Longing for home, I set off for ‘le petit Canada’ — a wonderland of natural beauty just a few hours from Paris – Toronto Star

An autumnal landscape in the Morvan, one of France’s Regional Natural Parks since 1970.

By Lily HeiseSpecial to the Star

Sat., Nov. 20, 20215 min. read

Nothing makes you yearn for home more than not being able to return. After many months confined to a small Parisian apartment due to pandemic travel restrictions, I’d managed a quick trip back to Toronto this summer, but the brief return only increased my longing for Canada, a desire amplified by the tantalizing autumnal scenes filling my social media feeds.

But before I booked an expensive last-minute flight to Pearson, an idea crossed my mind: I didn’t need to hop on a plane to find a taste of home. A few hours’ drive would take me to “le petit Canada,” the Morvan Regional Natural Parks.

Located 220 kilometres southeast of Paris, in 1970 this lesser-known corner of Burgundy became one of France’s first Regional Natural Park, a protected rural area of exceptional natural beauty, including both private and public land.

A country scene in the Morvan Regional Natural Park.

The 2,999 square kilometres of the Morvan encompass crystal-clear lakes, pristine rivers, rolling fields and dense forests — known for being particularly radiant in autumn. Add a wooden cabin overlooking one of those serene lakes and you have the picture-perfect image the French have of Canada. It’s their Canadian dream. The Morvan comes the closest to this, which is how it earned the nickname of “Little Canada.” Could I sate my appetite for home there?

In late October, I set out on my quest, accompanied by a nature-loving friend, where many others had for centuries: at a gateway to the park and its most famous site, Vézelay. The beautiful village, and its 870-year-old Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, sit on la colline éternelle, the eternal hill. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it has been a departure point for the St-James Way pilgrimage route since the 12th century.

“This spot has been considered sacred as far back as the Gauls,” explains Christopher Kelly, a guide at la Maison du Visiteur, a visitor’s centre in Vézelay. “The Morvan is nothing but energy, an invitation to be who you are.”

One of the serene lakes that characterize the Morvan, nicknamed

His words echo in my head as I stand on the panoramic terrace behind the basilica, gazing out at the threshold of the Morvan. I begin to wonder if my journey isn’t simply about admiring pretty leaves.

Over the next few days, as we cruise (very slowly) along the park’s winding country lanes, fringed by bright yellow and rusty orange trees, we experience the Morvan’s special energy — and its Canadianness — one delightful occasion after the next.

Hiking some of the park’s 1,500 kilometres of trails, the crackle of the fallen leaves and the gentle autumn light cascading through the trees, quiets our minds and immerses us in forests untouched since the park’s creation, perhaps not quite as dense as those deep in the Canadian north, but close.

The library lounge at the historic coach inn Relais Bernard Loiseau.

We realize the undervalued importance of bogs at a protected reserve next to the Lac de Saint-Agnan, akin to the marshes bordering Ontario country roads. This is further highlighted at the Maison du Parc and its nature discovery trails, which we meander under the gaze of grazing Limousin cows.

After an arduous trek up to the 556-metre-high Rocher de la Pérouse, what’s left of our breath is taken away by a sweeping panorama of the park’s misty hills, reminiscent of the Ottawa Valley. We absorb more sensational views — and a French history lesson — visiting the 2,000-year-old remains of Bibracte, once the capital of the Gallic Aedui tribe.

Although drizzle keeps us from the canoe ride I was hoping for, we experience the park’s famed lakes, and fulfil the “Canadian Dream” of a lakefront cabin, by staying at the Domaine de la Cabane Verte. Set above the Lac des Settons, the largest of the Morvan’s six lakes, the small resort has 42 wooden cabins and vardo-style caravans as well as a range of outdoor activities, from classic water sports to forest bathing.

Vézelay's 870-year-old Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine.

“We’ve created a place where people can find themselves, to reconnect with the cosmos,” explains founder Marc Halévy. Sitting on our cabin’s deck, tree-framed view of the lake and raindrops pattering overhead, the serene setting does bring me closer to nature and reminds me of the restorative properties Canadian cottages also offer.

Discovering the Morvan’s nature isn’t only done by the eyes and feet. We’re in France after all, where products of a region’s terroir are essential to what makes it unique. Protecting environment areas and cultural heritage in peril is a fundamental mission of Regional Natural Parks. To foster this, sustainable products can earn the label “Valeurs Parc.” We seek these out during our stay, from wine made by the Vignerons de la Colline Éternelle, a wine co-operative at the foot of Vézelay, to a new cheese, la Cabrache, invented in part by the Ferme du Rebout near Bibracte.

Some of the locals at La Ferme du Rebout.

The Morvan’s culinary heritage is most famously celebrated at the Relais Bernard Loiseau. A historic coach inn revitalized in the 1980s by innovative late chef Bernard Loiseau, since his 2003 death, Patrick Bertron has been in charge of its renowned two-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Côte d’Or.

“Every dish on the menu has an aspect of the Morvan,” Bertron tells us before we sample his gastronomic take on the region’s terroir. “There are many more surprising things in nature than in a vegetable garden.”

Bertron sources local products to the greatest extent possible, including some foraged in the park’s forests. The Relais’ links to the local nature carry over into its five-star hotel, featuring Morvandian wooden beams, traditional Burgundian tiles and stone fireplaces. After our days of outdoor explorations, our weary bones appreciate its award-winning spa.

The tasting menu at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant La Côte d'Or.

“People come here to recharge their batteries,” says Dominique Loiseau, Bernard’s widow, who manages the Bernard Loiseau Group along with their children. She bought a piece of land a short drive from the Relais, where they plan to expand with an ecolodge and nature experiences. With ponds, fields and forests, it’s her “little piece of Canada.”

Did I discover my own little piece of Canada in the Morvan? Not a replica, but instead I get the best of both worlds: a place where the red maple leaf is swapped for yellow sycamore, and cheddar for Cabrache; a place where natural beauty comes with generous helpings of cuisine and culture.

Accommodation and travel assistance were provided to writer Lily Heise by Le Relais Bernard Loiseau, La Cabane Verte and Maison du Parc, which did not review or approve this article. Travellers are reminded to check on public health restrictions that could affect their plans.