Dijon, home of the Dukes of Burgundy

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.

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Tombs, Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

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.

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Shadows, Dijon, France

Shadows, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Place de la Libération, Dijon, France

Place de la Libération, Dijon, France

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.

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Cutting the mustard in historic Dijon

Dijon, capital of France’s Côte-d’Or region, has an extraordinary history stretching back to before the Roman’s ruled Gaul. Yet it’s probably better known to the world as the epicentre of all things mustard. ‘Dijon’ is almost synonymous with ‘French’ when it comes to mustard and, of all the many brands of Dijon mustard, Maille is probably the most famous. The Maille ’boutique’ in the centre of Dijon has hundreds of different types of mustard, oil and vinegar. You can try them all.

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

L'Ours Blanc, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

L’Ours Blanc, Jardin Darcy, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

Maille mustard boutique, Dijon, France

The curious thing about the Maille boutique is that the normal yellow mustard that you can buy everywhere, is about four times more expensive than the same thing in … well everywhere. We sampled a few of their more exotic items – hazelnut, black chanterelle mushrooms and white wine mustard anyone? – and then walked up the road to another shop, where the largest jar of mustard I’ve ever owned was purchased for about a third of the price.

If that was disappointing, Dijon wasn’t. We’d arrived at night and were too tired to go out exploring. The next day dawned bright and clear as we set off in search of pain au chocolate and coffee. Dijon looked very inviting in the morning sunshine. It’s a city with a wealth of history, filled with architectural glories and pleasant public spaces. In the tranquil Jardin Darcy, we found an incongruous yet familiar looking polar bear. At least a statue of one.

The bear is L’Ours Blanc, a replica of an exquisite sculpture by François Pompon. A native of Burgundy and Dijon resident, Pompon studied fine art here before becoming a student of Rodin’s in Paris. The last time we’d seen this particular polar bear was in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It’s an imposing sculpture that put a spring in our step as we entered the Place Darcy and walked underneath Porte Guillaume, a mini Arc de Triomphe, into Dijon’s historic heart.

After a breakfast in the shadow of timber-framed buildings in the Place Francois Rude, we set off to explore the town proper. First stop was the beautiful 13th century Notre-Dame de Dijon, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that sits at the heart of Dijon’s old town. The cathedral’s crowning glory is its unusual western facade, which is home to fifty-one gargoyles. Legend has it that a money lender was killed on his wedding day by a falling gargoyle, a gargoyle of a money lender. Spooky!

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France

The interior is home to one of France’s oldest statues of a Virgin, the 11th century Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir. She’s credited with saving the city from a siege by the Swiss in 1513 and, more ‘miraculously’, in 1944, as the Allies advanced across France, the Bishop publicly prayed for her to deliver the city from destruction. The next day the German forces retreated, meaning the Allies had no reason to attack. In reality, German forces were too weak to defend Dijon, and the withdrawal was tactical.

The superstition doesn’t end there. On Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street), is a well worn carving of a bird, thought to be an owl. It’s claimed that good things will happen to those who rub it with their left hand and make a wish. The owl has become the symbol of Dijon, but this didn’t stop some idiot from smashing it with a hammer in 2001. Today, it’s under 24 hour video surveillance and is firmly on the town’s La Chouette tourist trail, marked with brass plaques of an owl.

We walked around Dijon’s medieval streets, occasionally  following the owl trail, and unearthing some of its history. Many of the oldest buildings have lovely tiled roofs in green, gold and brown. We found our way to the glass and metal market designed by Gustave Eiffel, which was filled with market stalls selling a variety of local produce. It was tempting to buy a lot of food, but a long lunch in one of the many restaurants surrounding the market was too appealing.

Porte Guillaume, Dijon, France

Porte Guillaume, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Notre-Dame de Dijon, Dijon, France

Place Francois Rude, Dijon, France

Place Francois Rude, Dijon, France

Dijon, France

Dijon, France