV skirts the eastern flanks of the Morvan hills, climbing to about 500 metres above sea level and affording excellent views of the terrain, especially on the right side of the train. Heads down and attending to their mobile phones and laptops, the majority of train travellers probably miss ten minutes of rural bliss – for that’s all it takes to speed by the Morvan hills.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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