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Political divisions

France, exclusive of its overseas territories, is divided into administrative units: 96 départements and 22 régions, including Bourgogne and Franche-Comté . The région of Burgundy includes the départements of Côte-d’Or, Nièvre, Saône-et-Loire and Yonne ; Franche-Comté encompasses Doubs, Jura and Haute-Saône . Jura is also the name of the 250km/155mi-long mountain range running from the Rhine to the Rhone. Perhaps because the mountains cover most of the region, Jura is generally used to refer to the whole region of Franche-Comté, except for administrative or historical purposes.

The region of Burgundy has several distinct geographical areas, which are commonly referred to as Basse Bourgogne (the Auxerre and Chablis areas), the Arrière-Côte and Côte and the ancient granite massifs known as the Morvan , the Charollais and the Mâconnais to the south.

The Jura mountains reach a width of 61km/38mi; the tallest peak is the Crêt de la Neige (1 717m/5 633ft). The relief, while modest in height, is striking, characterised by long parallel ridges and valleys along a northeast-southwest axis that converge at each end. This pattern of folds steps down to an undulating plateau in the west, which rises around Montbéliard to meet the Vosges.

Formation of the land

Primary Era - This is believed to have begun about 600 million years ago. Modern France was entirely under water, until the movement of the earth’s crust known as the Hercynian fold took place, which created a number of high mountain ranges. The seas that covered the Paris and Rhône basins were linked by a strait which corresponds to the “threshold of Burgundy”. Erosion wore down the highest parts of the Morvan to their rocky base, while the warm, humid climate produced lush vegetation, eventually buried under layers of alluvial deposits and pressurised into coal between the Morvan and Beaujolais massifs.

Secondary Era - This began about 200 million years ago. The Hercynian base subsided and the seas flooded the Paris basin and Jura region, covering even the highest land. They deposited strata of sedimentary rocks – marl (chalk mixed with impermeable clay) and limestone (formed from fossilised shells and fish skeletons) – on the granite seabed. The formation of such sedimentary rock strata was so prolific in Jura in particular that geologists named the middle period of the Secondary Era, which lasted about 45 million years, the Jurassic period.

Tertiary Era - This began about 60 million years ago. The parallel rock strata of the Jura region, sloping gently down to the Swiss plain, were still covered with water (the lakes of Biel , Neuchâtel and Geneva still remain). Then came the great Alpine folding movement, and the land was once again forced upwards and the seas pushed back.

The pressure during this Alpine-building period folded the Jura rock strata along a northeast-southwest axis into parallel ridges and valleys, curving in a giant crescent between the Vosges and the Massif Central and sloping down towards the River Saône, where all the rivers drained into the great lake of Bresse (which later vanished). Nearer the Alps, the thick layers of sedimentary rock folded under pressure, giving rise to the Jura mountains. The layers of the western edge, not so thick, split along the faults formed by the movements of the earth’s crust into a series of stepped plateaux. Not far from the slopes overlooking the Saône Valley , salt deposits were formed (later to become a local resource).

Quaternary Era - This began about 2 million years ago. Erosion continued to shape the region into its present appearance: ancient massifs (Morvan, Beaujolais); limestone plateaux (La Côte, l’Arrière Côte); sedimentary basins (Bazois, Terre-Plaine, Auxois); valleys (surrounding the Jura); and low-lying plains (Saône Valley). The era was marked by two significant events; the appearance of man, and the coming of the Ice Age with its glaciers, which invaded the valleys from the Alps. As the glaciers receded, they left in their wake a huge amount of debris, including glacial moraine, which blocked the drainage of water in many places, giving rise to the Jurassic lakes.

The regions of Burgundy

From the Auxois to the Beaujolais regions, from the River Saône to the River Loire, the varied regions that make up Burgundy have preserved their own appearance, economy and way of life.

The historical links which united them in the 15C have proved strong enough, however, for several common characteristics to be apparent to this day. Administrative divisions, modern economic demands and the attraction of Paris notwithstanding, the ties holding together the constituents of this province, of which Dijon is capital in more than name, remain unbroken.

