Dijon, France — much more than mustard

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Glenda C. Booth

The Old Town area of Dijon, France dates back to medieval times, when dukes held power and protected the city from invaders. Tourists may visit many of the ornate ducal palaces and medieval churches in the area.
© Dabldy | Dreamstime.com - Dijon Old Town Urban View Photo

You can leave Dijon loaded with travel-ready packs of Dijon mustard in multiple flavors, from raspberry to tarragon to chardonnay. But Dijon offers so much more than mustard.

Dijon, the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy from the 11th to the 15th centuries, exudes a genuine medieval charm and mystery. Fortunately, it was spared bombing in World War II, so many buildings from the late Middle Ages still stand.

The town, about 200 miles from Paris in eastern France, honors its dukes and duchesses at nearly every turn. The massive Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy was built on the site of a third century ramparts so the dukes could keep the barbarians out. Philip the Bold, a duke, rebuilt it in 1366, and in 1433, Philip the Good added kitchens with six fireplaces, each large enough to roast a wild ox.

Dijon’s Gothic and Romanesque Notre Dame cathedral, dating from the early 13th century, was built to the “glory of the duke.” The church, with three levels of gargoyles leering over the entrance, has a vast transept and 13th century stained glass windows.

The clock atop the church was a war trophy won from the Belgium town of Courtrai in 1383 by Phillip the Bold. It elicits oohs and ahs for its two automatons, fondly called Jacquemart and Jacqueline, that strike a bell with a hammer on the hour. Two “children” were added later, and they strike a smaller bell on the quarter hour.

Wandering the warrens of this town amid timber framed buildings and Gothic imagery, you can easily stumble upon a café or brasserie emitting irresistible aromas of fine French cuisine.

Of course, Burgundy has long been one of France’s main wine-producing regions, laced with vineyards famous for producing top-quality wines from grapes like pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc in the area’s ideal wine-making climate, soils and latitude.

For the French, wine is the water of life, which the Romans made here, then the Cistercian monks and, of course, the French, all with TLC. They made and still make wine to sell, taste, imbibe and savor.

A tour through the countryside around Dijon, through pastoral mustard and currant fields and wine country, with stops in stone-built hamlets, offers a nice break from the town’s homage to dukedom.

Owls, dukes and markets

The Office of Tourism’s Owl’s Trail will quickly put you in a Medieval mindset. It’s an easily navigable walking tour with sidewalk owl symbols designating 22 sites.

The owl symbol comes from a stone relief owl sculpture on the Notre Dame cathedral’s north corner. It is believed to bring good luck when people touch it with their left hand and make a wish. Why the left hand? It’s closest to the heart. The beloved owl, worn smooth from so much affection, was damaged by vandals and restored in 2001.

Dijon has several towers built to symbolize the dukes’ power and protect against invaders since the 4th century. Tour Philippe le Bon (yes, Duke Philip the Good again), is a 150-foot-high tower well worth the 316 steps up a winding staircase to the top where, on a clear day, you can see Mont Blanc.

The monumental Palace of the Dukes and States of Burgundy overlooks the Place de la Libération, a huge public square built in 1686. Inside the palace today is city hall (Hotel de Ville).

The eastern wing houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts), with rooms that are themselves works of art. The paintings and sculpture, from Egyptian to modern, include works by Monet, Manet, Gris and Roualt, plus Islamic glass, Korean stoneware and Tibetan and Indian sculptures.

Today, the only hint of when the palace served as a residence is a tour of the ground-floor kitchen and underground cold storage. Around 300 people produced meals for the ducal family.

The dukes memorialized themselves by not only leaving their portraits, but also ordering statues to adorn their elaborate tombs, now on display. The Mourners — 38 medieval sculptures commissioned by John the Fearless, the second Duke of Burgundy — are alabaster figures of priests, monks, choirboys and family members in grief and pain, some looking toward heaven, some shrouded in draped clothing and hoods.

For a rejuvenating escape from dukedom, mingle with the townfolk at Les Halles, the covered market on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Vendors offer loaf-size patés, foie gras, charcuterie, jelled hams, fig pastries, quiches, sausages, over 100 cheeses and more. You’ll see how the French can turn every part of an animal, including the head, tongue and foot, into delectable dishes.

