Dijon may be famous for its mustard, and it may sit at the heart of one of the most prestigious wine growing regions anywhere in the world, but this glorious medieval city still feels like one of France’s most underrated cities. Even on a holiday weekend, when half of France seemed to be on the move, and almost everywhere we visited was packed with tourists, Dijon remained calm and peaceful. That’s all the more surprising because it has an incredible history, ancient buildings, great food and world-beating wines.
Over a thousand years ago, Dijon became the capital of the Dukes of Burgundy, and for 500 years it flourished. The Burgundian Dukes were some of the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe. By the 15th century they owned vast tracts of France, much of Belgium, and most of the Netherlands, and rivalled the French Kings of the House of Valois for power. So much so, that they allied themselves with England against the French monarchy during the Hundred Years War.
Fluctuations in fortunes over the centuries did not prevent Dijon becoming fabulously wealthy under the patronage of the Dukes of Burgundy. It became a centre of learning and high art, and the city’s architecture reflected the preeminent position of its rulers. Even after the Dukedom was annexed by the King of France, Louis XI, it retained its importance. Spared the worst ravages of both World Wars, it has remained a treasure trove of history from the medieval to the modern day.
The town’s showstopper is the Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, which sits on the half moon shaped Place de la Libération. The former Ducal Palace is now a museum and home to the Musée des Beaux Arts, as well as the less glamorous Tourist Office. Parts of the museum were still closed due to extensive restoration, but the Salles des Gardes, where the magnificent tombs of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless can be found, was open.
The tombs tell you all you need to know about the power and wealth of Burgundy’s Dukes. Decorated with sculptures by Flemish masters and painted in gold leaf, the marble tombs have dozens of alabaster mourners carved into their sides and are topped by lions. These are tombs intended to make a statement, that even in death the glory of the Dukes of Burgundy was undimmed. This was just a taster of what the museum has to offer, and it’s a shame that parts of it weren’t open.
We left the palace and walked into the truly splendid Place de la Libération where, on a hot day, small children played in the fountains and adults filled the surrounding cafes and restaurants. In the warren of nearby streets we found a shady restaurant for a long lunch, washed down with an excellent bottle of a local chardonnay. Afterwards we strolled through the sleepy streets, past historic buildings, imposing churches, little squares and picturesque gardens. It’s a stylish place.
At night the streets of Burgundy’s capital were calm and evocative of a different time in history. As we walked through the cobbled lanes, the ghosts of Burgundy’s medieval past seemed to echo around the historic buildings. We sat outside a cafe and sampled another glass of delicious Burgundian wine in the warm summer evening. In the morning we were heading south through the Côte de Nuits, where our wine had begun its short journey to our glasses. We couldn’t wait.