The Alluvial Plains - The Sénonais, Gâtinais and Puisaye plains are situated on the northern borders of Burgundy. These are well-watered, fertile lands, rich in alluvial deposits, where the lakes and forests provide a rich catch for hunters and anglers alike. The Sénonais is furthest to the north; agriculture there is varied and productive. The Gâtinais extends from Gien (in the Loire Valley) to just north of Montargis, and is mostly limited to dairy farming. The Puisaye, similar in landscape, also produces fodder crops. The population is widely dispersed among abundant woodlands.

The Nivernais - This region of plateaux and hills, essentially a crossroads, stretches away to the west of the Morvan Massif and slopes gently down to the Loire Valley.

To the west of Château-Chinon are the verdant slopes of Bazois : cereal and fodder crops on the hillsides, rich pasture for stock-breeding below.

To the north, the hilly region of Clamecy and Donzy (peaks up to 450m/1 476ft high) is watered by a dense network of rivers, and used for stock-breeding and crop farming.

From Nevers to Bonny the River Loire marks the boundary between the Nivernais and the Berry region. Stock-breeding pasture alternates with wooded spurs.

Pouilly lies at the heart of a well-reputed vineyard which stretches over the hillsides overlooking the Loire Valley.

The Morvan - In the aftermath of the great Alpine thrust, the edges of the great Morvan granite massif were broken up; erosion wore away at the softer limestone strata bordering the massif, scouring out a hollow on three sides. This depression is surrounded in turn by limestone plateaux which tower at its outer edges. The Morvan is distinguished by its abundant tree cover and dense network of rivers. Fields bounded by hedges form colourful patterns.

Long isolated in every sense of the word, the Morvan has recently opened up to the outside world and is popular with those seeking unspoiled landscapes.

The Auxois - To the east of the Morvan lies the Auxois region, a rich and fertile land of hard blue limestone, crisscrossed by many rivers, given over to pasture for stock-breeding. Rocky outcrops are home to fortified towns, such as Semur, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain and Mont-St-Jean, or by ancient oppidums from Roman times, such as Alésia on Mont Auxois.

The Charolais and Brionnais - These regions of sweeping hillsides and plateaux, with superb rich pasturage, are the home of Charolais cattle.

The Autun basin - During the Primary Era, this was a vast lake, which was gradually filled in with the coal-bearing deposits and bituminous schists.

The Dijonnais - The region around Dijon is an area of limestone plateaux, isolated outcrops, rich pastureland, wide alluvial plains and steep hillsides covered with vineyards.

The Côte - This is the edge of the last slope of the mountains (La Côte d’Or) overlooking the Saône plain. This escarpment was formed by the cracks which appeared as the Saône’s alluvial plain subsided. The Arrière-Côte plateau is given over to crops and pasture, and the eastern slope is covered with vines.

The Mâconnais - This is where the mountain range formed by the Côte d’Or extends southwards. The steep faces of the escarpment are turned towards the interior, whereas along the Côte d’Or they overlook the valley of the Saône. This is a region of vine-covered hillsides and pastureland; cereal crops, beets, vegetables and poultry are also raised.

The Saône Valley - Major communications routes run through this valley which stretches along the foot of limestone cliffs. Civil engineering works have opened the river to navigation year-round. The alluvial plains of the Saône, often flooded in winter, are covered with rich pastures and arable land. In addition to wheat, beet and potato crops, there are now market gardens and fields of maize, tobacco and oilseed.

The Bresse - The Bresse plain, composed of clay and marl soil, stretches from the Saône to the foothills of the Jura, the Revermont. Numerous streams cut across the rolling countryside, which is dotted with copses. In France, the name is indissociable from the Poulet de Bresse, the delicious chickens raised here.

The Burgundy plateaux - From the northern edge of the Morvan to the Langres plateau and from Auxerre to Dijon is a region of limestone plateaux forming the real heartland of Burgundy. This area is known as the threshold: the point of contact between the Seine and Saône basins, and between the Vosges and the Morvan.

