DIJON, in central France, is a great place to visit.
It is at a crossroads of many trade routes but has managed to escape all the worst battles and wars of the centuries. This has left it with a large number of historic buildings, charming streets and restaurants, and a range of wonderful churches.
For all that, Dijon is up to date and forward thinking. For example, while here in the UK we are dithering about the new high-speed railway line, Dijon fought hard to have the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse = High Speed Train) line take a curve and stop there. This reduced the journey time to Paris from 4 hours to 1.5 hours, and they have benefitted ever since it opened in 1981.
From the station entrance, modern trams (built in record time, opened 13 months early and below budget – we should get them to build our tram lines) started running in September, 2012, and the opportunity was taken to reorganise all public transport and pedestrianise the centre of the historic city. There is also a free city centre shuttle bus, 23 bus routes, 102 hybrid electric diesel buses, and 40 Velodi bike stations – with a website, www.mobigo-bourgogne.com to provide all the details. This is what you can do if you integrate all your public transport.
From the station you can walk to the large arch dating from 1787, the Porte Guillaume (named after the 11th century reformer), which is like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was part of the ramparts until they were removed in the 19th century. It would take a book to describe all Dijon’s historic buildings.
There are over 100 ‘hotels’ (meaning large houses) classified as historic monuments, the whole centre, covering over 3,000 buildings, is classified to safeguard it from development. This was done in 1966, and since 1971 owners can receive grants towards sympathetic restoration work.
With more than 100 bell towers, the sounds of bells ringing is common. The highest one is on Saint Benigne’s Church. Perhaps the most striking church is the Cathedral of Notre Dame. As well as incredible architecture, it has a large clock with figures to chime the hours. The male figure is Jacquemart, from Courtrai in Flanders.
The Dukes of Burgundy were very powerful, and rivalled the King of France in influence. They had great names. Philippe le Hardi started the Auld Alliance with Scotland in 1295, so that if England invaded either country they would come to each other’s aid. I am told that technically this alliance has never been repealed.
Philippe also ruled over part of the Low Countries. He crushed a bit of a rebellion in Flanders, and as a penalty dismantled the local clock in 1382, bringing it to Dijon. There was no belfry to put it in, so they placed it on top of the 13th century Notre Dame Cathedral. The Dijonaise thought that he looked lonely, so in the 17th century they gave him a wife, a figure on the other side of the clock, called Jacqueline. It became a joke that they were unable to have children, and in 1716 a son, Jacquelinet, was added, followed in 1881 by a daughter, Jacquelinette.
On one corner of this Cathedral is an owl carved into the stone work. This is the symbol of Dijon, and touching it is to have good luck. It has been touched so many times over the centuries that it is a smooth blob now, but still you will see people passing by just giving it a rub.
There are three walking trails around the city, Owl trails with brass triangles with the owl on them set into the pavements as a guide. A leaflet is available in English from the tourist office.
The Palace of the Dukes is an impressive building, built over many years. In front is a large semi-circular row of fine buildings (now mostly restaurants and shops) in the Place de la Liberation. Rising from the palace is the tower of Philippe le Bon (Philippe the Good). Started in 1443, it is an odd shape and 46 metres high (52 metres if you count the look out on the top).
You can climb up its 316 steps, via the entrance in the palace reception. The views from the top are wonderful, and clearly show the great many roofs made with colourful glazed tiles, a speciality of Dijon.
The tower has several landings, which have a door off them leading to rooms which were prized accommodation in their day, although the sanitary arrangements were rather risky for anyone passing below. In front of the entrance to the palace is a square, with a statue of Philippe le Bon (friend of Scotland) and a small fountain and some trees. It is a shaded spot to relax.
To one side where a street comes in, the house has a turret sticking out on the corner. The locals call this the “boudoir de curiosité”, built so that the old lady who lived there could see in all directions anyone in the square or any of the streets off it. She would sit up there watching the world go by.
Entry to most museums is free. The museum des Beaux Arts, which dates from 1787 and was added to in 1976 with an important collection of modern art, is in the Duke’s Palace. There you will see the incredible tombs – or rather mausoleums – of Jean Sans Peur (John of no fear) and his wife Marguerite de Baviere, and also that of Philippe le Hardi. These do not contain the remains, just their effigies. Each mausoleum is huge. Their figures rest on top, with angels. Then underneath are intricately carved marble figures, all around, each one expressing sorrow in one way or another.
It took a great many years to have all this work carried out, and the craftsmanship is so impressive. Philippe le Bon started a massive mausoleum for these and himself, but in 1883 this was converted into a lunatic asylum, and today is a psychiatric hospital. In the central area is a pavilion which contains the remaining part of the well of Moses, which dates from the early 15th century.
