France Forever: Exploring Cluny And The Butte de Suin

As I teetered atop the wind-blown, 700-year-old Tour des Fromages in the medieval tangle of Cluny, on Burgundy’s southern edge, I could see history writ large: the Romanesque spires and broken columns of Cluny’s ruined abbey, once the biggest in Christendom. But my rapturous eyes took in more: the tuck-‘n’-roll hills and rocky trails my wife and I explored a few years back.

Alison and I clocked 750 miles across Burgundy and Southwest France, a 3-month “skeptic pilgrimage” chronicled in my book “Paris to the Pyrenees.” Among our absolute favorite places: Cluny and Southern Burgundy. This backwater of timberland, vineyards, and pastures is where the big white Charolais cattle you now see all over the world came from. Cows outnumber residents.
The views of uncluttered countryside are inspiring. The best view of all is from an isolated mountaintop 12 miles due west of Cluny called Butte de Suin. On our pilgrimage we detoured to it. So, back in Burgundy this summer, Butte de Suin was the first place we revisited.

With the August sun behind us, we saddled up and headed west from Cluny at 8 am on cross-country hiking trail GR 76. It corkscrews out of the valley and roller-coasters through forests flanked by pastures. By 10 am we could see Suin on the horizon. Between us and it were stone-built villages, outsized animals, and some pretty iffy fences.

Approaching weathered but flower-filled Sivignon, a village footing the butte, we pulled over. An SUV-sized bull snorted, rattling the chains on his shaggy, cream-colored head. He was a large specimen. Separating the bull’s horns from our flesh was maybe two yards and a single strand of electrified wire. I hoped the battery was charged.

Glancing up toward the Virgin Mary atop the Butte de Suin, my mind’s eye saw emerald pastures running crimson – punishment by goring for my religious skepticism. Bellowing then lunging at us, the bull turned suddenly and trotted away. “Thank you,” I whispered, feeling skeptical about skepticism. I wasn’t sure if it was Mary, the bull of ancient Mithras, or Zeus himself who’d spared us. He’s been known to take a bull’s shape at the sight of a woman.

We marched up a steep trail through a tunnel of trees to the boulder-strewn top of Butte de Suin. The pastel-blue and cloud-white sculpture of the Madonna rose at the mountain’s summit. Scrambling over boulders to her rusty feet we followed the trajectory of a hawk over the patchwork of forests, fields, and pastures. Due south were the vineyards of Beaujolais. No freeways, cities, or blight was visible, and few signs of modernity.

Residents claim you can count 64 steeples from Butte de Suin. We mounted a faux medieval lookout tower atop another pile of boulders and ran our fingers over a ceramic map embedded in stone. Arrows and distances took us from the Loire Valley to alpine peaks in Switzerland. I counted 50 belfries but Alison disallowed three. “Not too shabby,” I remarked, satisfied. As the Michelin guidebook might say, Suin is worth the detour.

History books say humans have been climbing Butte de Suin for some time now. The hogback outcrop of Roche de Solutré lies due east about 20 miles, near Macon. Everyone knows the Solutrian Phase of the Upper Paleolithic Era covered 3,000 years, from 15,000 to 12,000 BC, right?

Julius Caesar’s army overran Butte de Suin about 2,000 years ago. Back then it was a Celtic stronghold and place of Druidic worship. But archeologists think the boulders at Suin were stood on end or piled up to make table-like dolmens thousands of years before Caesar. Shrine-building was a big deal for the Earth Mother worshippers or “Megalithic Missionaries” the Celts wiped out. Suin was strategic in antiquity: The Butte is a watershed. East of it waters flow into the Sâone River and wind up in the Mediterranean; west they join the Loire and flow to the Atlantic.

From the lookout we could see the pre-Celtic trail of those Solutrian Age hunter-gatherers, later used by the pre-Celtic Earth Mother worshippers and then the Celts, the Romans, medieval knights, and, nowadays, by lost pilgrims. In theory the prehistoric trail zigzags south to the Massif Central.