Outside, shoppers sort through mounds of underwear, shoes, umbrellas and other wares. If you prefer more American-style shopping, the Galleries Lafayette is a five-floor department store.

Gastronomical nirvana

Dijon is a great place to explore “terrior.” No, it’s not a national security threat or a breed of dog. The French might say that the concept doesn’t translate easily, but in general, it refers to food and wine and other factors that combine to make food and wine unique to each individual region.

For gastronomes, three of Dijon’s restaurants have earned stars in the Michelin Guide — Restaurant Stéphane Derbord, Hostellerie du Chapeau Rouge and Le Pré aux Clercs.

Less pricey but totally satisfying are Restaurant DZ’envies, near Les Halles for leg of fowl and raspberry mousse, and  Restaurant L’Escargot for escargot de Bourgogne, chicken with mustard sauce, and an out-of-this-world tiramisu dusted with powdered chocolate.

For lunch, try a bistro popular with locals, Chez Nous, for scrumptious croques — monsieur, madame and chevre — and bargain wine. And, as the French say, lunch without a glass of wine is unimaginable, especially in a place where an unbeatable glass of Cote du Rhone can be sipped for around $2.

For a true splurge, you can honor the region’s black currants and a famous forefather who, alas, was not a duke, by topping off your meal with a kir de Bourgogne. Kir is a mixture of crème de cassis and Burgundy aligoté white wine, named for Félix Kir, who served  as Dijon’s mayor from 1945 to 1968. A kir royale is made with champagne.

Wine country

The Burgundy region of France has been home to winemaking for 2,000 years. The slopes and soil are said to have the perfect grape-growing conditions. The vineyard and chateau of Clos de Vougeot, pictured here, is about 12 miles outside of Dijon.
© Davidmartyn | Dreamstime.com - Vineyard Photo.

Burgundy wines have a 2,000-year history of expert oenology, Burgundians brag. The Romans made wine here in 52 BC. The monks of Cluny and Citeaux nurtured vineyards in the 11th century. Until the French Revolution, in fact, winemaking enterprises were owned by the Catholic Church — and not just to supply communion services.

The region has perfect conditions for growing the perfect grape — the angle of the hills’ slopes, the minerality of the soils, and the summer sun and temperatures that support optimal grape maturation. Outside Dijon, vineyards stretch for miles, interspersed by small towns.

Vintners lovingly tend to vines that are perfectly situated on gentle slopes to maximize exposure to the sun. (Vines grown on flat fields would shade each other, one winemaker explained.) They meticulously prune leaves to enhance air circulation and eliminate any shading by a single leaf.

The most famous wine country tour is the Route des Grands Crus (www.road-of-the-fine-burgundy-wines.com). Dijon’s tourist office can arrange wine tours for every taste and budget — motorized meanders through rural landscapes, hamlets, wineries and vineyards, some with stops at fromageries. A day trip to the walled city of Beaune, the “wine capital of Burgundy,” is popular with tourists.

Back to mustard. In Beaune, the Fallot family has operated La Moutarderie, a family mustard mill since 1840. That’s not exactly medieval, but they still grind seeds in a grindstone to protect “all the gustative qualities of the dough.” Here you can delve into mustard’s history and its cultivation, and try “Burgundy Mustard,” a “product deeply rooted in Burgundian soil” and decidedly different from Dijon mustard, they tout.

Whoever thought mustard could be so intriguing? Or dukes, for that matter.

If you go

Contact the Dijon Tourism Office, www.visitdijon.com or email info@otdijon.com. Search for hotels, restaurants, tours, events and major sights. Be sure to click on the British flag at the top to read the site in English.

Getting around town is easy on foot or the tram, called Diviaciti. Dijon is 186 miles from Paris (nine daily trains). Visit RailEurope at www.raileurope.com/europe-travel-guide/france/index.html for information on the TGV high-speed train network.

Flights to Paris from Washington-area airports vary widely depending on when you buy them and the dates of your trip. The least expensive roundtrip flight at press time for a mid-June departure was $995 from Dulles International Airport on Scandinavian Airlines.