In Champagne and Burgundy: Drunk on Art

07/31/2013 07:34 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013


There are two different ways to travel around the world. One way is to visit a country whose art and culture you admire, but doing it only once. After all, there are so many interesting places but so little time. But another way to travel is to return again and again to the country you feel a particular affinity for. In my case, this definitely would be France where, by a stroke of luck, I traveled to several times over the last few years -every time discovering yet another part of the country rich in culture and history. Just think about your relationships with old friends whom you get to know better and better with every visit and every conversation. My several trips to France allowed me to go beyond the glamour of Paris to discover a variety of cultural regions less traveled to by one-time tourists.


It's unlikely that I would ever decide to travel on my own to the Burgundy and Champagne regions of France, but that's exactly where I found myself when I joined a press trip organized by tourist agency Atout France. And truth be told, neither the delightful Burgundy wine nor bubbly Champagne made me as happily drunk as all the wonderful art I saw in towns and villages dotted across the countryside.


15th century Hotel-Dieu is an ancient hospital complex, and a major historical landmark in the city of Beaune. The complex is famous for its architecture and particularly for the splendid mosaic pattern of its roof tiles. The preserved interior tells the story of how the poor and ill were taken care of there by nuns. Among the numerous artworks spread all throughout the complex, there is one world-famous masterpiece, "The Last Judgement," a large alter-piece by 15th century Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden.


Guilty as charged, my previous knowledge of the city of Dijon was limited to its delicious mustard. But after spending just a couple of hours in its art museum Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, I am ready to go back to this city and stay there for much longer.


The museum collection is very strong with 18th and 19th century European artworks. But what impressed me in particular were the few dozen 14th century marble sculptures of mourning monks from the tomb of a Duke of Burgundy. Lucky for us Angelenos, we were able to see some of these praying and lamenting monks on display here at LACMA two years ago. And how about the collection of extremely rare ancient Fayum portraits dating back to the Roman Empire?


First thing one learns about entering the city of Langres is that it is the birthplace of famous French philosopher Denis Diderot. His bigger-than-life bronze portrait graces the central square in the city and I literally took my hat off to him considering the impact of Diderot on shaping art collections for Catherine the Great, for whom he was a major art advisor. The Hermitage Museum as we know it owes a lot to this son of Langres.


And though the local Art and History Museum is relatively modest in size, the quality of its Greek and Roman art collection rather impressed me.


The next stop on our journey was the small village of Essoyes, where Auguste Renoir spent the last decades of his life. His studio there shows only reproductions of his work, but it still manages to recreate the bohemian atmosphere that inspired his late art. Usually, I am not particularly fond of visiting the cemeteries and gravesites where famous people are buried. But Renoir's grave was a stone's throw away from his studio and I'm glad that I went there to see the bronze portrait depicting him in the last years of his life.


A short trip from Essoyes to nearby Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises brought us to the ten-year-old memorial of Charles de Gaulle. We arrived just in time to observe the military ceremony honoring the president of France during the turbulent years of World War II and a long stretch of years after. The memorial has an appropriately grand scale and sense of authority, so I was pleasantly surprised by the touch of playfulness with which the story of his presidency is told. Just take a look at the imposing bronze portrait of the General at the museum's entrance. It is imposing indeed but somehow, it makes you smile.


Until this trip, I had never heard of the French city of Troyes. As with many medieval French cities, it has plenty of historical sites and streets where a traveler can happily wander around. I chose to spend most of my time in two museums facing each other in the very center of the town.

The Saint Loup Museum has an impressive collection of European Old Master paintings and sculptures. My favorite was an excellent marble bust of Louis XIV by Francois Girardon, which exudes enough authority to make everyone, including yours truly, behave appropriately.

However, the most delightful surprise of this trip to Champagne and Burgundy was to discover a small but excellent collection of early 20th century artworks in Troyes' Museum of Modern Art. Let me mention just a few names: Raoul Dufy, Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse, Robert Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani and Andre Derain.

Do I hear you calling your travel agent to arrange a trip to France?


Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.