TAKE A STROLL IN AUXERRE
Explore the rich architectural and cultural heritage of this Burgundy town.
One of my favourite views of Auxerre – and the best way to take in this Burgundian town before plunging into its labyrinthine streets – is from the Pont Paul Bert, which spans the River Yonne. From the middle of the bridge, next to the statue of the Auxerre-born, 19th-century scientist and politician, you have a great vantage point over the old town, which seems to emerge from the water. The Cathédrale Saint-étienne, Préfecture and Abbaye Saint-germain all follow in quick succession, giving Auxerre its distinctive skyline.
Listed as a Ville d’art et d’histoire in 1995, Auxerre became prosperous during the Middle Ages thanks to its location at the crossroads of trading routes on land and on water. The town specialised in the wine trade and in ‘ flottage du bois’, which involved stringing together logs of wood for building, and floating them along the Yonne and the Seine to Paris. A wealthy merchant population grew up, which led to the construction of beautiful bourgeois homes which can still be seen in the town centre.
To absorb all this history, I headed towards the old town along the park and promenade that have been created on Quai de la République as part of a makeover of the riverfront. Just past the tourist office, I turned left into Rue Lebeuf and headed uphill into town. The winding, cobbled street is edged with traditional houses with half-timbered facades, geraniums pouring out of flower pots on the window sills.
After a short climb, there is a fork in the road, with Rue Philibert Roux carrying upward and Rue Caylus turning right. The latter leads to a pretty square, where the medieval Gothic cathedral towers above a small esplanade. The exterior’s newly cleaned limestone, typical of the area, now
shines in the sun, while there is much to admire inside, too, including beautiful stained-glass windows.
With my back turned to the cathedral, I walked up Rue Fourier, with its inviting restaurants and cafés, to Place des Cordeliers. Opposite the car park are a couple of unpretentious café-bars that are popular with locals. Take a left before those bars and you will reach the cobbled Place de l’hôtel de Ville, where the mairie stands, as well as one of Auxerre’s most striking architectural features, the Tour de l’horloge. Built in the 15th century, the astronomical clock was placed on the foundations of a city gate dating from Gallo-roman times. It is a beautiful thing to behold with its orange face and golden hands showing the movements of the sun and the moon.
The main shopping street, which is also cobbled, begins on the other side of the archway. The street is studded with small, triangular bronze arrows that mark part of a walking tour called ‘ Sur les traces du Cadet Roussel’. It is named after Guillaume Joseph Roussel, an Auxerrois court bailiff whose extravagant lifestyle was satirised in a song that became popular with soldiers during the French Revolution.
I continued up the charming Rue de la Draperie, admiring the medieval houses, and reached the Cadet Roussel fountain. This leads into the bustling Rue du Temple, a pleasant shopping area and the beating heart of the town.
At the end of the street, the spacious Place de l’arquebuse has a green esplanade covering an underground car park. Auxerre’s main market is held in the square on Tuesday and Friday mornings, when stallholders sell fresh produce including cheese, wines and charcuterie from bountiful Burgundy.
The town of Auxerre from the River Yonne, with the Cathédrale Saint-étienne on the left and the Abbaye Saint-germain on the right
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Half-timbered houses in the cobbled Place de l’hôtel de Ville in Auxerre; The astronomical clock lies above one of the city’s original gates; A statue of Saint-nicolas stands within a wall overlooking the square that is named after him; The newly cleaned facade of the Cathédrale Saint-étienne