We ate a slender picnic while soaking up the magical ancientness of Suin. A Roman fort once sat on the pre-Celtic boulders. A thousand years ago a Romanesque church grew alongside it. As the centuries rolled by farmhouses mushroomed around the church. The fortress burned down in 1580, leaving the boulders, farmhouses, and church. They’re still clustered here, frosted by lichen and buffeted by wind.

We stepped inside the cool, dark, empty interior. No pilgrims to be seen. I could’ve settled down for a nap. But it was time to head back to Cluny and modern times.

Liguria: Salt, Sea, Sun And Stunning Views On The Italian Riviera

Speedboat centurions and Apollonian wind surfers carved the waves far below us. Several hundred thousand bronzed bodies carpeted the beaches, lolled on rocks or guzzled and partied under sun umbrellas: The Italian Riviera was in full, raucous summer swing.

From where we stood, atop the silent, windy world, on the Via Panoramica behind the eastern suburbs of Genoa, it was strange to look down on the glam and think of salt, sweat and poverty. The Riviera isn’t exactly inexpensive or unsung. Yet the ancient salt route we’d been walking on since dawn, linking the briny Ligurian coast to northern Italy’s mountainous interior, is what today’s Via Panoramica and the well-marked network of serpentine, stony trails above the Riviera are all about: countless misery-etched miles far from the madding masses.
Sea salt used to be the main preservative in Europe. Traders loaded mules with precious “white gold” and trekked inland, sometimes traveling for weeks or months, until their salt ran out.

The bad old days are over: the salt trails are for happy hikers and madmen like me who like playing at mountain goat.

You’re right to ask: why leave the luxuries, delicacies, fun, sun and Mediterranean to scramble into Liguria’s harsh interior? Especially when the heat is not just blistering, but breathtaking?

Easy: cool mountain breezes, quiet emptiness and views galore. Oh, and the mysterious enchantments of living history. If men, women and beasts of burden have been trudging on these trails since the Bronze Age, it stands to reason there might be something magical about the carefully placed, foot-scuffed stones. There is, and more: romantic ruins, gorgeous geological formations, wild flowers and herbs, teetering pines, feral oinkers, wild horses, hawks and a zillion migratory birds.

A longtime Riviera regular – every year my wife and I spend several months here – I’ve hoofed thousands of miles. This is one of my favorite suburban scrambles: no crowds, no Cinque Terre hype, just real-deal Italy minutes from downtown Genoa.

After a 25-minute train ride along the seductive shoreline, our local from Genoa to La Spezia stopped in Recco-capital of cheese-filled focaccia con formaggio. A bus from there whirly-gigged us up a river valley, past tumbledown perched hamlets, to the homely village of Uscio. There is no there in Uscio. The name sounds like uscita, meaning “exit” in Italian. Full of caffeine and loaded with water and picnic edibles we exited pronto uphill and west. The paved road kinks to reveal the double-diamond trail markers we needed.

It’s tempting to head north on the salt route from Uscio across the Apennines into Lombardy, a multiple-day excursion. But in summer it’s even more tempting to coil up the paved road to the seaside ridge about 2,100 feet directly above the waves, then head toward Monte Fasce and Genoa.
We reached the panoramic section of Via Panoramica via the woodsy salt route past a secluded, centuries-old chapel poised by a spring. The drinking water was pure and cool.

At Case Cornua above the coast village of Sori stands a rustic trattoria with house-made everything. Too early for lunch, we had cold water and hot espresso instead. Nearby are the skeletal remains of an unlikely luxury suburb. The builders had no permits, the development was nixed, but the little-used Via Panoramica, built for commuters who never came, and the amazing views, remain. Par-blind as I am, I could still see southeast to the Portofino Peninsula and Tuscany, and southwest practically to France.

Those views – plus the roughshod Apennines lying north – followed us on the rocky, roller-coaster route. It peaks and dips: The salt route, and other mule trails, branch and wind to infinity. Having galloped to safety from a herd of over-eager wild horses, and discouraged an outsized feral pig that wanted my pack, we found a pine grove and fell upon our picnic like the wolves that are making a comeback in the area. Now all we had to do was get back down to the coast. We slid and stumbled and clambered, polishing those ancient stones with our modern soles.

