1000 years of architecture are magnificently preserved in one of the world’s largest old cities
by Karen Rubin
The centuries peel back as you walk through the narrow, winding cobblestone streets of Dijon’s Old City: 19th, 18th, 17th, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, remarkably, to the year 1000.
You see the finest examples of architecture and art through the ages, created by some of the most famous and important architects, engineers and artists of their time: Eiffel, who was born here, Rude who did the famous “Les Marseilles” sculpture atop the Arc d’Triomphe, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, an architect of Versailles.
There is nothing like Dijon’s Old City – the sheer expanse of time that is represented, the quality and quantity of structures and art, the immensity of the historic district that spans 97 hectares. It is one of the largest, best preserved old cities in the world. The magnificence of the buildings and structures is simply breathtaking, but what is miraculous is that they survived the ages at all.
There is a certain initial surprise of coming upon houses from the Middle Ages standing as if somehow in a protected bubble from the ravages of the wars and mayhem of the centuries, especially when you consider the brutality of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that was wielded against churches and nobility, and how during World War II, though Germans bombed nearby, Dijon was never bombed. Dijon’s Old City is as improbable as coming upon Brigadoon.
Everywhere you turn there are magnificent, fascinating structures and objects – statues, gargoyles and facade decorations – that give unending delight in discovery: houses, mansions, palaces, churches and cathedrals as they have stood through the ages, and are lived in and used even today. (Dijon is hoping to be designated a World Heritage site, and I can’t understand why it has not already been).
Dijon is a household name for the mustard that has been produced here for hundreds of years (it is still produced, but the seeds are imported from Canada); it is France’s 19th largest city.
What is less known to a visitor is that Dijon is the capital of Burgundy. Today the province is famous for its wine, but Burgundy was once its own country that encompassed northeastern France, western Germany and Flanders (Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg). Burgundy allied with England against France in the Hundred Years War; Joan of Arc marshaled her forces not far from here, was ultimately captured by Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, and sent to burn at the stake.
Burgundy was a great and rich power during the 14th and 15th centuries, and the Dukes of Burgundy, particularly Philip the Good, were great patrons of the arts. Dijon became a major center of Gothic and early Renaissance music, painting, and sculpture, attracting some of the greatest and most famous artists and architects.
Dijon is a city that is compact but loaded with things to see.
Through the Portal
From the moment I pass through La Porte Guillaume – quite literally a portal – and find myself in Dijon’s Old City, I feel transported in time. Laid out on these narrow cobblestone streets, with names like Rue des Forges and Rue du Chapeau Rouge, in front is the architectural history of Europe from the year 1000 through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment.
I wander down a fancy shopping street, decorated with provincial French flags for the summer festival – there was the Moutard Maille, which has been selling mustard since 1747; and a grouping of three houses from Shakespeare’s time where the middle one leans precariously but is propped up by the other two. I turn a slight corner and found myself in a square of sorts, with a carousel from1865, a fountain and a cafe. There are market stalls everywhere.
Streets are named for the kinds of merchants that would operate there since the Middle Ages: the jewelers, the moneychangers; another had the butchers; Rue des Forges had the blacksmiths.
The owl is Dijon’s mascot and you can do a self-guided walking tour to follow a 22-stage trail of brass owls that are imbedded into the street. Each numbered stage takes in a place of interest, and the whole trail can be covered on foot in around one hour; the trail starts just outside theTourism Information Center on Place Darcy, in the heart of Dijon (you can buy a guide for 2.5E).
I follow the narrow streets and at the end, is the Notre Dame Church, a stunning example of Gothic architecture, gargoyles and all, with a marvelous clock tower that has a man who strikes the hour, his wife who strikes the half hour and two children who strike the quarter hour.
In a warren of small streets beside Notre Dame, we come upon the most delightful shop in Dijon, Maison Milliere. Housed in a building built in 1483 for Guillaume Milliere and his wife, Guillemette Durand, the shopkeeper today offers wonderful handcrafted items largely oriented around the owl, the city’s mascot, as well as a charming indoor cafe and a garden cafe. Figures of an owl and a cat perch high atop the roof of the building, which was a setting in the 1990 film Cyrano de Bergerac with Gérard Depardieu.
Most interestingly, though, Dijon is not purely a tourist attraction or a living history museum peopled by costumed interpreters, but is still the vibrant center and provincial capital for Burgundy. The massive enclosed market, the iron structure dating from 1875, originally designed by Eiffel who was born in Dijon still houses the stalls purveying the freshest meat, fish, cheese, breads, fruit, and everything else imaginable four times a week (T, T, Fri, Sat until 2 pm), while outside, the streets are crammed with stalls selling everything from old books and new CDs to clothes from North Africa and Asia, and of course, the famous Dijon mustard.