The plateaux rise to a relatively low altitude (400-500m/1 312-1 640ft), sloping gently to the north-west but dropping abruptly in the south-east. Their dry appearance contrasts with the much greener, richer one of the valleys of the rivers which intersect them; the Yonne, Serein and Armançon. The plateaux are, from west to east, the Auxerrois, the Tonnerrois and the Châtillonnais.

The Auxerrois is a rocky plateau, split by numerous valleys, in which the limestone is often dazzling white. The sunny slopes have lent themselves to vines, in the regions of Chablis, Auxerre and Irancy, and to cherry trees.

The Tonnerrois plateau has similar characteristics to that of Langres, but it is at a lower altitude.

The Châtillonnais is a series of monotonous plateaux, for the most part bare with the occasional rocky outcrop or dry river valley. These plateaux used to be covered by forests. Monks from the abbeys of Molesmes, St-Seine, Fontenay and Clairvaux cleared much of the land. In the 18C, there were foundries and nail works, thanks to the discovery of iron ore.

The regions of Jura

The Jura range - From the Swiss plain the Jura range appears as a formidable unbroken barrier across the horizon. From the crest, however, valleys and meadows give the countryside a less harsh appearance. Each valley is a world of its own, in which the inhabitants congregate near springs, or on the banks of rivers or lakes. The meadows, where glaciers deposited a layer of clay, contrast with the bare limestone. Among the meadows, fields of barley, rye, oats and potatoes stand out. But at this altitude, winter lasts a long time, so cereals ripen late and fruit trees are few.

The Jura plateaux - These tracts of flat land look like stairs descending (900-400m/2 953-1 312ft) from Pontarlier to Besançon. To the north, they reach the Belfort Gap between the Jura and Vosges mountains. A notable feature of these plateaux is the reculée , a blind valley ending at the foot of a cliff.

The Vignoble - The road from Besançon to Bourg-en-Bresse, leading between the River Doubs and River Ain, runs along the continuous slope on the western rim of the Jura plateaux, part of the Revermont. The vines cultivated here for centuries have earned the region its local name, the Vignoble (vineyard).


Flora

Forest

In Burgundy and Jura, the forest covers an area of 1 500 000ha/3 615 000 acres, 30% and 40% of each region, respectively; well above the average for France (25%).

Vegetation – Deciduous trees give way to conifers at about 800m/ 2 624ft.Beeches dominate between 500-800m/1 640-2 624ft. Higher are the magnificent pine forests of the Joux, and above 1 000m/3 281ft, forests of spruce alternating with wooded upland pastures.

Trees – The main deciduous trees are beech and oak, and to a lesser extent ash, maple, cherry, elm and birch.

Pines, firs, cypresses and spruce make up the coniferous group, as does larch, which does lose its leaves in winter.

Spruce – It has a pointed top shaped like a spindle and a bushy appearance, with downward curving branches. The choco­late-brown bark becomes deeply cracked with age. The dark green needles are rounded and sharp and grow all the way round the branches and twigs. The cones hang below the branches, and when they are ripe their scales separate to release the seeds.

Fir – This has a broad top, flattened into a stork’s nest in older trees. The bark re-mains a darkish grey colour, with blisters of resin here and there. The cones stand upright on the branches and scatter their seeds when ripe by disintegrating on the branch. The soft needles grow in rows along the branches, like a comb. They are a paler green colour on their undersides, which have a double white line marking (hence the name silver fir).

Beech – This tall tree is easily recognised by its trunk, cylindrical with grey and white bark, and thin, oval leaves. A beech tree can grow at an altitude of up to 1 700m/ 5 577ft and live for 150 years.

Other types of tree – The larch can be found on the sunnier slopes. It has small cones, and its delicate pale green foliage does not cast so much shade that grass is unable to grow. The Norway pine, with its tall, slender trunk, has bunches of 2-5 needles growing together, held by a scaly sheath, and cones with hard scales. The elegant birch , with its slender trunk, trembling leaves and white bark which comes off in shavings, thrives in moist soil. The oak is a beautiful tree which can grow up to 30m/98ft tall. Finally, the durmast oak , or white or truffle oak, can be found in dry soil above the vineyards; its thick trunk is protected by a deeply ridged bark.

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