I was taking something of a grand tour of France early in 2013 in my motor car. I was travelling through Burgundy, just a little north of Dijon, and saw a signpost indicating the village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain. I knew something of this little town and I just had to leave the beaten track to go and explore. I just could not resist it.
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. (Black Swan books). I suppose it cost me about 25 pence but I have to say that it was probably 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 truly a spiritually inspiring plot.
The book was later made into a film of the same name, ‘Chocolat’, and the village chosen for most of the filming was this very Flavigny-sur-Ozerain that I was approaching. The film featured a number of very well known Hollywood artists.
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 so 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 unreachable location of Flavigny, resting on its rock foundation, made it seem 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. These are the 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 and many people will recognise it.
The local residents today apply much devoted pride to the preservation of the much older features of Flavigny. The religious culture has reasserted itself and residents attach much value to their ancient and historical inheritance. Flavigny is once more an important and devout Monastic centre. Today the town is home to the Monastere St. Joseph de Clairval, a twenty first century Benedictine order. Visitors can hear Gregorian chants during weekday and Sunday mornings that come from the monastery.
The winter population is about three hundred people but in the summer this goes up to over four hundred. Flavigny has a number of houses used as a summer residence by people from Switzerland, Germany, America and even Australia. The village nowadays is the home chosen by many artists and creative people. The setting of Flavigny seems completely stand alone and rock solid. To wander curiously through the streets is a salubrious experience.
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.
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 were instantly recalled. The film was engrossing. 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 myself 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. They so successfully created an atmosphere of a rural and isolated nineteen fifties France that permitted no invasions from a wider and externally evolving post war culture. The daughter of the chocolaterie founder was played by Victoire Thivisol. She is one of the most natural and talented of French actresses. She played her role so beautifully and convincingly especially as she was only nine years old when the film was made.
Take a visit to Flagvigny-sur-Ozerain if you are passing. There are a few high quality places to stay with shops and restaurants to visit so that you can patronise the local economy. The village style is solidly medieval and built of stone in need of constant 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. People who like the finer things of life are people who will enjoy Flavigny so much. Read the Joanne Harris book or watch the film before you go and prime your mental sense buds to prepare for the experience.