BEAUNE, France — "Degustez raisonnablement," the sign gently warns those about to sample 37 of Burgundy's finest wines for a mere $3 in this town's old market: "Taste with reason."
We would further add that the best comes last as you pour and sip your way unattended through caves and a pair of 15th-Century chapels, so save your taste buds for the later racks of Chambertins, Cortons and Pommards that have brought unbridled joy to wine connoisseurs the world over for centuries.
The French describe Beaune as une jolie petite ville, a pretty little town, which strikes us as accurate but falls well short of conveying the striking beauty and still-rural ambiance of what is certainly one of our favorite places to visit in all Europe.
We've been here twice before for the vendange , the fall grape harvest that draws visitors from around the world, many of them young people willing to work the brutal hours of a short harvest time for bed and board, little pay but much camaraderie.
Here to there: Air France and TWA will fly you LAX-Paris nonstop, Pan Am and American with one stop, Air Canada, British Airways, Delta and British Caledonian with a change. From late June through September Nouvelles Frontieres will have a weekly non-stop to Paris, phone (213) 658-8955, Ext. 56. French National Railroads' crack 170-miles-per-hour TGV will zip you from Paris' Gare de Lyon to Beaune in two hours, their France Vacances pass a real bargain. Walking is the only satisfying way to see Beaune.
How long/how much: For a town of 20,000, two or three days may seem a lot, but as we said, sip slowly and with relish. Food and lodging prices, as always, are quite reasonable in the small towns and countryside of France.
A few fast facts: The French franc was recently valued at 14 cents, about seven to the dollar. Any time of year but dead of winter good for visits, large crowds September-October, summer visitors fewer and that's when Beaune invariably wins the French competition for the town with the prettiest flowers.
Getting settled in: L'Auberge Bourguignonne (4 Place Madeleine; $26-$32 double) has improved measurably through the years, but it's still a country inn to melt your heart. They set a fine table, and there are interesting cafes and bistros around Place Madeleine, alas, no longer the scene of a daily market.
Hotel de la Cloche (40 Rue du Faubourg Madeleine; $27-$33) is on the same square and has made even greater leaps upward, particularly in the dining rooms. Bedrooms still decidedly plain, two dining rooms, one rather formal, the other a rustic cellar with stone walls and ceiling beams.
Drivers will appreciate La Closerie (61 Route de Pommard; $37), a motel-type place just outside town that's a member of Logis de France. Rooms modern and comfortable, breakfast-only served, and a small pool and garden out back.
Regional food and drink: Burgundian fare frequently figures to have wine in its recipe, the popular coq au vin being coq au chambertin in better places here. Caille a la vigneronne is quail stuffed with goose liver and truffles, braised and served with sliced truffles and white grapes. And France's best beef is the Charolais cattle of Burgundy, very lean, a prize on European tables.
With your aperitif or kir , have a gougeres puff pastry flavored with cheese. Other cheeses of Burgundy to sample are Epoisses, Petit Boutons de Culotte and Citeaux des Moines, numerous chevres (goat cheeses) always a treat with a hearty glass of red wine.
Wines, of course, come in all quality and price ranges, so make your choice based upon your taste, pocketbook and the meal you're having it with. But expect to pay considerably less for whatever you choose than you would at home.
Moderate-cost dining: Au P'tit Pressoir (15 Place Fleury) is just off the main market square, an enchanting little place with hand-embroidered tablecloths and napkins, four perfect tulips at each table to match the serving plates, lace curtains and tapestries on the walls. Four-course menus start at $9.60 and go up to $18, or you may start with a half-dozen escargots for $3.50, move on to three fillets of lamb-veal-beef for $10, beautifully sauced.
At the top of this range is Auberge Saint-Vincent (Place de la Halle), a 17th-Century house with ceiling beams like boxcars, yet a gracious feeling highlighted by leaded windows, a handsome fireplace, beautiful carved wooden statue of an ancient vintner, more tapestries and lovely table settings. Menus run from $14 to $19, our cream of asparagus soup with sliced smoked salmon, magret de canard aux baies de cassis , breast of duck with black-currants, and ragout of crayfish were all exquisite house specialties.
Two other places where you'll find all the Burgundian favorites at lower prices are the dining rooms of L'Auberge Bourguignonne and Hotel de la Cloche, both of which have served us well.