In autumn, the French hilltop town of Vezelay watches serenely, almost mystically, over the rolling green pastureland of western Burgundy. The view of this ancient stone haven, as you approach from a distance, hasn't changed much since the days when medieval Christians stopped here to rest and pray during the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James in northwestern Spain.
If you're visiting Paris, probably no other weekend outing will give you a better taste of France's rural glories than a trip to Vezelay. This pilgrimage town is a small-scale Mont-Saint-Michel in a sea of meadows. You can wander more or less alone and perhaps experience a spiritual tug, in sharp contrast to the commercial hype of the famous English Channel destination.
Vezelay may be at its best in the fall. Most of the tour buses are gone. A bracing chill hangs in the air--far better than summer heat, when you're climbing narrow stone streets to inspect the gorgeous carved facades of the town's 16th-century homes. It's also a good time to dawdle in a cozy cafe over a glass of wine from nearby vineyards.
Vezelay's main attraction--in the Middle Ages as now--is a huge Romanesque basilica whose origins date to the 9th century. Inside are soaring columns of alternating dark and light stones, each with unique carved figures. Visit the lovely underground crypt, where members of religious orders sometimes sing ancient religious music beside the basilica's prize possession: relics of Saint Mary Magdalene. Adjacent to the basilica is a garden terrace that offers a spectacular view over the surrounding valleys. Take a stroll also around the outside edge of Vezelay's hill, behind the basilica. You will then pass through the old-city gates and walk along fortified walls.
Almost as re-nowned is Vezelay's other temple--of French gastronomy. At the bottom of the hill sits one of France's best restaurants, L'Esperance, run by celebrated chef Marc Meneau. Dinner runs at least $150 per person, but there's a $75 prix-fixe lunch (plus wine). Try veal in bitter caramel or lobster in almond milk, vinegar, and curry. You'll need to reserve (33 8633-3910). Or visit Meneau's less pricey restaurant nearby, Pre des Marguerites.
L'Esperance is also an elegant hotel ($140 a night and up). You'll find calmer charm at Le Pontot, an old mansion in the center of Vezelay ($120 and up; 33 8633-2440). For rustic elegance, drive 10 miles to the Cousin Valley and stay at a converted water mill on a stream, the Moulin des Ruats ($70 and up; 33 8634-0714). Its restaurant is also excellent. Except for L'Esperance, these hostelries close in November for two or three months.
HOUSEBOATS, TOO. Vezelay is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Paris by the A6 toll autoroute. Far nicer is to slow down and take rural roads at least one way. Heading south, leave the autoroute at Nemours and drive to Sens, an important medieval religious center with a pretty cathedral. Drive down the Yonne River valley, stopping briefly at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, a pleasant village on the river's edge with imposing medieval gate towers at each end. If you have a few days and the weather is nice, consider renting a houseboat at Joigny. You can explore the river and spend the night afloat in comfortable, kitchen-equipped boats that sleep four. They're fun to pilot, and no license is needed.
Leave the Yonne at Joigny and head for the wine town of Chablis. The town itself has no particular charm. But the hillside vineyards just before the town, which produce the famous white Burgundy, are a beautiful sight, even in winter. You'll see wineries where you can taste different vintages and buy a bottle or two for a picnic. Real French Chablis has little in common with the bland California wine of the same name.
Leaving Chablis, head next for Noyers, a village of lovely timbered houses. Then cross the autoroute and aim southwest to Vezelay. This route is long--about five hours-- but you will enjoy a broad view of France. And at the end of it, like a medieval pilgrim, you will welcome Vezelay's serenity.