Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2011-02-21
On the borders of the l’Île de France, Champagne and Burgundy, Sens is a historic town with an exceptional past and a town with a human dimension where life is convivial. We take a tour of its local figures, charming hotels and restaurants.
Sens, Paris’ new commuter town?
You can take a train from Paris and in less than an hour you arrive in Sens. This proximity has, in recent years, led a large number of Parisians, deterred by the capital’s housing prices, to come and live here where fine old half-timbered houses cost the same as a bedsit in the 6th arrondissement. Each morning you see the commuters taking the train for the capital and returning in the evening where a jambon persillé and a glass of chablis awaits them. The happy, newly adopted Sénonais also do their shopping in Troyes and have weekend excursions in the fresh air of Fontainebleau! Perhaps this is a foretaste of what a 21st century “Greater Paris” will look like.
A site inhabited since Prehistoric times
It’s rare to find French regions with such a density of archaeology and history! As Bernard Brousse, President of the Sens Archaeological society and a peerless guidetells us with great enthusiasm “the Sens area has always been a place of passage. The first traces of human activity date back to over 100,000 years ago. Twelve thousand years ago, during the glacial period nomadic hunters followed herds of reindeer and camped near to Marsangy where we discovered some of their artefacts. As the climate improved, new peoples arrived from the East via the Danube valley. Then came the Celts, followed by the Gauls and in particular the Senon tribe, who the town is now named after. With Brennus as their leader they crossed the Alps and invaded Rome in 390 BCE.”
Sens, a dead town? Don’t make me laugh. “You just have to plough a field, build a villa or lay a new road and you immediately uncover some kind of treasure, such as the 242 gold coins from the Gaul period which were discovered in 1992 in Saint-Denis-les-Sens, when the A5 autoroute was under construction!”
France’s first Gothic Cathedral
The best time to discover Sens and the surrounding area is to come on the market days on a Friday or a Monday. The heart of Sens beats around its Cathedral whose prestige lies in being the pioneer of large scale Gothic art. The anonymous architect at the origin of this masterpiece made a mark on the history of cathedrals by developing a revolutionary design of vaulting: the ribbed vault. Started in 1140, this huge cathedral for its time was completed in the late 12th century and served as a model for the cathedrals of Paris, Chartres, Bourges and Canterbury. In the 15th century, glassmakers from Troyes completed the wonders that are the large stained glass windows of the south transept and the complete rose window and lancets of the celestial concert. This cathedral has been the scene for all sorts of events throughout the ages. Saint Bernard and Abélard battled out their theological jousting there. Pope Alexander III stayed there, as did the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket, who came to take refuge there before being assassinated on the orders of the King of England. Saint Louis and Marguerite of Provence were married there. The Cossacks, in 1815, established their camp there and made fires inside (as testified by the blackened surface of the stones at the entrance.)
Museums of an exceptional richness
If there is one visit that you absolutely must not miss under any pretext, it’s the musées de Sens situated in the sumptuous Archbishops Palace next to the cathedral. Even though they are not well known (unjustly) these museums house several of the finest collections which will enthral enthusiasts of Prehistory, Ancient Rome, painters and sculptors. The Cathedral’s Treasure is as rich as that of the ancient abbey of Sainte-Foy de Conques in Aveyron. Besides its precious fabrics from the East and its two huge 15th century silk tapestries, one depicting the Virgin’s coronation and the other named the Adoration of the Magi, there is also an admirable feature of the Sainte-Châsse. This is a Byzantine reliquary from the 10th century with a pyramidal lid made of finely carved ivory. It is the only existing example of its kind in the world.
The underground rooms immerse you in Ancient Rome and give you an idea of what Sens was like during the first century of our era, with its spas, theatres, mosaics and wine presses. In the upper level the room of paintings also houses several wonders (canvases by Bruegel, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Boudin) and something quite extraordinary – the hat Napoleon wore at the battle of Waterloo!
Patrick Gauthier, “above all - a chef!”
Patrick Gauthier, a stocky Bourguignon with a stentorian voice, is the most prominent personality in Sens today. This double Michelin starred “chef/owner” sleeps just four hours a night and sets off to buy his weekly supplies in Rungis one hundred miles away on Tuesday nights and the early hours of Wednesdays. His flagship restaurant is La Madeleine, located in a former house of ill repute, and whose entrance resembles a small museum, with its cast iron stove, butcher's block and array of saucepans ... Now nearly forty years old, Patrick Gauthier is the archetypal “old school” French chef who is a lover of good produce, proud of his profession and, above all, freedom-loving ("making money is good, being free is better! "). Served by his wife Beatrice, his cuisine is just like him: honest, generous and hearty. Warm foie gras with cassis, Rump of Quercy lamb roasted in a copper sautéing pan and the pan-fried Victoria pineapple with pina colada sorbet are true classics. The cheese board was wonderful and we enjoyed drinking the Jean-Hugues Goisot Organic Côtes d’Auxerre offered at an unbeatable price...
