Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Dijon, France

Touring the Archeological Sites of Burgundy – Dijon, France

Many a road trip starts in Dijon. Located at the northern tip of the legendary stretch of rolling hills dotted with small towns with names like Chablis, Beaune, Meursault, Nuit-Saint-George and Puligny-Montrachet, it is the ideal departure point for “La Route des Grand Crus” (The Great Burgundy Vintages Road). But with its rich history reaching back to pre-Roman times, Dijon is also the logical place to begin an exploration of the many archeological sites of the region.

Back in Time

Dijon-Darcy Fountain.

The fountain at the Garden Darcy.

My journey back in time begins in the Jardin Darcy, the lush 19th century one-hectare (2.5 acre) neo-Renaissance public garden in heart of town. After a quick pause to admire its fountain cascading into a vast oval basin at the entrance of the park, and the famous “Polar Bear in its Stride” sculpture by local artist Francois Pompon (circa 1922), I head down the a few steps to the Rue de la Liberté (Freedom Street).

 

Dijon-rue Liberté

Medieval houses on the Rue de la Liberté.

Known as the Rue de Condé until the Revolution (1789), and the town’s main artery since medieval times, it is lined with buildings dating mostly from the 15th century to the 18th century, many of them classified as historic monuments. A busy shopping street from the start, it features storefronts at street level, topped by residential floors. A leisurely walk down this historic pedestrian mall leads to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.

 

The Capital of Burgundy

Dijon-ducal place detail.

Facade detail of the Ducal Palace.

Already a crossroad of several Celtic trade routes long before Roman times, Dijon became the capital of the Kingdom of Burgundy in the 5th century. Annexed in 1004 to the crown of France as the Duchy of Burgundy, it grew in power and wealth through the ages. By the 14th century the Dukes of Burgundy were Peers of the Realm and a force to be reckoned with. They held their court in Dijon, making it one of the great provincial cities of country.

Dijon-John the Fearless monument.

The funerary monument of John the Fearless.

The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy (or Ducal Palace) is the most important monument in Dijon. What had begun as a simple fortress in the 9th century was entirely rebuilt by Duke Philip the Bold (1342-1404), with his successors adding on to the palace for the next three centuries to create a sumptuous architectural ensemble going from the Gothic to Renaissance to Classic style. Today the left wing houses a number of city services including city hall, the city archives and the tourism office, while the vast right wing is holds the magnificent Musée des Beaux Arts  (Museum of Fine Arts). A major section is dedicated to the history of Burgundy and the Dukes, including the superb tombs of John the Fearless, his wife Margaret of Bavaria and Philip the Bold, and three remarkable altarpieces.

The Churches of Dijon

Dijon-Saint Michel portal.

The Gothic portal of the Saint Michel Church is heavily decorated  with a mix of religious and secular subjects.

Saint Michel, an imposing parish church located just a stone throw away from the Ducal Palace, is unique for its architectural split-personality. By the end of the 15th century its congregation, having outgrown its ancient Romanesque church, commissions a new  one in the flamboyant Gothic style of the time. It includes a deep, cathedral-worthy triple portal heavily carved with a startling mix of religious and secular subjects. David slaying Goliath, John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene co-exist with Leda and her swan, Cupid at the toilette of Venus and the labors of Hercules. Apparently fund-raising doesn’t keep up, construction is slow and the Renaissance takes over. The façade especially, with its towers of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns, is a perfect representation of the style, making Saint Michel a superb illustration of this major transition in European art.

Dijon-Notre Dame,

The roofline of Notre Dame of Dijon is a masterpiece of early Gothic architecture.

Dijon-Saint Benigne crypt.

Columns of the crypt of Saint Benigne are topped by pre-Roman capitals.

Within a five-minute walk of the Saint Michel and the Ducal Palace, the church of Notre Dame of Dijon is widely recognized as a masterpiece of early Gothic architecture, and well worth a visit. If you do go, take a walk along the north side of the church on the Rue de la Chouette (Owl Street). In one of the corner buttresses, a tiny niche holds a carving of an owl, worn smooth over the centuries because of the superstition that it brings luck to those who strokes the bird with their left hand while making a wish. Worth a try.

The Saint Benigne Cathedral is a former abbey church in the Burgundian Gothic style (circa 13th century). Its most impressive feature is its early Romanesque crypt, originally created in 511 to hold the sarcophagus of an early Christian martyr (Saint Benigne). Restored in the 11th century the large circular crypt consists of in inner ring of six columns surrounded by an outer ring of sixteen columns, some of them still topped by their pre-Roman capitals. This crypt is one of the oldest Christian sanctuaries still active in France.

Archeological Treasures

Dijon-Blanot treasure.

The Bronze Age Treasure of Blanot (10tth century B.C.) includes remarkable gold jewelry.

Dijon-Gallic offerings.

Votive offerings to the Gallic goddess of the Seine River.

Around the corner from Saint Benigne, what was once the cloister of the abbey is now home to the Dijon Archeological Museum with its exceptional collection of relics discovered within the region. Highlights include the Treasure of Blanot (a small village some 100 kilometer (65 miles) south of Dijon, a Bronze Age treasure of amazingly sophisticated gold necklaces, belts and leg ornaments, as well as bronze and pottery household items.