Sure, we’d cheated and ridden up part way. Did I feel guilty? Nope. Descending is even harder on the joints. No regrets. We sniffed the perfumed air and gawked at the creeper-tangled ruins of abandoned houses, the dark chestnut forests in clefts and folds, the hidden farmsteads and, as we neared the sea, the olive groves. What better reward at the end of a three-hour downhill obstacle course than a shady table, bubbly water and an ice cream cone in the swank seaside resort of Nervi? If only I’d brought my swimsuit.

Author, journalist and private tour guide David Downie‘s latest critically acclaimed books are “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James” and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app was published in April.

David’s Discoveries: The Beetle-Loving Calligrapher Of Paris

For the last 26 years, calligrapher extraordinaire Eric de Tugny has lured the curious into his magical bolt-hole of a stationer’s shop in Paris, on the Rue du Pont Louis Philippe.
Long down at the heel, part of the crumbling old Jewish district, this short, straight road is on the western edge of the Marais. Most of the traditional businesses have gone elsewhere, though the nearby Shoah Memorial remains the neighborhood’s soulful anchor. Now a chic shopping enclave, indigenous bobos and visitors crowd the sidewalks to gaze at the handmade papers in the accessory-filled boutiques, do the photo gallery and tea salon, and open their wallets wide in the chocolate or specialty food shops that stand cheek-by-jowl between the Seine and Rue Francois Miron.

The shop’s name – “Mélodies Graphiques,” meaning “Graphic Melodies” – gives nothing away. What might it really mean?

The melody of beautiful writing, or the graphic quality of music? Inside, Bach or baroque chamber music plays softly on the sound system. The only other sound is that of Tugny quietly penning sinuous lines of his inimitable script letters – creating invitations and announcements, or love notes, wedding menus and anything else clients can imagine where the beauty of the penmanship and the composition are essential to the message. Perched behind his working surface – it doubles as the cash desk – Tugny merges village scribe and New Age seer.

He has far too much work for one calligrapher to do. Fan mail from friends and clients in Helsinki, San Francisco, Casablanca and London is pinned to the wall behind.

But there’s more to the shop than first meets the eye. All may seem proper and normal: pens, pencils, wrapping paper, agendas, book plates, cards and suchlike are carefully displayed, with an artistic yet orderly sensibility. Look closer and you might recoil. Real, preserved bugs adorn the shop windows, or perch near the cash register. The book of bugs, a richly illustrated volume with Tugny’s illustrations, is displayed nearby.

What makes the middle-aged Tugny so extraordinary is not merely his talent with quill pen, ink and rag paper. Insiders know the impish Frenchman as the City of Light’s most bug-wild, beetle-mad collector, an intrepid hunter, preserver and illustrator of creepy crawlies, coleopteran many-legged, horned, fanged, stinging, biting, dangerous, deadly, gorgeously weird-looking insects from around the globe.

If you’re lucky you might step in as he’s drawing a scorpion he caught, most likely in the Cote d’Ivoire, and brought home triumphantly, pickled and floating in a mason jar.

Ask the affable Tugny what he has in the old-fashioned folders propped up on wooden crutches at the front of the shop and you will be treated to beetle mania. Green bugs with antennae that would put Big Ears to shame, locust-like monsters with translucent wings, giant yellow beetles with chocolate-brown bottoms seemingly dipped in chocolate – dozens and dozens of exquisite drawings done by Tugny. Each is a labor of love requiring, on average, 60 hours of work with loupe, caliper and the ink-filled tools of his trade.

Born in Morocco to French parents, brought up and educated in Lyon, Tugny’s first profession was biologist, with a specialty in entomology. His expertise: the coleopteran of North Africa. In the last 30 years he has captured – or been sent – every known species, and has immortalized each with the precision of an Audubon. Astonishingly, the modest, soft-spoken Tugny is self-taught, his hand and mind driven solely by passion.

