Known for its world-famous mustard and wine, this medieval city, the erstwhile capital of Burgundy, is one of France’s best-kept secrets, say Gustasp and Jeroo Irani
Falling in love with Dijon is a matter of refined taste – the sharp tang of Dijon mustard and its gourmet flavours; the pungent local Epoisses cheese, France’s most delicious; aromatic gingerbread whose recipe comes from ancient China; escargots or snails in creamy sauce…
Dijon had us salivating for more; more of its epicurean offerings, its wondrous charms and its honey-coloured buildings that have witnessed history. To get a feel of the city, we strolled around the narrow cobble-stone alleys that criss-crossed each other in its medieval old town, and ambled down the broad boulevards of its classical section, where sleek new trams and cars purred like satisfied felines around 17th and 18th-century mansions.
Dijon is a showpiece city, which was once the ancient handsome capital of Burgundy. It was ruled by powerful dukes in the 14th and 15th centuries, their clout more than matching the might of the kings of France. Today, its modest population lives amid the city’s graceful spires and towers, aware that their town is one of the great provincial cities of France.
But it was Dijon’s old town that had us hooked with its quirky sights, especially a wood-panelled Homeopathie Herboristerie store housed in an 18th-century mansion, brimming with tiny, labelled glass bottles and ceramic jars! In the Place François Rude, a statue of a man pounding grapes alludes to Dijon’s neighbours – glistening green vineyards that glow with juicy grapes waiting to be harvested – and towns like Chablis and Beaune, which are among the favourite destinations for wine connoisseurs in France. The focus of the town centre, however, is Les Halles, the elegant covered market. Lined with fresh produce and awash with a symphony of aromas, this market lures shoppers who descend on it like warriors girding for battle, to nose out bounties for their tables. In Dijon, as elsewhere in France, food and libations are taken very seriously.
From the market, we head to the imposing Palais des Ducs et des États de Bourgogne (the splendid ducal palace, once home to the dukes), which showcases the city’s rich past. There, along with our loquacious guide, we peeled back layers of this city’s history, focussing on the dukes with their evocative names – Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Rash, after whose reign, the power of the dukes waned. A part of the ducal palace is now the Museum of Fine Arts, which forms the backdrop of the17th-century square, Place de la Libération. Fountains play in its midst and tourists sit at outdoor cafés to watch the languid ebb and flow of life in the city.
This grand ensemble is rivalled by the Notre Dame Church (a Gothic building built between 1220 and 1240), with its remarkable facade of false gargoyles (false, as they do not dispense water). Carved into one of the buttresses outside the church is the image of an owl, one of Dijon’s three emblems.
“Rub it and make a wish,” our guide told us. We did. And, as tradition goes, we will wait for the boon to be granted before revealing what we wished for!
The authors are travel writers and the views expressed in this article are their own