Mention Dijon and you think of mustard, right? But did you know that the bulk of the mustard seed is now imported from Canada, due to worldwide demand for the spicy condiment. And that the mustard comes in pink, green, black, and tawny-yellow – the gritty one as the kids call it – the one we are most familiar with.
There’s no doubt that the town lives on its mustard: virtually every shop sells the stuff. It’s the obvious souvenir to take home and the best shop for this is the well known and signposted, La Boutique Maille. The shop-owners have made it easy to find the mustard by laying a easy to follow Dijon shopping trail, just follow the brass owls laid into the pavements and you can’t miss a mustard shop! Or if you are there at the weekend, visit the Friday and Saturday markets where stalls selling the hot stuff offer intriguing flavours like Strawberry and Orange.
Dijon is more than just mustard, however: it is one of France’s great Museum cities and what’s more, all of them offer free entry! It is a medieval town with some wonderful architecture, and as the capital of Burgundy it is an ideal base for touring this famous wine region. There were over 100 hotels there at my last count as well as a number of B & Bs and some lovely “chateau hotels” tucked away in vineyards in the area of Beaune and Chablis.
Palais des Ducs and Museum of Fine Arts
This lovely old town many of whose buildings date back to before the Renaissance escaped heavy bombing during the Second World War. Some of the buildings are now Museums (the town offers seven in all) and among them is the Palais des Ducs famed as much for its interior as for its exhibits, and home to the magnificent Museum of Fine Arts one of France’s oldest museums (1787). In its 50 rooms of priceless treasures dating from antiquity to modern day are fabulous works by Yan Pei-Ming, Monet, Manet and other renowned artists, along with jewels of 15th century funerary art, the tombs of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless – extraordinary, lifelike statues held up by incredibly detailed Mourners.
You could spend an entire day in the Palais des Ducs but I would recommend giving some of the treasures there a miss and exploring more of what the other museums and churches offer. Don’t miss the exterior of the Gothic Notre Dame de Dijon, its gargoyles never fail to raise a smile, although they are rather high up for good viewing.
Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne
One of my favourites and I would suggest that if you can squeeze in a visit to the quirky Museum of Burgundian Life you won’t be disappointed. The reconstructions of 19th and early 20th century Burgundian shops are really special – millinery shops, photographers, pharmacists and others, all filled with bits and pieces from the day.
A contemporary art venue in a former Cassis factory, Le Consortium houses more than 400 pieces dating mainly from the 1970s. It’s something rather different and the selection gives food for thought. Le Consortium publishes around 50 art books a year and if you like books you should not miss this shop with moveable bookshelves and reading area.
This half timbered house dating to 1483 is not strictly a Museum but it is well worth a visit. Built 9 years before Christopher Columbus discovered America it has featured in the film Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gerard Depardieu. It’s courtyard is filled with plants and frescoes and there is a tea room and wine bar downstairs and a restaurant upstairs plus a shop selling local products and souvenirs. Find it at 10, rue de la Chouette, right by the magic owl of Dijon!
Hospices de Beaune
Not far from Dijon and a must-see is the Hospices de Beaune dating back to the late Middle Ages whose Gothic architecture is considered to be one of the best examples of its time. Originally founded in 1443 as an almshouse and hospital for the region’s poorest people, it is one of the country’s most important historical monuments with its massive courtyard, turrets, colourful roof tiles and the vast, echoing interiors of the Room of the Poor.
There are other museums worth a visit and if time allows the City Library is recommended, but I choose the above because visiting them still allows time for strolling in some of Dijon’s parks as well, like the elegant Garden of the Fountain Creek Ouche and the Gresilles Park which are within easy walking distance and have picnic lawns.
Dijon is one of those perfect places that offers food for the soul as well as the body, a compact, accessible town right in the rich heart of the major vineyards of Beaune, Chablis, Macon, and Fleury. Kir is the drink associated with the town, a drink composed of the blackcurrant liqueur Cassis and white wine (purists insist on a Sancerre) and available at any bar and restaurant. The ultimate though, is the Kir Royale, the same Cassis but this time served with the sparkling white wine of Burgundy, a Cremant which many people prefer to champagne.