From his time there as a student to today co-hosting the annual charity auction, Beaune's beauty and hospitality has always captivated Anthony Hanson MW. Here he shares his tips for a memorable visit...
I was a 19-year-old student at Grenoble University when I first heard about the Hospices de Beaune wine sale, the oldest charity auction in the world. Aiming to work in the wine trade, I realised I had to get there, so I hitchhiked, including standing on the tipper of a bulldozer for part of the way round Lyon, as no other vehicle would stop for me. Once there and tasting, a cellar worker at the Hospices took pity on me when he heard I had not booked a bed. ‘Come and stay with us,’ he said. ‘You won’t find a hotel room now.’ His wife invited me to their family lunch (eight courses) before the Sunday sale. It was my first experience of extraordinary Burgundian generosity and friendliness – never forgotten.
Beaune’s ramparts and moats still surround the little town. They have survived because they have been used to store barrels and bottles, so the great stones were never carted away for re-use. One of my favourite walks in Beaune is along the top of the ramparts, whose walls and towers are largely from the 12th to 14th century. You can climb the gentle slopes onto them at a dozen points around the town. Great views open up of Beaune’s old roofs, of the coloured tiles of the flamboyant Gothic Hôtel-Dieu, and of premier cru Beaune hillside vineyards, which come right up to the town’s edge.
It is best to explore Beaune in stout shoes, as many of its streets are still cobbled. There is plentiful parking, often in the dried-out moats beside the walls. From the Porte St-Nicolas, walk down the elegant Rue de Lorraine, the best street for old buildings. Inspect the Renaissance door of No 18, with its dedication to the Muses – when I got a job in Beaune, this is where I lived. Then turn left into Rue Rousseau-Deslandes – you will find Romanesque façades on some of these old houses. Look around the Notre Dame Collegiate Church, leading to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, where the King later stayed (now the Burgundy wine Museum).
An essential visit is to the Hospices de Beaune, dating from 1443. Sober from the outside, within its courtyard slender columns support half-timbered galleries and steep roofs with dormer windows, multicoloured tiles and many weather vanes and pinnacles. In the Hospice museum itself is the superb Flemish Last Judgement by Rogier Van der Weyden, its colours still astonishingly bright.
Beaune has the world’s best wine bookshop, the Athenaeum, now under new management, with a wider wine selection. And don’t miss the Hospices de Beaune’s own shop, as you exit its museum.
Please remember that, since we at Christie’s took over running the auction in 2005, anyone can register to bid for Hospices de Beaune barrels at this sale. This year’s auction is on 16 November 2014 – you can bid online, or see you there.
Anthony Hanson MW is senior wine consultant at Christie’s London, with key responsibilities for the annual Hospices de Beaune auction
Written by Anthony Hanson MW