“It all started 15 years ago,” he told me recently, one rainy Paris day as spring turned to summer, his mirth contagious, “with an invitation to a bar mitzvah.”

A local Marais resident came to buy paper supplies, admired his handwriting – the store hours are in calligraphy – and asked him to write out names and addresses for a celebration. Soon the Jewish community was beating a path to him for personalized invitations: bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, special events, art exhibitions and more. Word spread. Now photographers, authors, movie directors, fashion designers and wealthy new neighborhood denizens beeline to Tugny’s shop. He is in such demand that, with evident regret, he refuses clients who don’t give him a long enough lead time. I watched as several came in, one begging for the scribe to write a letter, another to create a menu for a soiree.

The calligraphy led him to indulge his twin passions: drawing and insects. Now he’s preparing to sell limited editions of his prints. “Oh, I never sell the originals,” he answered when I inquired politely. “Those I will always keep.” Alongside the mounted pickled bugs – and his inimitable, wry sense of humor.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James” and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app was published in April: and

A Culinary Pilgrimage From Paris To The San Francisco Bay

No, the dinner on our Air France flight from Paris was not remarkable. The good news started in Washington, DC. Friends took us to a reconverted firehouse in a formerly edgy neighborhood on Massachusetts Avenue where by magic succulent fresh scallops the size of saucers appeared. The venue: Sixth Engine. Very cool.

Too cool for the sidewalk tables, we colonized a booth inside, where the firemen once chowed. Or was it where the engines parked? The wait staff didn’t know. They did know how to bring water and wine and micro-brewery beer and food swiftly-and how to smile. We were dazed. After Paris, smiles take the breath away.

But my breath was snatched foremost by the monster scallops, perfectly sautéed with white wine: simplicity. The roasted pork belly, giant burgers, hand-cut fries and fried catfish sounded wonderful. No. We had to have the scallops.

Why? Scallops are the symbol of Saint James and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Here we were on tour in America to promote my new adventure travel book, the one about trekking 750 miles across France over the Pyrenees into Spain. I’d carried a secular scallop shell with me en route, a skeptic pilgrim open to serendipitous encounters and adventures while traveling in time and place-and on dinner plates.

Clearly the DC scallops were a sign sent by Saint James.So began a month-long gastronomic troll that took a toll on my formerly trim waistline. On the surface our US book tour was about telling the tale of a physical pilgrimage across France: walking, meditating, slimming down, seeking illumination or spirituality or noting the lack of it. Yet our coast-to-coast jaunt morphed into an illuminating culinary rediscovery.

Dare I say it? Everywhere we went the food was great, even fabulous. Though overpriced the coffee and wine were outstanding; the service seemed humane and efficient, and the prices? About one third lower than in my adopted home, the City of Light.

In Manhattan: Gramercy Tavern. Some publishers have excellent taste. We celebrated astonishing news: “Paris to the Pyrenees” had sold through its first print run in two weeks. Stunned, we couldn’t resist the tasting menu-matched by a fine Burgundy red. This was real deal Franco-American cooperation. Lush, supple but mineral-rich the Givry from Michel Sarrazin reminded me why I love French wine.

It seemed to have been squeezed and fermented and aged especially to exalt the exquisite roasted duck breast with quinoa, celery root, hazelnuts and earthy morel mushrooms. Smooth service, without obsequiousness; an accommodating attitude to special needs; and a price tag that would’ve been astronomical for a similar feast in my beloved Paris-but wasn’t.

I was beginning to feel jittery. Between the lunches and dinners, delicious treats and coffee tempted us, coffee that made the burning, acidic tar of Paris seem criminally bad. Give me a Paris café any day for atmosphere and sit-down service (subtract the smoke blowing in from the terrace, please). But France needs friends to hammer coffee suppliers until they bring back the quality brews of old.