You roam the streets and (most wonderfully) see placards that describe the edifice in three languages. You cannot help but being amazed to see that the mansion was built originally in the 15th century or 16th century and the nobleman it was built for.
You see the impact of history and the changing political tides – structures that were originally churches or palaces were “repurposed” for public buildings after the French Revolution and the anti-clerical Reign of Terror.
We have arrived in Dijon to join the French Cruises’ trip on the Caprice barge along the canals and Soane River of Burgundy. My first thrilling encounter with the city lasts just half a day before we meet our group for the tour, and are taken out of the city to where our barge will begin our cruise. But I am delighted with my clever advance planning to stay over in Dijon for two extra days when we return from the cruise in a week’s time.
At 4 pm, we return to Dijon’s train station where we meet our group for our Barging Through France cruise through Burgundy on the Caprice barge hotel (see stories).
Guided Walking Tour of Dijon
The northbound itinerary starts at the furthest point and six days later, the Caprice, sails into Dijon’s beautiful port surrounded by a park (a bike path connects, there, as well), about a 15-20 minute walk from the Old City.
As he has done each day of our cruise, Guy, our guide and bus driver, takes us into Dijon’s Old City for a walking tour, explaining the highlights and the fascinating background that enhances the appreciation of what we see.
At that magnificent gothic church of Notre Dame that so intrigued me a week ago, he tells the story of its fascinating clock, which seems to embody the city’s fascinating history:
When Burgundy was its own state and allied with England against France, the King of France tried to bribe towns in Burgundy to rebel, and one town did, so the Duke besieged the town and as punishment, in 1673, took the clock. Originally, the clock only had a man with a pipe who struck the hour, but in the 17th century, the Dijonnaise, who have a good sense of humor, added a woman so the man wouldn’t be lonely; and in the 18th century, two children were added. The man strikes the bell on the hour; the woman on the half hour and the children on quarter hour. (Guy jokes that this has to be the longest pregnancy in history).
Below the clock, are stunning gargoyles. As Guy tells it, centuries ago a usurer was killed by falling gargoyle and the “Corporation of Loan Sharks” (that is likely not the real name) demanded all of the gargoyles be dismantled. It wasn’t until the 18th century that they were cleaned and replaced.
But during the 1793 Reign of Terror, the anti-religious movement defaced the art and destroyed the frescos in the church.
Guy leads us around to the side, where there is an owl, the city’s symbol; tradition holds it that if you rub the owl with your left hand, your wish will come true.
We have our final night on the Caprice, enjoying a gala dinner, and then, the next morning, the staff of Barging Through France, lines up for a formal adieu (France Cruises, 866-498-3920, www.FranceCruises.com).
Most of our fellow travelers are bound for the train station back to Paris, but we are clever to have planned to stay over in Dijon.
Immersing Ourselves in Dijon’s History
We do not have far to go: the grand and historic Hotel Sofitel la Cloche, where we will stay, is justwalking distance from the train station, across from the Parc Darcy (named for a hydro engineer who figured out a system of capping springs to supply Dijon with drinking water) and La Porte Guillaume that opens into the Old City.
The Sofitel has long and strong connections to the city – its facade is 18th century – but the inside has been updated with all the comforts and beautiful design of our modern times. What remains “old world” is the service. The Sofitel is ringed by buildings from the 18th and 19th century – “modern” by Dijon’s Old City standards. Just outside, a new light rail is being constructed.
We are met there by Sylvie Rougetet, a guide from the Dijon Tourist Office, who will show us around the city.
We start just outside the Sofitel: before 19th century, all that we see in front of La Porte Guillaume was fields and meadows. The city lay behind the arch, surrounded by walls. The walls were destroyed at the end of the 18th century, and Dijon grew bigger and bigger, and now is a city of 290,000 people, the 19th largest in France.
But within the gate, the protected area of the old city is 97 hectares, one of the largest, best preserved “old cities” remaining in the world. The Old City managed to survive World War II even though nearby factories were bombed by Germany. Inexplicably, Dijon is still waiting for designation as a World Heritage site.
Dijon has been a market area since the Middle Ages, and retains that character – there are still stalls, streets named for the brotherhood of merchants that dominated (like the street of butchers), and an enormous indoor market which in its day was a technological marvel of a iron structure designed originally by Gustav Eiffel.
Eiffel was born in Dijon – just one of several major figures in architecture and art who were associated with this city, Sylvie tells me. Eiffel, whose engineering made possible the Statue of Liberty, at the time the highest structure in United States, as well as the famous tower in Paris, produced the original design of Dijon’s covered market in 1870, but when France went to war against Prussia, Eiffel was called away and his colleague took over the project. Completed in 1875, after the war with Prussia, the market uses Eiffel’s innovation of iron columns to accomplish its enormous size.
