“Travelling through Burgundy, just a little north of Dijon, I saw a signpost indicating the village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. I knew of this little town and I just had to leave the beaten track to go and explore. I just could not resist it” says Francophile, ‘Chocolat’ fan and travel writer Bob Lyons…
A couple of years ago I bought a book as part of a job lot in a charity shop. The book was called ‘Chocolat’ and was written by Joanne Harris. I suppose it cost me about 25 pence but it was worth its weight in gold and is, I think, the best story that I have ever read.
I was enthralled by its fictional tale of humanity and tenacity. It concerned a mother with her young daughter opening a ‘chocolaterie’ just before Easter in a French village. The tale of their survival and the ultimate flourish of their business was a truly inspiring tale.
The book was later made into a film called ‘Chocolat’ and the village chosen for most of the filming was this very Flavigny-sur-Ozerain that I was approaching.
Flavigny sits high on a rock and is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France. The origin of the town goes back to the eighth century. It was constructed around a Benedictine Abbey founded by a certain Widerard in the year 719. The Abbey is still present but part of it is used now as a factory producing Anise pastilles. This is a very special and unique local product. The Anise is based on a recipe created by the early monks many centuries ago. You can buy them in beautifully printed tins exclusively presenting the village.
Associated with the Benedictine Abbey is a botanical garden. Plants from the garden are used to produce textiles, wicker baskets and rope. Other than the local hotels and restaurants, the Anise and the textiles support the bulk of the local Flavigny economy.
During the mid ninth century, local villages were subjected to Viking raids and the more difficult to reach location of Flavigny, on its rock foundation, made it seem more secure. The village was used as a storage home for local religious relics. The remains of some of these are celebrated to this day and are taken in procession annually to their original location.
Fortifications or ramparts were constructed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in a failed attempt to prevent the English invasion during the 100 years war. Parts of these fortifications remain. Visitors can walk along them and view the Port du Val and the Port du Bourg which are inner and outer village entry points. As you stroll along this route around Flavigny, the view of the French countryside spread out below is truly spectacular.
The eighteenth century brought the construction of a new home for the local Abbot. The old Benedictine buildings were left to slowly decay and the staunch religious foundations of the village were faltering. By the time the French Revolution came along, there were just a handful of monks left. There is, however, a separate parish Church away from the older buildings. It was built in dedication of St. Genest. This Catholic Church survived degeneration and remains in service to this day. It is featured in many scenes in the film.
The winter population is about three hundred people but a number of houses are used as a summer residences by people from Switzerland, Germany, America and even Australia and there are many artists and creative people in residence.
I visited Flavigny mainly because I wanted to see how the reality of the village compared to the film. It was just an ordinary inquisitiveness about film locations and actors. I think we all find such prying adventures a little enticing. I had recently seen the ‘Chocolat’ movie and wanted to visit the scenes for myself. Places in the real world can often be so different from what is perceived. However in this case, many of the sights and buildings in the streets were easily recognisable. From the Church of St. Genest, the square in front of it and the pathways down to the chocolaterie – they were instantly recognisable. The film was charming. It presented a lonely village going about its own business maintaining a self imposed form of isolated tranquillity. It was that very same impression that I felt as I strolled around the medieval, cobbled streets. It was surely a perfect choice of location by the film director Lasse Hallstrom.
Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Dame Judy Dench and many other celebrated personalities appeared in the film although apparently Johnny Depp never filmed any part of his appearance here in Flavigny despite living in France! They successfully created an atmosphere of a rural and isolated 1950’s France that permitted no invasions from a wider and externally evolving post war culture.
If you visit the town there are some nice places to stay, charming shops and restaurants, but it is the town itself that is the real jewel. The village style is solidly medieval, built of stone and in constant need of restoration. Flavigny is sophisticated and soaked in its own self-created, unique culture. You can instantly sense this as you park by the heavily fortified entrance gate.
I highly recommend you read Joanna Harris’ Chocolat or see the film before you go and prime your senses to prepare for the experience.