Before winging west we had a bang-up literary lunch at a “French” restaurant, La Boite en Bois. The quotation marks are because, though the fab food is traditional French-salade niçoise, boeuf bourguignon, etc…-the chef-owner of this cozy grotto near Lincoln Center is Italian. Irrepressible enthusiasm! Some on staff claimed authentic French citizenship but I had to wonder. They were disarmingly friendly. Maybe they’d gone native.

Seattle might boast nearly as many cafés as Paris. Luckily the beans they roast are better than French: premium Arabica. The result: more than felicitous. The best local brew we tried came from hip Café Fonté, which had waiters and proper service. Strong, rich, silky, it recalled Roman coffee, or the best Paris coffee those many decades ago, before Cafés Richard took over the supply chain.
Salmon and halibut and black cod and other flipping-fresh fish waved fins at us from the fabulous Pike Street Market. Over a century old, it was new to me and boy, do I wish we had it (sans the souvenir stands) in Paris. The farm-grown produce was real, the bulk goods and farmstead cheese too, and the fish! Smoked salmon, lox, fresh, wild salmon: we went salmon wild, buying pounds of near-live, salmon-pink flesh and cooking it up in our short-term rental apartment.

Seattle’s most memorable meal: fish, naturally, at Seatown, the casual bar & rotisserie run by the ubiquitous Tom Douglas, a Seattle hero. His bigger, more expensive restaurant Etta’s, next door, was packed to the gills. Happily, the oysters on the half shell, local crab, smoked black cod, Alaskan halibut and wild salmon were perfectly perfect. Gone the days of sauce-smothered, overcooked fish! A sprightly white from Washington State washed it all down like nobody’s business. Again: flawless service with spontaneous laughter, jokes, smiles and a lightweight bill.

Portland? Give me a lifetime to describe the delights (and delightful people). A local whisked us to trendy Bluehour in the Pearl District. The designers had worked overtime: we might’ve been at one of the Coste Brothers’ postmodern cafés in Paris. Except that, how to put it, there was no attitude, the food was exquisite, and again, the prices reasonable. Oysters! Cod! Saint James’ scallops reappeared right in time for our event at Powell’s Books! As I devoured a second mound of fresh hand-cut fries I wept. They were as exquisite as those from my cult Marais bistro, Café des Musées.
What paradisiacal tortures lay ahead? Postmodern Vietnamese at The Slanted Door in the Ferry Building in San Francisco (after an event at Book Passage). Okay, everyone knows the Slanted Door is fabulous. Not news. If only they could cut the noise. The food? Astonishing! Barbecued Willis Ranch pork spareribs, some of the best ribs ever, anywhere. And fish-whole sea bass braised in a banana leaf with cilantro and lime-to die for. The view: the Bay Bridge sparkling like-like the Eiffel Tower lying on a long, wavy couch.

After the best traditional Indian food I have ever eaten-at Ajanta, in Berkeley-I fell into a funk. How had this happened? What would I eat in Paris? Why was I going home?

I stuffed my suitcase with beans from Peet’s Coffee and flew to the City of Light full of dread. We arrived in time to lunch at Le Gorille Blanc, my number-one favorite, friendly family-run micro bistro. Micro is the key word. Settling into our tiny table, the one novelist Georges Simenon liked; admiring the hewn stone walls from the 1500s; and savoring the startlingly sumptuous puddle of sorrel soup with sweet potatoes and coconut milk, I knew all would be well. The miniscule fresh roasted cod with mustard sauce was outstanding, the wine not bad, perhaps excellent, and the tablespoon of coffee Italian-thank god. Feeling like I’d already started to lose weight, I shook hands with the slender, amiable owners. Franco-American friendship was alive and well.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James” and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app will be published in April: and
Photo: courtesy Bluehour

April In Paris At The Bagatelle

April in Paris is about spring buds, blossoms, lovers and delicate sunshine – everyone knows that. Just because the temperatures are often in the 30s or 40s Fahrenheit, branches still barren, makes no difference at all. So it was with a light heart and step that I trekked to the western edge of town the other day to revisit one of my favorite gardens anywhere: the lavishly landscaped Parc de Bagatelle.

