Morvan in Burgundy’s Nièvre departement is an historic region of forested hills and valleys, dotted with lakes and criss-crossed by tracks where you can follow in the footsteps of the Second World War resistance. Locals claim that Morvan is the cradle of the Seine, because the great river’s tributary – the Yonne – starts here. Paris was built with Nièvre wood, floated downstream, and raised on the milk of Morvan women. Discover five things to do in this Park Naturel Regional, below.
1. Maquis Bernard
During World War II, several bands of maquis or guerilla resistants were able to hide in Morvan thanks to the impenetrable countryside and the clandestine assistance offered by locals. One of the bands, the Maquis Bernard, went from a handful of men in early 1944, to over 1200 members by September of the same year. Their mission? To harass and engage the retreating Germans with the help of arms and equipment dropped by the British Royal Air Force.
These days, visitors can pick up a map in local tourist offices, and follow a thematic trail through stream-riddled woods where resistants lived in huts and built a field hospital treating wounded from up to 60km away. The ‘Green Cathedral’ is a well-tended and peaceful cemetery in the forest – and the final resting place for a number of these brave individuals. Movingly, a handful of RAF men who survived the war and lived on until the late 1990s and 2000s, asked that their remains be scattered here, alongside their fallen comrades, demonstrating the strength of the human bond forged during conflict.
2. Lac de Pannecière
A huge and irregular drainage basin created when a dam was built in the 1930s after several notable floods of the Seine, this lake now provides a beautiful focal point in the centre of the region. Near the villages of Ouroux-en-Morvan and Chaumard, Pannecière is a great alternative to the more touristy Lac des Settons. Depending on water levels, you may glimpse vestiges of bridges that once led to the now-sunken villages of Blaisy and Pelus.
Sleepy hamlets on the lake’s edge seem half-abandoned, but some exploring will conjure up a crêpe with ice cream or an organic farm shop. Wild swimming is possible at several spots around the lake, and there is plenty of room even on the hottest day to find an isolated bank, for picnicking, fishing or lounging.
3. La Maison Vauban
If you’ve ever visited an old European fortress, chances are military engineer Vauban will have had a hand in its design. One of five linked ‘eco museums’, (others include a museum devoted to Charolais cattle and one about the region’s oral traditions), La Maison Vauban is dedicated to the life of Sebastian Le Prestre, known as Vauban – a son of Morvan, and one of the great military strategists. This museum goes beyond his military engineering career, to reveal through exhibits and a short film, the man’s many other talents, such as philosophy, economics, and social reform.
One of the gateways to Morvan, the small town and commune of Quarré-Les-Tombes offers visitors a mystery alongside its boulangerie, chocolaterie, and artisanal butcher. Once upon a time, over a thousand ancient limestone sarcophagi from the Merovingian era surrounded the local church. Today just over 100 remain, and no one is quite sure of their origin.
Local legend recounts that the tombs date from a battle between the Franks and the Sarrasins, which the Franks were losing. Their leader, distracted by nightingale song, had fallen asleep against an oak, to be awoken by St Georges, jabbing him with a lance. This changed the course of the battle, but St Georges was so embarrassed by the number of dead that he arranged for sumptuous sarcophagi burials. Historians dispute this story because so few of the tombs contained any remains. An alternative theory is that Quarré-les-Tombes, situated at a crossroads on an old Roman road, was actually a centre of tomb-making. Visit and make up your own mind!
5. Museum of Wetnurses and Children
The Musée de Nourrices et des Enfants in Alligny-en-Morvan tells the tale of the region’s role in raising new generations. As late as the twentieth century, children of the poor were being evacuated from French cities by charities, to be fostered in the countryside. (Jean Genet was one of the children this happened to). But in a strange twist, the region is also well-known for providing wet-nurses and nannies to wealthy metropolitan families. Books, clothes, toys, and sound-recordings at the museum evoke this fascinating part of the history of Morvan.