Lost And Found In The Ancient Gallic Citadels Of Burgundy

Dateline: Bibracte, Gaul (i.e., France):

Water squirts from seven sacred springs. Towering trees sway. The placid view from leafy Bibracte takes in forests, pastures, lakes, stone-built villages and distant cloud-snagging mountaintops. Somnolence seems guaranteed. But wait: the sweeping prospects pulse with 2,000+ years of bloody history, mystery and bizarre, only-in-France nationalistic lore.

Bibracte? You won’t find it on a map, not a current map anyhow. Bibracte is the most celebrated “lost city” of the Celts, the pre-Roman inhabitants of Gaul. Here, somewhere beneath the contorted beech trees, Julius Caesar dictated the perennial bestseller The Conquest of Gaul, etched into tablets in the year 52 B.C.

Bibracte is also where the valiant Gallic warrior Vercingétorix rallied the Celtic tribes of Gaul to face Caesar nearby at Alésia. That’s the other celebrated lost city of Gaul’s green heartland. “Lost” is the operative word. Caesar drubbed the Celts, marched Vercingétorix to Rome, and imprisoned then murdered him before cheering crowds. End of story? No. This is Gaul, meaning France. The past lives on. And on.

A riot of evocative rubble and vegetation, the remains of Bibracte spread atop Mount Beuvray. Happily you can geo-locate this handsome hill: at 2,500 feet it is one of the highest in Burgundy, sited in an unsung region west of France’s finest vineyards in the Côte d’Or.

Granted, neither Bibracte nor Alésia is really lost these days: during the reign of President Francois Mitterrand, the Museum of Celtic Civilization was built on the flanks of Mount Beuvray. This year the spanking new MuséoParc Alésia has opened to crowds of spear-shaking young defeatists. The pair of government-subsidized memorials is linked by an official hiking trail and many roller-coaster meandering two-lane roads on which contemporary Gallic road warriors pilot their turbo-charged diesel chariots.If all this sounds impossible to pronounce and better kept buried, think again. Legions of Gallo-Celtic whackos, whipped up for years by right-wing politicians, obsess about Caesar and Vercingétorix. Even “normal” French men, women and, above all, innocent youngsters learn to revere their defeated forebears and view life as a siege.

Conflict and confusion abound: at its tamest, French ancestor worship orbits around the comic book hero Astérix, who has his own Parc Astérix theme park (north of Paris). He wears wild animal skins and a helmet with wings, devours wild boar, and slays Romans by the score. The comic book series has sold 350 million copies. Originally a spoof (devised by a Frenchman of Italian parentage, and a Pole), Astérix has become a Gallic David facing the global Goliath.

That’s why, despite smoking bans and an excellent educational system, when you hear the phrase nos ancêtres les Gaulois the French are usually talking about mythical pre-Roman heroes and not the brand of cigarettes glued to their lips. Bibracte and Alésia are their spiritual homes.

Fittingly, it was within the strange wood-and-stone stockades of these charming citadels that the Roman’s wine became the debilitating firewater of Gaul, the mysterious forest gods and unwritten languages of the Celts began melding into the Latin-speaking pantheon before morphing, centuries later, via Germanic “barbarianism” into the complex Pagan-Christian-secularism of contemporary French-speaking France. It is complex. It is fascinating. It is weirdly wonderful.

The sites are not of equal interest. The best thing about Alésia isn’t Alésia; it’s the Roman ruins of what replaced Alésia (Caesar rebuilt the village) plus the Roman siege engines and walls. Unless you like populist theme parks for revisionists and toddlers, that is. Admittedly the kids wearing shiny helmets are cute and the actors playing Gallic warriors fearsome. This is as good a place as any to glorify war, butchery, treachery, and cruelty, and combine it with contemporary consumerism. The lush valley setting is also pretty, and convenient to the highway and high-speed train to Paris.

The best thing about Bibracte beyond the uplifting view and the enchanted-forest atmosphere is eating at Le Chaudron de Bibracte. Housed in an annex in front of the museum, you sit at picnic-style tables set with terracotta dishes and wooden spoons. The tunic-wrapped staff serves putatively authentic Celtic specialties from egg to apple, including what you might call dessert. Who knew the Celts drank coffee? Roman wine is also included – or, if you prefer, Cervoise, the Celts’ beer.

What to make of the handsome, glinting, multi-million-euro Museum of Celtic Civilization? Maybe it should be renamed “Gallic propaganda depot.” It’s stuffed with dusty scale models and baffling maps, riveting audio-visual displays, and copies of corroded archeological finds from across the Celtic world – including almost nothing from Bibracte. The Gallic tribes ranged over Europe, battling Germans and Romans and each other. In fact they loved hacking each other to pieces, burning each other alive and worse. Highly civilized.

Caesar identified Bibracte as the capital of the Aedui tribe. Its leaders called Caesar up from Rome to help them destroy rival tribes. But don’t expect to learn that in the museum. There’s no mention either of the Celts’ exquisite cruelty or their occasional eating of human flesh. True, one nifty waxwork tableau does show Aedui headhunters at work. Wouldn’t it be fun to know how they cooked and served those they subjugated?

This was the cradle of Gallic civilization. Yet nearly everything is Roman, including the remaining foundation stones. Teams of archeologists have dug up thousands of Roman coins, Roman fibula clothespins and other Roman metallic detritus at Bibracte, plus tons of Roman wine amphorae. At one Gallic warrior per amphora that adds up to tens of thousands of slaves for export. When you blend in Roman blood from Mediterranean and eastern colonies and multiply by 2,064 years, Bibracte starts to feel less like the cradle of Gaul and more like the original melting pot that created modern, multi-racial, seriously muddle-minded France.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next travel memoir, published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/parisand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.