Edging the Bois de Boulogne and posh Neuilly, Bagatelle comes complete with ponds, grottoes, fountains, lichen-frosted statues and sexy sphinxes, a miniature chateau, orangeries, a café and restaurant, and remarkable rose and iris gardens. Peacocks feathered and of a human kind saunter along looping lanes, some draped with wisteria or clematis. The exquisite whole is tied together by more tortuous history than could fit into several of my monthly columns.

Sound familiar? Look up “bagatelle” and you’ll find: “something of little value or significance.” Wrong: ride line 1 of the Paris metro to Pont de Neuilly then walk or take the 43 bus the last moneyed mile or so, and you’ll be startled by the large value and evergreen significance of this magical park.

Everything about Bagatelle is contemporary, right down to the oligarchs and corrupt politicians in their mansions bordering the walled enclave, plus the kaleidoscope of workers on the bus, or the new skyscrapers rising over nearby La Défense-Paris’ mini-Manhattan. By day the surrounding parklands are filled with birdsong and joggers, millionaires on horseback and dog-walkers tangled in designer leashes. By night the essence of Neuilly comes out: the woods and lanes around Bagatelle fill with prostitutes that look amazingly like the garden’s sphinxes, and sleazy customers in SUVs. The delightful and the seamy frolic cheek by jowl.

“A mere bagatelle,” is one of those shopworn saws my father’s generation used when dressing up false modesty. The grand gesture – diamonds, baubles, or, as happened here, a chateau and garden – is tossed off with “oh, it’s nothing, a mere bagatelle.” Not that my father would’ve indulged in pretense.

As I entered the romantic 19th-century garden gateway and stood before two towering plane trees hundreds of years old, I recalled that the phrase was coined by the loveable Comte d’Artois, later King Charles X, a despotic reactionary later known for his ghoulish S&M parties in the Paris catacombs.

The count was the youngest brother of Louis XVI, he who lost his bewigged head. Charles and his ditzy sister-in-law Marie Antoinette had a little bet: she wagered he could not build a perfect rococo mansion and garden in less than 70 days. The count won: it took his nearly 1,000 artisans and serfs 64 days and nights (some say 68, but who’s counting?). Marie Antoinette did not bring in her sheep or feed them cake. She stayed in Versailles. The count lived high – for a while. This was 1775. Revolution hadn’t yet knocked off the big wigs.

The other saying associated with Bagatelle is “parva sed apta” – small is beautiful. It’s carved onto the façade. This one was coined probably 2,500 years ago in Athens or Rome but is apt to this day: the chateau is pocketsize, symmetrical, pink-stucco perfection, and the garden itself, though not exactly small, seems intimate and compact compared to the sprawling Bois de Boulogne.

Even when spring is a month behind as it is this year, the daffodils and crocuses at Bagatelle carpet the endless, rolling lawns. Peacocks wing past, plucked from some surrealist movie. Buds burst and leaves unfurl in a gentle yellow rain. Gone are the counts, kings and queens. Allergens and democracy have prevailed at Bagatelle: even the millionaires mix with the hoi polloi, though the park’s main café-restaurant is so expensive its clientele seems plucked from the ranks of the Comte d’Artois.

Near the cheapo café with powdered coffee and plastic seats, on the south side of the park, I rested on a mossy bench after several mile-long laps. The air was pollen-rich. I watched an elderly couple flap newspapers and coddle their very fat cat. The peacocks and hens also watched, unafraid. The cat, peacocks and fellow strollers seemed not to notice the stylized sculptures – a temporary art exhibition – dotted around the garden. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the compound invaded by contemporary high culture. Bagatelle is trying to be cutting edge – without much success. What people including me come here for isn’t today’s outdoor art. It’s a chance to sit or walk in an unnaturally beautiful natural setting, amid antique marbles and thorny roses, quietly celebrate the seasons, and the continuing struggle to uphold equality of enjoyment in France.

Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app will be published in April: and

[Photo Credits: Alison Harris]