Pain d’épice (Spice Cake) from Maison Dosnon
I have Patrick Gauthier to thank for pointing me towards a wonderful delicacy – the pain d’épice from the maison Donson in Villeneuve-Sur-Yonne (16km to the south of Sens). This soft, fresh, additive-free pain d’épice is made from a recipe developed over 100 years ago by the Dosnon family. Rich in honey (40%), it should be enjoyed for itself but can also accompany a good foie gras. The grand chef at George V in Paris, Eric Briffard, fell under its spell and has it delivered to his restaurant every week. You can find this pain d’épice at the maison Dosnon or in Sens market on Monday and Friday mornings.
A Charming Chambre d’hôte
A stone’s throw from Sens’ town centre, on the banks of the river Yonne, the Maison d’Aviler is an exceptional guesthouse surrounded by a large park of 3500m² full of mature trees. This old hospital created in 1793 by Claude-Louis Aviler, an architect of royal buildings boasts a beautiful classical facade. Christiane and Bernard Barré, who settled there twenty years ago, made a magnificent job of restoring this place and then transformed the 3rd floor apartments into guest rooms (equipped with WiFi). The 18th century staircase, the Art Deco bathroom, the Empire period library, the draperies and sumptuous Zuber panorama (which graces the entrance) make it a haven of peace and good taste. It’s all very "old France."
Outings and Attractions
Francis and Florentin Perrin, father and son Stringed Instrument makers
In the town centre, close to the cathedral, there is a place I recommend especially if you love the violin and wood crafts. Francis Perrin is indeed an outstanding maker of stringed instruments, and a colourful and humorous character into the bargain. For 30 years his studio situated in the Marais, Paris was the meeting place for some of the greatest string players of the era: Ivry Gitlis, Pierre Amoyal and Gerard Causse. Now retired, Francis came to live in Sens where his son Florentin continues the art. You should see them carving a scroll head, planning an arch, carving out the f-holes or opening the belly of a violin to replace its organs. Violin making is at times closer to surgery than a relaxing therapy! Inspired by the popular stringed instrument makers, the Perrins like to create instruments from 17th century wood taken from old timber beams and whose sound quality is exceptional. Some instruments exhibited in their studio are masterpieces, like the cello with its back carved into the figure of a naked woman which is as beautiful as a Klimt painting.
Tropical Greenhouses in Northern Burgundy
Since the town is a “ville fleurie”, at the edge of Sens is one of the most visited parks in all of Burgundy: the parc du Moulin à Tan, which covers 10 hectares. 200 000 people come here every year to take in the fresh air in the midst of woods, animal enclosures and wild roses. But the highlight of the show is the tropical greenhouses, located beside the old mill. This unusual place houses 6,000 plants and trees of 1,500 different species: vanilla, pepper, banana, orange, cactus, giant water lilies, carnivorous plants, orchids ... It ranges from the dry and fresh atmosphere of cacti greenhouse to the winter garden where the humidity rises to 90% bringing figs, papyrus and other sensitive plants into bloom. This rare collection attracts botanists from around the world. Newlyweds also like to come here to have wedding photos taken.
A Stroll along the aqueduct ...
The border area of the Champagne region, in the valley of la Vanne, east of Sens, was once marshlands. Nowadays it can be crossed by a 173 km aqueduct, built in 1874 by the engineer Belgrand which used to carry Sénonais spring water to Paris ... By foot or bicycle, this itinerary through the hills gives you a chance to discover sites such as the 16th century church at Soucy, the Renaissance castle at Fleurigny, Lancy forest where prehistoric dolmens and megaliths are still standing, the pretty wash-house of Fontaine-la-Gaillarde and finally Vauluisant Abbey known for its monumental 16th century porch.
Sens Tourist Office
Place Jean Jaurès
89 100 Sens
Tel: +33 (0)3 86 65 19 49
Where to Eat
1, rue d’Alsace-Lorraine
89 100 Sens
Tel: +33 (0)3 86 65 09 31
Menu à 49€
Where to stay
10, rue du collège (50 m from the church)
89 500 Villeneuve-sur-Yonne
Tel: +33 (0)3 86 87 17 64
43, quai du Petit-Hameau
Tel: +33 (0)3 86 95 49 25
Suite 80€ per night, including breakfast
Perrin et fils luthiers
8, rue Paul Bert
89 100 Sens
Tel: +33 (0)3 86 83 30 15