Viewed from the north, the Morvan massif looks like a vast, rather bumpy plateau, gradually rising to the south. This rugged terrain, sloping gently down in terraces to join the Paris basin, forms the lower Morvan, with a maximum altitude of 600m.
At the heart of Burgundy – and of a wine-growing area most famous for its Chablis – Auxerre backs elegantly onto a hill overlooking the river Yonne. Take time to walk around its bustling streets and along its shady boulevards, to admire its half-timbered houses and fascinating heritage, such as the cathedral of St-Étienne, Tour de l'Horloge (clock tower) and old abbey of Saint Germain. This cultural immersion is an excellent precursor for the rural tour you are about to undertake.
So, mount up and set off for Clamecy, along roads which run through the Yonne valley, through rolling countryside planted with vineyards and orchards. Take the D239 road to Coulanges-la-Vineuse and carry on as far as Vincelles. The Yonne flows through this broad valley like a typical plains river, its waters increased by the those of the river Cure. Some slopes are covered in vineyards, others planted with cherry trees. A truly lovely sight in spring! For those who fancy a detour, there (at least) two villages worth a visit: Escolives-Ste-Camille with its octagonal church tower and remains of Gallo-Roman baths; Coulanges-la-Vineuse for its famous vineyards and Musée du Vieux Pressoir et de la Vigne (wine museum).
You can then take the D100 road to Bazarnes and Trucy-sur-Yonne. Just after crossing the Yonne and the canal du Nivernais, you arrive at Mailly-la-Ville. Another detour will take you to the fortified village of Mailly-le-Château, built on an escarpment above a meander in the Yonne. You will enjoy the lovely road from Mailly-la-Ville to Clamecy, by way of Châtel-Censoir, running alongside the east bank of the canal. After Châtel-Censoir, you catch a glimpse of the château of Faulin (not open to the public) but a fine sight with its high walls and round towers. In Clamecy take the D951 to Vézelay via a delightful little road. The town, with its houses tucked together along steep narrow streets, towers over the Cure valley from the summit of the so-called “eternal hill”. This important centre for religion and art history has been a UNESCO World heritage site since 1979. Be sure to visit the early 12th century basilica of Ste-Marie-Madeleine, renowned for its architecture and polychrome ornamentation.
Head south out of Vézelay on the D958 towards Bazoches. You make care to stop at Pierre-Perthuis to admire the ruins of its old castle and the three bridges spanning the Cure gorges: one built in 1874 (single span, 33m high); another built in 1770 (humpback) and a modern one. A short walk through this rugged countryside will take you to the Roche Percée (pierced rock) from which the village derives its name.
Carry on to Bazoches. History and architecture buffs are sure to want a tour of this trapezoid château which became the home of Marshall Vauban (born Sébastien Le Prestre) in 1675. The ideal opportunity to learn more about the life and works of this great military engineer and architect.
After Bazoches, stay on the D958 as far as Pouques-Lormes, then turn off for Lormes. Just before you reach the town there is a fine panoramic view (with viewpoint diagram) from the Mont de la Justice: Vézelay (to the north), Butte de Montenoison (west) and Bazois area (south-west). In Lormes itself there is another good viewpoint, on the cemetery terrace, over wooded hilltops of the central Morvan, farmland dotted with villages and little woods, stretching from the Bazois to the Nivernais. On the horizon you can again see the Butte de Montenoison.
Leave Lormes on the D944 road. At St-Martin-du-Puy, turn right onto the D128 through Chalaux and Marigny-l'Église to the small town of Quarré-les-Tombes. Its name comes from the many limestone sarcophagi – relics of over a thousand tombs dating from the 7th-10th centuries – which surround the church. Their origins are steeped in mystery: were they made and stored locally or was this the site of a necropolis around a shrine dedicated to Saint George, patron saint of knights?
You can take a detour on the D55 to see the abbey of the La Pierre-qui-Vire. Built in a remote and lonely spot, the abbey took its name from an enormous flat stone balanced on a rock which could be made to move by just a gentle touch of the hand. Back in Quarré-les-Tombes, head for Cussy-les-Forges then turn left to St-Germain-des-Champs and the D44 to Avallon.
Perched on a granite outcrop between two ravines, Avallon overlooks the cool and leafy Cousin valley. This fortified town boasts a number of historical buildings: collegiate church of St-Lazare, clock tower and famous 'grenier à sel' (old salt store) now used for summer exhibitions of local crafts. Enjoy a leisurely walk along its winding streets with views of terraced gardens below. There are pottery and glass-making workshops in the lower town. Leave your motorbike in one of the car parks north of the town and tour it on foot.
Leave Avallon on the D957 road to Sauvigny-le-Bois and carry on to L'Isle-sur-Serein. At Dissangis, take the D86 to Noyers, an attractive little medieval town nestling in a meander of the river Serein, with some lovely examples of Burgundian urban architecture. Follow directions for Irancy and Auxerre on the D956, before taking the D38 to Irancy then riding alongside the eastern banks of the Yonne to Auxerre.