Burgundy, famed for prized wines, elegant cuisine and idyllic landscapes, has a better-kept secret: Saturday morning produce markets. And for those in the know, the weekly market in the walled city of Beaune is one of the best.
Situated on the cobbled square adjacent to the 15th-century Hospices de Beaune, the market is a moveable feast of smelly cheeses and smoky meats, fresh fruits and still-warm breads, with a side order of mustards, truffles and relishes for good measure.
Beaune is the final pit stop on our 11-day Burgundy and Provence cruise aboard the 128-passenger Avalon Poetry II, before boarding the TGV to Paris. While some join an included tour of the flamboyant Hospices de Beaune and others go in search of wine caves, I trot towards the markets like a truffle pig that's slipped its leash. For me a train journey means one thing – time to pack a picnic.
As I move towards the line of trestle tables my eye is taken by the array of olives, slick and shiny as river pebbles. A suave-looking stallholder beckons with a smile, handing me a bright blonde orb that has been stuffed with dried tomatoes, its buttery flesh the best I've tasted.
With oil dribbling down my chin I sample everything from purple footballs to Kermit-green oblongs, the robust flavours unfamiliar and exciting. Placing two large tubs into my daypack, I move towards the cured meat section, clueless as to how much I'd just spent or the varieties of olives I'd bought. In the game of handsome French stallholder versus hapless tourist it's 1-0.
Amid the overstuffed sausages, their puckered ends strung like Christmas garlands, I learn that market shopping is a contact sport. Just as I'm about to offer a lusty bonjour I'm poked in the ribs by the needle-sharp elbows of two ninja-nanas and pushed to the back of the queue. It takes another 10 minutes to reach the front, by which time I'm so frazzled I can't tell my jambon from my saucisson and end up buying one of each. A king's ransom later and the score is 2-0.
As I weave further inward, there are more lessons; on thoughtfulness, when the bread lady offers to slice my loaf because I have no knife; on generosity, when the apricot seller adds a few extra to my bag because "it's a beautiful day"; and trust, when an elderly couple, noticing I am alone, hand their puppy to me for a cuddle. With these gestures the score is evened.
And then there's theatre, best enjoyed from the navy and white woven chairs at the corner cafe. A glass of crisp Macon blanc in hand I watch as a mama berates a stallholder over the freshness of his produce, while in the distance children ride a merry-go-round, their pony-tails bobbing in time to the music.
On my final lap of the markets I spy it, a car tyre of cheesy goodness, just the thing to complete my hamper. With the slash of her blade the fromage queen cuts a wedge, so thick it would feed a small village, before wrapping it in newspaper and tying with string.
On the train my gingham scarf becomes a makeshift tablecloth as I lay out the goodies to share with my travelling companions. One pulls out a bottle of Cote d'Or, another some paper cups as we feast our way to Paris. Travel may not broaden the mind, but it certainly expands the waistline.
Cathay Pacific flies frequently from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to key European gateways, including arrival and departure points for Avalon Waterways' cruises. See cathaypacific.com.au
Avalon Waterways' 11-day itinerary between Cote d'Azur and Paris starts at $5509 a person twin share in a Deluxe Stateroom (lower deck) including one night on the Cote d'Azur, a seven-night cruise on the Rhone and Saone rivers and two nights in Paris. A three-hour sightseeing tour of Lyon is included. Phone 1300 230 234, see avalonwaterways.com.au
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Avalon Waterways