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
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.