Another gallery is dedicated to votive offerings to Sequana, the Gallic goddess of the Seine River, worshiped for her healing powers. These artefacts were found in a 2nd century BC shrine by the spring that is the source of the river, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Dijon. The museum also displays Gallo-Roman stone carvings and objects of every life, and early medieval weapons and jewels, all an irrefutable testimony of the presence of man in Burgundy from prehistoric times through the middle ages.

Dijon-Ducal Palace

The Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By Train. Dijon is less than two hours from Paris-Gare de Lyon by high-speed train (TGV), with multiple departures throughout the day. There are also regular train services from a variety of destinations, including major cities in France as well as Italy, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Belgium and beyond. By car. The city is well connected to freeway and highway networks. However, traffic is limited within the centre of the city, and visitors are urged to park their vehicle for the duration of their visit.
  • Getting around – Most of the center of the city is closed to car traffic, well paved and a joy to wander around on foot. Complimentary maps and pamphlets for self-guided tours are available at the Dijon Tourist Office, 11 Rue des Forges, open daily from 9:30 am to 6:30 pm from April to September and 9:30 am to 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm from October to March. Sunday and national holidays: 10:00 am to 4:00.  Complimentary smart phone apps of guided tours around the city may also be downloaded – links are on the Tourist office website.
  • Staying – There is a wealth of short-term lodging options to suit all preferences and budgets in and around Dijon. On this recent two-night stay, I chose the historic four-star Grand Hôtel la Cloche, 14 Place Darcy, 21000, Dijon. Contact: Tel. +33 3 80 30 12 32, mail H1202@accor.com.
  • Visiting – The Musée des Beaux Arts, Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne, Dijon, is open daily Wednesday to Monday, from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. The Musée Archéologique, 5 Rue Docteur Maret, is open daily Wednesday through Monday. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. Opening hours vary with the season and are available on the website of the museum.

Location, location, location!

Dijon

The Capital of Art Nouveau – Riga, Latvia

The Capital of Art Nouveau – Riga, Latvia

Since its foundation in 1201, Riga, the capital of Latvia, has been shaped by the rise and fall of the surrounding foreign powers that successively held sway over country. First Germany, then Sweden and finally Russia, all left their mark on the architectural heritage of the historic Old Town. Yet it is Riga’s Art Nouveau District that is now the city’s main claim to fame.

What is Art Nouveau?

Riga-Art Nouveau window.

Fragment of facade at 4 Alberta Street (M. Eisenstein -1904).

Riga-Art Nouveau Greek.

The house at 4 Strelnieku Street (M. Eisenstein, 1905), embodies a variety of Art Nouveau elements.

Art Nouveau is an artistic rebellion that swept through Europe for two decades at the turn of the 20th century. Led by a generation of brilliant designers, it sought to liberate the visual arts from the rigid constrains of the past and develop a new style inspired by the natural world.

In residential architecture, Art Nouveau adopted a humanistic approach to the urban environment. It focused on combining utilitarian structural elements with the new artistic values, while enhancing the functionality of the buildings for the comfort of their inhabitants. In many European cities where the Industrial Revolution was generating a construction boom, architects became enthusiastic practitioners of the style, adorning their facades with flowing lines, undulating contours, mythical animals and geometric ornaments. Throughout Europe, Art Nouveau architecture became a statement of national modernity and aesthetic tastes.

 

Dragons guard the entrance at 8 Antonijas Lela Street (K. Pēkšēns – 1903).

By the time the style reached Riga, the city was experiencing an unprecedented, industry-fueled affluence and exponential population growth. Wealthy entrepreneurs eager to become landlords commissioned hundreds of multi-story buildings. By the onset of the First World War, forty percent of all buildings in central Riga were built in the Art Nouveau style.

 

 

Art Nouveau in the Old Town

Riga-Smilsu 2.

Peacocks are a popular motive in architectural friezes. Here at 2 Smilsu Street (K. Pēkšēns – 1903).

Riga-Smilsu 6

This Smilšu Street 6 banking institution is decorated with Neo-Classic-style mosaics. (V. L. Bokslafs – 1912)

Throughout its history, Riga had been contained within the fortifications of the Old Town, where the city’s prosperous merchants had built lofty houses embellished with elaborate portals and ornate façades. The entrances of their warehouses were similarly decorated with sculptural moldings as a sign of distinction. Over the centuries, as new constructions were added, the facades of existing homes were altered with at least some elements reflecting the latest trends.

By the turn of the 20th century, even as architects began, cautiously at first, to propose buildings in the new style, a number houses in the Old Town still showed Baroque facades, albeit with such Art Nouveau elements as colored mosaics, unusually shaped windows, or the occasional rooftop statues. However, by respecting the influence of preceding architectural styles, Art Nouveau architects ensured that all the elements of over half a millennium of architecture could coexist harmoniously in the Old Town.

 

 

The Art Nouveau District

No such restrains applied to the Art Nouveau District, where architects and their patrons had a blank slate.

Riga-10b Elizabetes Street .

