There is much more to Dijon than the mustard for which it is best known. One of the most beautiful cities in France, the legendary Dukes of Burgundy whose capital Dijon once was, have left an architectural legacy that is hard to beat…
I took a train from Paris Gare de Lyon and 95 minutes later arrived in the historic town of Dijon in Burgundy. Everything looked very modern as I emerged from the station onto a big square and I wondered if the city would live up to my expectations. There is a tourist office right outside the station so I picked up a map, hopped on a free bus and was relieved and thrilled to reach the old city of Dijon just a few minutes away.
I spent an entire day walking round the city but I’d recommend two days to see everything without rushing. The much loved ex-Mayor introduced a walking tour of Dijon based on brass arrow motifs on the pavements. You buy a booklet from the tourist office and follow the arrows for three different tours called the Owl Tours. Owls are the symbol of Dijon thanks to a little owl carved onto the corner of an old church.
Legend in the town has it that you must rub the owl with your left hand (the one closest to your heart) and make a wish. Whilst I was standing there on tiptoe rubbing the stone above my head, a man walked past and wished me “bon chance”. I stood and watched as locals and tourists alike filed past, pausing to rub and wish!
An ancient and beautiful city
The Burgundian Dukes whose empire was at one time bigger than the Kings of France were great patrons of the arts, and Dijon was a major centre of Gothic and early Renaissance music, painting and sculpture. You can see their legacy everywhere – from the grand palace, the famous clock tower with its 12th Century mechanical clock and the many architectural splendours that fill the city.
The overwhelming impression that I had in Dijon was of an ancient, prosperous, stylish and beautiful city – not unlike Paris but more compact, like Paris’s little sister, Bijou Paris. There are numerous landmarks – an enormous palace, museums, parks, 100 hotel particuliers (mansion houses), and magnificent churches. I was astonished at how much of it was free, from the hop on/hop off buses to some of the museums and grand houses. This was great as it left more money for shopping and believe me, this is a place where you will not be able to resist some of the fabulous shops.
One of my favourite café breaks in Dijon was Maison Millière, an ancient timbered building which leaned to the left as if it was falling asleep. The friendly shop keeper told me that this was where some famous scenes from Cyrano de Bergerac with Gerard Depardieu was filmed and showed me a photo. In the summer, pop out the back and sit in the garden like the locals do.
Of course I went to Maille the famous mustard shop where visitors can do a tasting. I had mustard with fennel and basil (delicious), mustard with raspberries (interesting) and mustard with honey (I could have eaten the whole jar). I also went to the famous gingerbread store in the town and enjoyed a nibble of a “nonette”, a gingerbread cake with a sugar glaze, a speciality of Dijon.
The covered market is sensational and the produce was wonderful, lush, colourful – nothing but the best. I went with Elisabeth, a guide from the Tourist Office who told me she shops there every week. She confided that “it is very expensive, but it is the best and absolutely worth it”.
Elisabeth told me that people have their favourite cheese monger, baker, butcher, “traiteur” (cooked meats) and they stay loyal to them. I asked her if they become friends after seeing each other every week “no of course not” she said as if I was a little bit mad. Then she took me to her favourite traiteur stall and persuaded them to do a little tasting for me.
We started with gateau au moelles. I’d had no breakfast, had walked for 4 hours at that point and was thinking a tasting was just what I needed and cake sounded good. I was offered a plate with cubes of something shiny and brown. I stabbed one with my cocktail stick and was just about to pop it into my mouth when Elisabeth said “you do like snails don’t you?” I hesitated and looked at it closely, it was a sort of soft terrine of snail, I could see that quite clearly now. Noting the look of pride on the market seller’s face I chewed and swallowed. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste and I haven’t acquired it yet.
The rest of the tasting was delicious, jambon persille (a local delicacy), gingerbread with chocolate ganache which I could have eaten all day and various other goodies.
Dijon is a great weekend or short stay destination, an architectural wonder, a gastronomic delight and a very friendly city. Surrounded by fabulous vineyards, picturesque countryside, and perfect for those taking barge trips on the Burgundy canal which runs through the town.
Fact file: I stayed at the 4 star Hotel Phillipe Le Bon in the centre of town – in a 15th Century pigonnier! It is a huge stone tower that looks like it could have housed thousands of pigeons though it is now a luxurious retreat. My room was at the top of a winding stone staircase (tip: ask for a ground floor room if you’re not keen on a bit of a climb but I loved it!).The hotel has two restaurants – gastronomique and bistronomique with the same excellent chef. The lovely and tres chic owner Isabel greeted guests in the restaurant and when she found out I was British, spoke perfect English and was happy to give me ideas for what to see and do. www.hotelphillipelebon.com
Top tip: The Dijon tourist office staff (rue de Forges) are very helpful and are very happy to give advice on what to see, do, where to stay and how to make the most of your stay in Dijon.