Dijon - It's hot stuff

Dijon may be best known for its mustard, but this pocket-size city is one of France’s greatest melting pots of history and culture, as Kate Chappell discovers 

Dijon may be best known for its mustard, but this pocket-size city is one of France’s greatest melting pots of history and culture, as Kate Chappell discovers  The city of Dijon has always been en route to somewhere. In medieval times it was a stopover for Christian pilgrims heading for the huge abbey at Cluny; later, merchants travelling from north to south would stop here for a mid-way sojourn; and, of course, in recent times hordes of British skiers have used Dijon and its pretty environs as a handy stopover on the way to the Alps. But anyone who thinks of this beautiful city as merely a convenience and never takes the time to explore, is missing out on one of France’s greatest melting pots, a place with so much to see and do that it is a worthy destination in itself. At just 240 acres, the historic city centre is small enough to enjoy on foot, but contains more history, more amazing architecture and more culture than many places twice its size and with twice as many visitors. The story of Dijon spans nearly 20 centuries. The city was established in the 3rd century as the town of Divio, a Roman settlement just off the Via Agrippa. Built amid a series of beautiful parks and gardens, the town was a thriving centre at the crossroads of several major Roman trade routes, specialising in tin, amber and exotic spices. There are some Roman remains still in the city (now mainly in the Mus�e Arch�ologique), but most were destroyed in a great fire in 1137. As Christianity spread, Dijon became an important destination for pilgrims, thanks in part to its proximity to the Benedictine Abbaye de Cluny, once the largest church in Christendom. Many churches were built in the city, earning it the title of the town of a hundred church towers’.Dijon became a huge power in its own right, and the envy of much of Europe, when in 1364 the first Valois Duke of Burgundy took up residence in the city. Philip the Bold (the fourth son of King John II of France) was a great patron of the arts, commissioning paintings, sculptures and buildings by the bucket-load and he and his descendants, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold, transformed Dijon into one of the most important, wealthy and flamboyant towns in Europe. Everything changed when the duchy officially became part of France in 1477, but Dijon still retained its allure and continued to inspire artists and architects throughout the Renaissance period.As an administrative centre and seat of the princes of Cond�, Dijon continued to flourish in the 17th and 18th centuries, while the industrial revolution brought the railway to the city and with it a huge rise in population and plenty of wealthy Parisians eager to make their mark. Throughout the 20th century Dijon continued to flourish, with the city’s cultural joie de vivre re-emerging stronger than ever after Nazi occupation ended in 1944. Today, the city is wealthy and vibrant, helped in no small part by the TGV – Paris is now only an hour and a half away.Dijon is an amazing fusion of architecture. From Roman remains to Gothic spires; half-timbered houses to Belle �poque hotels, there is a masterclass in structure and style around every corner. Even the main post office is a splendid baroque masterpiece. The most logical place to start is the fascinating Mus�e Arch�ologique, itself an architectural curiosity, as it is housed in the old dormitory of Dijon’s Cath�drale Saint-B�nigne, a vast Gothic church built on the original Romanesque version. Visit the cathedral’s surviving crypts which date back 1,000 years.Perhaps the most famous Gothic building in town is the �glise Notre-Dame, with its beautifully ornate fa�ade, creepy gargoyles and 14th-century Jacquemart clock. Built in 1230 and finished in 1250, it is Dijon’s oldest church and also home to the city’s most famous resident – la chouette. The little owl, carved into the outside wall of the left side of the church, is believed to be a good luck charm and thousands of visitors through the years have given her head a stroke and made a wish.

Higgledy-piggledyDijon’s centre is perhaps most famous for its medieval architecture, and just a quick stroll along some of the city’s cobbled streets, past higgledy-piggledy half-timbered buildings, will send you back in time. Behind �glise Notre-Dame is Rue de la Chouette, one good example of this kind of architecture. The wonderful Maison Milli�re is one of Dijon’s most visited half-timbered houses, thanks mainly to its starring role in the film Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Gerard Depardieu, but also because of its romantic design. Always remember to look up when walking through this part of Dijon as the top halves of houses, complete with animal carvings and murals, are often the most fascinating. Many of Dijon’s beautiful buildings are also hidden behind ornate gates and it’s worth slipping into a few of the town’s hidden courtyards to marvel at the stone carvings and curvy Renaissance staircases. H�tel de Vog�� (also on Rue de la Chouette) is particularly lovely – its quiet courtyard will almost certainly bring out your inner Romeo (or Juliet!).High above you, Dijon’s famous tiled rooftops twinkle and shine in the sunshine and there are none finer than those that top the original part of the Palais des Ducs (approached from the north at Place des Ducs). The two surviving towers are masterpieces of baroque architecture and incorporate what is left of the medieval palace, including its vast kitchens and grand baronial hall. Approach the palace from the south, however, and the architecture couldn’t be more different. The Salle des �tats, adjoining the original medieval building, began to emerge in the 16th century, with a number of renowned French architects working on it until 1685, when Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the premier architect of King Louis XIV, took over. Basing his designs on the Place Royale, he created a huge baroque palace, together with the handsome crescent, Place de la Lib�ration, across the road. Duck into the maze of streets behind the pedestrianised place for more fine examples of ornate, baroque architecture.Heading back towards the station, Dijon shows its more modern side, with some wonderful art nouveau and Belle �poque architecture. The fantastical 9 Rue de Ch�teau, with its mushroom turrets and art nouveau balconies is the perfect way to end a time-travelling architectural tour of Dijon.While the city might have enough art and history on its streets to satisfy most, Dijon’s museums and galleries offer a whole other world to discover. Most impressive is the Mus�e des Beaux Arts housed in the Palais des Ducs and one of the oldest museums in France. Its huge collection, ranging from Egyptian artefacts to 20th-century art and sculpture, is jaw-dropping and there are also world-class temporary exhibitions to keep things fresh. The museum also includes the historic Salles des Gardes, part of the original Palais des Ducs and home to the ornate tombs of the dukes of Burgundy.