There is the hexagonal well, still with fresh water in it. In the centre rise the massive statues of 6 Old Testament apostles, David, Jeremiah, Daniel, Moses, Isaiah and Zachariah. Each figure is so well detailed, and tells all the story of them in details and figures. Angels also adorn the structure. It used to have a tall pillar with a crucifix on top, but this was destroyed during a revolution. It is worth a visit
Dijon is not all buildings, though; there are over 600 hectares of parks and gardens, giving a freshness to the city. The tradition of gardens has even resulted in a well-known rose, ‘Gloire de Dijon’, which is so famous that D.H.Lawrence wrote a poem to it. There is also the Lac Kir. Canon Kir (1876 to 1968) was a well loved priest in the city. During World War II he was nearly assassinated for his strong anti-Nazi views. In 1945 he was elected Mayor of Dijon, at the age of 69, and held the post 22 years.
A modest man who lived frugally, rather than drink the best wines (and this region really does have the very best) he drank the cheapest white wine and put blackcurrant liqueur in it, as the peasants did, creating the drink ‘Kir’ so well known today.
Canon Kir wanted to utilise the flood plain of their river to create a lake, and this would be a reservoir to stop flooding. It took many years to convince people, but eventually in 1964 it was done. Today this lake is a very popular place for Dijonaise to promenade and cool off in the summer.
Everywhere you go in Dijon you find interesting things, like the house with no roof. It was decapitated when the proprietor was accused of using young children as filling in his pies.
Then there is the covered market, which was designed by Gustav Eiffel, of the Paris tower fame. The market is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and you can purchase good quality local produce and regional specialties.
Burgundy has much more than just Dijon, of course. You can buy a Cotes de Nuit Pass (16 Euros and it lasts for a whole year) to explore the wine growing region immediately outside Dijon, on the Grand Crus Trail. Beaune is also worth a visit, with its amazing hospital built by a rich merchant. It is open to the public and fascinating.
There are so many delightful villages to explore and “degustation” or wine tasting is on offer in so many places that you have to be careful if you are driving.
Then there is the canal. The canals of Burgundy stretch for 242 kilometres, linking the Seine to the Saône and the Rhone. There is also the Canal du Centre. This whole network means that you can go by inland boat from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. One of the objections to Canon Kir’s plan for the lake was that it would attract mosquitoes, but I have been there many times and never been bitten. The same applies to the canals, I have cycled long stretches of the canal and never been bitten yet, or even seen a beastie.
Cruising along a canal, excellent scenery, slow pace, good food and wine, it takes some beating. Boats are available for hire in many shapes and sizes for individuals or organised groups. The cycle trails are also popular, and again the tourist office can fit you out with bicycle hire. Even starting from the tourist office in the centre of the city, there is so much pedestrianised that you are soon away from the traffic and roads.
In a previous article, I told you about the tradition of good food and wine in and around Dijon, so it is difficult to pick out places to eat; most are excellent. A few worth mentioning are L’Epicerie on Place Emile Zola (firstname.lastname@example.org), La Maison Des Cariatides, Rue Chaudronnerie, (www.maisondescariatides.fr) and by the market the excellent DZ’envies, Rue Odebert (www.dzenvies.com)
As you would expect in Dijon there is the full range of hotels, with some excellent self-catering apartments in the city centre. Un Ours en Ville (email@example.com) has two sites. I stayed in the Coté Jardin in the Rue Saumaise. I felt like a little bourgeois in my centrally located town house. You go in through a small garden to a courtyard and a communal door. The parish priest lives upstairs.
Inside the ground floor apartment (disabled access easy) the old building has been completely modernised, but tastefully so, and is full of teddy bears of all sizes. It is totally equipped with everything that you could want, and each morning the owner (Christelle Dupré) comes along with a bag of warm, fresh bread and croissants – what more could you want?
Another apartment close to the tourist office, Nuits de Bourgogne (www.nuitsdebourgogne.com), offers three apartments to rent. Mine was located through a door between two shops. The corridor leads to a small central courtyard and the ancient narrow stone staircase leads upwards to small landings.
With flats off them, as you climb higher it becomes a wooden staircase, still spiralling upwards (disabled access not possible) to your front door. Again, the old building has been completely renovated in a modern style with everything that you could need, and is peaceful up there in the roof tops.
Dijon is fairly easy for us to get to, with plenty of choices. You can drive there using the channel tunnel shuttle service, or the Dover to Calais ferry. You can go by train through the tunnel from London direct to Paris Gare du Nord and cross Paris to the Gare de Lyon. Dijon is just 90 minutes away from there by TGV.
The best and fastest way to go is to fly with Air France directly from Aberdeen to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. From here a taxi, or Air France bus, or RER (metro train line C and change at Gare du Nord across the platform to line D) to Gare De Lyon.
There are three return flights a day between Aberdeen and Paris, taking two hours, and flights are available if booked in advance for around £219 return. See www.airfrance.co.uk
To book your onward French railway tickets you can go to www.raileurope.co.uk who are official agents for French Railways and will supply everything including reservations.