One of the most striking examples of early Art Nouveau can be seen at 10b Elizabetes Street (M. Eisenstein – 1903).

Riga-Alberta Street 2a.

The building at 2a Alberta Street is a potpourri of Neo-Classic, Neo-Egyptian and Art Nouveau (M. Eisenstein – 1906).

After the ramparts were dismantled in 1865 and the moat transformed into a park, the Old Town was encircled by a wide boulevard. Beyond it, a new neighborhood was free to expand, laid out in a grid pattern; the only restriction being its height. No construction could exceed six stories or 21 meters (70 feet). Within this framework, a modern city, now paradoxically known at the Historic District (or more commonly the Art Nouveau District) became an architectural free-for-all. Although fine examples of Art Nouveau design can be found throughout the neighborhood, the highest density of creations, ranging from spectacular to mind-boggling, is concentrated along three intersecting streets: Elizabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku.

On Alberta alone, where the entire street was built over a period of seven years (from 1901 to 1908), eight buildings are now recognized as national architectural monuments (at numbers 2, 2a, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12 and 13). From these, a staggering five were designed by Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein (numbers 2, 2A, 4, 6, 8). While not the most prolific on the Riga architectural scene of the time, Eisenstein left the most vivid imprint on the district.  Any one of his 19 buildings is instantly identifiable by the overwhelming potpourri of human and mythical elements, and the vivid ceramic tiles that adorns its façade.

Konstantins Pēkšēns’ residence at 12 Alberta Street now houses the Art Nouveau Museum ( K. Pēkšēns 1908).

Even more influential, however, was Konstantins Pēkšēns, who contributed well over 30 buildings to the Art Nouveau district alone, and is now widely regarded as one of the most prominent Latvian architects of all times. His creations are remarkable for the abundance and variety of their decorative elements. But more importantly, they strongly espouse the overarching Art Nouveau principle that the beauty of a building should not depend solely on exterior ornamentation, but also on enhancing its utilitarian function and layout. A visit to his 12 Alberta building, now home to the Art Nouveau Museum, offers a clear illustration of his vision.

 

Beyond Architecture

Riga-Art Nouveau Museum.

Ornate stained glass windows decorate the breakfast nook of K. Pēkšēns’ apartment.

Located in Pēkšēns’ own apartment, the museum is ideal opportunity to get an insider’s impression of life in the golden age of Art Nouveau. The building’s central staircase, a beautifully renovated six-story swirling work of art, is in itself worth a visit.

The apartment captures the essence of the style, in the layout of the rooms, original wall and ceiling paintings, stained-glass windows and objects of everyday life. In a corner of the oak-paneled dining room, the mahogany table of the breakfast nook is set with period silverware and china. Next to the bathroom, the water closet features one the newly introduced flush toilets. As you walk through the apartment, every detail is a reminder that Art Nouveau extended far beyond architecture to the design of furniture, and all manners of home goods and clothing, to become a way of life.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air. Riga International Airport, with direct flights from major cities in Europe, is located 10 kilometers southwest of the city. There is a minibus shuttle (Airport Express) every 30 minutes with fixed stops at several hotels in the old town (cost was €5 pp at the time of this writing). However, several taxi companies operate from the airport to the centre of the city for a fixed, pre-paid price of €15 if pre-booked online or via your hotel. Otherwise, metered rates apply if paid to the driver. A ride to the Old Town takes 20 minutes.
  • Getting around – A short walk across the park from the Old Town, the Art Nouveau District with its grid layout, wide sidewalks, and so much to see along the streets, is definitely best visited on foot.
  • Staying – There is an abundance of short-term lodging options throughout the Old Town and the Historic District, ranging from efficiency apartments to boutique hotels and international chains. On this recent stay, I chose the Konventa Sēta Hotel, Kalēju iela 9/11, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050for its ideal location in a quiet enclave in the heart of the Old Town. Housed in a former convent now designated as a historic monument, the property consisted of seven buildings around an interior cobblestone courtyard. It had been fully renovated with all modern amenities, and decorated in the functional, minimalist décor that is typical of Northern European hotels. The very reasonable room-rate included a generous buffet breakfast and reliable Wi-Fi throughout the property. The front desk staff spoke proficient English and was unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Contact: tel.  +371 60008700, e-mail konventaseta@rixwell.com-mail.
  • Eating– For a relaxing lunch break in the Art Nouvau Distrist, I enjoyed the laid-back The Flying Frog (or Lidojošā varde in Latvian) at 31 Elizabetese Street, for its seasonal menu of freshly prepared cosmopolitan offerings, large covered terrace and efficient service. The Flying Frog is open daily from 10:00 am to midnight. Contact: tel. +371 67 321 184, email lidojosavarde@inbox.lv.
  • Visiting –  The Art Nouveau Museum 12 Alberta Street, LV1010 Riga, is open Tuesday through Sunday for 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Note – entrance is around the corner on Strēlnieku Street. Contact: tel.+371 67181465,  email jugendstils@riga.lv.
  • UNESCO Designation – The Historic Center of Riga was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997.

Location, location, location!

Riga Art Nouveau District