Labour of loveFor more art in slightly more intimate surroundings, the Mus�e Magnin just behind Place de la Lib�ration, is housed in one of the most beautiful 17th-century houses in Dijon. Art from France and the rest of the world is brought together in a collection lovingly chosen by the house’s former owners, Jeanne and Maurice Magnin.The Mus�e d’Art Sacr� on Rue Sainte-Anne should be part of any city tour, if only to see the stunning monastery that houses it. Ancient paintings, tapestries and altar pieces are displayed in small chapels leading off the circular nave, surrounded by high pillars and beautiful stone sculptures. Or for something a little different, ten minutes’ walk out of the city centre will lead you to the fascinating Jardin des Sciences on Rue Jehan de Marville. These botanical gardens feature plants and flowers from all over the world, but those native to Burgundy in particular. There is also a planetarium.If there is one thing Dijon does well and with enormous gusto, it’s food. Dijon specialities known throughout the world include cr�me de cassis and pain d’�pice, but top of the list has to be mustard. You can buy pots of the stuff all over town, but the mustard mecca is Boutique Maille, a lovely old shop opened in 1777 selling nothing but mustard. A dark cloud has recently descended over the Dijon mustard industry as even the Maille empire, which now uses mostly Canadian mustard seed, has recently announced the closure of its Dijon factory. But the spirit of the condiment certainly lives on.Dedicated foodies should also head straight for Dijon’s vibrant covered market, Les Halles du March� on Place de la Banque, built by the city’s most famous son, Gustave Eiffel. Open on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings and all weekend, the market is a riot of colours, smells and tastes, with every food under the sun available to buy. Dijon residents go armed with bags and baskets to stock up their cupboards, but local cheeses, such as �poisse and pain d’�pices from La Vie Gourmande are great for eating there and then.In Dijon’s restaurants, experimental chefs sit alongside those cooking traditional Burgundian fare so there’s something for every palate. Les Deux Fontaines is one of the most recent, but most popular, restaurants to grace the scene and is a great place to go for a modern twist on local ingredients. For a venerable Dijon institution, try Le Pr� aux Clercs, the domain of Jean-Pierre Billoux, one of the most renowned gastronomes in the city. A meal here is a wonderful experience.

Wine on the doorstepOf course, sitting in the heart of Burgundy, there is plenty of wine to be drunk in Dijon. Nevertheless, the best way to sample some of the loveliest wines in France is on a tour through the vineyards themselves. The vines of the C�te-d’Or are only a few miles from Dijon, and you can join specialised two-hour tours leaving from the city centre.One of the beauties of Dijon is its location. Not only is the city easy to get to from Paris, but once you’re there, the best bits of Burgundy are on your doorstep. Hire a car for a day or two and head south along the Route des Grands Crus, stretching from the city gates through the lovely C�te de Nuits to the village of Corgoloin. Stop off in beautiful Beaune along the way (just 30 kilometres south of Dijon) and pick up a few bottles of wine from Nuits-Saint-Georges on your return.Head west and you can be in the rolling hills of the Parc Naturel R�gional du Morvan in less than an hour. Enjoy hiking, cycling, horse riding or white water rafting if you’re feeling active, or maybe just treat yourself to lunch at the famous Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu, on the eastern edge of the park.Otherwise, head southeast to the town of Auxonne, just 28 miles from Dijon, and admire Vauban’s handiwork.

 

FRANCOFILEHow to get thereTo reach Dijon by train take the  TGV from Paris. The journey takes just over an hour and a half. Book through Rail Europe.Tel: (UK) 0844 848 4064www.raileurope.co.uk.Dijon is around three hours’ drive from Paris, or five hours’  from Calais. For more information on getting to Dijon, see the Holiday Planner on page 88.

Where to stayH�tel Philippe Le Bon18 Rue Ste AnneTel: (Fr) 3 80 30 73 52www.hotelphilippelebon.comThis beautiful hotel in the centre of town mixes old and modern. Double bedroom from €97 to €125 per night.

Chambres d’h�tes des Marcs d’Or9 Rue des Marcs d’OrTel: (Fr) 3 80 43 30 44www.chambre-hote-dijon.comA short bus ride out of the city centre, this gorgeous B&B sits in pretty gardens.Double bedroom €65 per night.

where to eatLes Deux Fontaines 16 Place de la R�publique Tel: (Fr) 3 80 60 86 45

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Le Pr� aux Clercs 13 Place de la Lib�ration Tel: (Fr) 3 80 38 05 05

Additional informationOffice de TourismeRue des Forges21022 DijonTel: (Fr) 8 92 70 05 58www.dijon-tourisme.comIf you want to visit more than one of Dijon’s many museums, it’s a good idea to get hold of the Dijon-C�te de Nuits Pass from the Tourist Office. Not only does it give you use of all public transport in the city centre, entrance to all of the city’s main attractions and many specialised tours, but you also get discounts off bike rental. The pass costs €18 for 24 hours and €45 for 72.For information on the museums visit the Mairie website at www.dijon.fr