Inside, it is a cavernous structure, three-stories high, bustling with activity. I salivate over the fresh meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, breads and pastries on display. It is such a communal enterprise.
Sylvie takes us up the staircase that inspectors use for a high view of the market (a secret place) to best appreciate how vast it is.
Very near the market is the house where Francois Rude was born. Rude is most famous for having sculpted La Marseillaise that is atop the Arc D’Triomphe on the Champs d’Elysee in Paris. There is a bust of him on the facade of his birthplace.
We walk along the Rue Berbisey, near what would have been Burgundy’s Parliament, lined by fabulous mansions that would have been owned by the “Noblesse Robes.”
Dijon was the seat of the States-General of Burgundy consisting of the three orders (nobility, clergy and the Third Estate) which met once every three years from 1668, and the city was fabulously wealthy.
Dijon used to be a very rich city, and under the L’Ancien Regime in Medieval times, the Dukes were richer and more powerful than kings, Sylvie tells me.
After the French Revolution, the nobles were thrown out and the mansions taken over and “repurposed.”
We have walked to the Place Emile Zola (Emile Zola defended Dreyfuss)for lunch at L’Epicerie & Cie (Grocery and Company), a charming and “typical” neighborhood-style restaurant, out of the touristic center of the Old City .
Over lunch, I learn that Sylvie and her husband Gerard operate a bed and breakfast, Les Charmilles in a nearby village, Jean de Losne (15 Rue Monge, lescharmilles.21.free.fr, email@example.com).
We enjoy the house specialty, a dark-meat chicken prepared with a cream sauce named for Aston Girard, Dijon’s mayor from 1945-1968, whose wife came up with the recipe out of necessity when the mayor surprised her with a dinner guest; and Kir, the white wine and black currant drink named for another Mayor of Dijon. (L’Epicerie & Cie – restaurant and bar,www.lepicerie-dijon.fr, 5 Place Emile Zola.)
We walk through the streets, passing such notable places as the Theatre Dijon Bourgogne, in a former Catholic church, and along the Rue Bossuet, named for a famous French writer who was born in Dijon, and passed numerous mansions still magnificent.
We come to the Church of St Philibert, a remarkable structure that dates from the 12th century, which in turn was built on the site of a Romanesque church dating from 1001.
The church is now closed but being renovated. It was “repurposed” after the French Revolution, and used as stables and to store salt, which weathered the stone, until the building became unsafe.
Dijon’s Archeological Museum
After the Revolution, when the cathedral was destroyed, the nearby church became Cathedral St. Benigne. This has become the archeological museum, and it is utterly fascinating.
We pay an extra fee of 2E to descend into the crypt of Saint Benigne, which dates from the year 1001. At one time, this would have been street level, but over the centuries, the city built up.
Saint Benigne came to Burgundy around 200 AD to convert the inhabitants to Christianity (they were Celts, before), and was martyred here in Dijon, one of the first martyrs of Christendom. The images of him make him look Oriental. We see a sarcophagus.
The first church here dates from 6th century. Then, in the 8th century, several monks came to Dijon and founded an monastery around the small church. In 989 AD, an abbot came from Chenay and turned the monastery into an abbey.
The circular edifice at the head of the church is as it was in 1000, a magnificent three-story rotunda which allowed pilgrims to walk around the sarcophagus of Benigne, priest and martyr. The rotunda, a marvel of Romanesque art, was created by Abbot Guillaume of Valpriano, Italy, the man for whom the arch is named.
The dome of the room would have been open to sky. The room is built with eight columns in first ring, 16 in second, 24 in third circle, the same as the Parthenon in Rome, because Guillaume knew Roman architecture.
In 1280 the basilica collapsed and was replace by the present gothic church.
The rotunda survived until the French Revolution, when, between 1789-1793 it was partially demolished. The furnishings were all destroyed or stolen after the Revolution, and we can see where objects were pried from the walls.
The Romanesque Church went into oblivion for 50 years, and it was only around 1860 when they were building the school of Beaux Arts (next door) that the church was rediscovered, excavated and reassembled. The archeological work is still going on.
The Archeology Museum housed in the original abbey is a must see, with an 11th century scriptorium, the 13th century monks dormitory, a 17th century staircase. The artifacts that are on view are fascinating. The first floor as Gaelo-Roman Gothic housing pagan and Celtic artifacts; the Gothic room contains masterpieces from the former abbey and other places in Dijon.
Outside, we walk along the Rue de la Liberte, where flags are out for summer and fall, represent different villages.
We come to the Palais des Etats, used today as Dijon’s Town Hall.
Palais des Ducs
Finally, we come to what is Dijon’s architectural masterpiece, the Palais des Ducs, a phenomenally majestic palace, once home to Burgundy’s powerful dukes – John the Fearless, Philip the Good, Charles the Bold – and the focal point of old Dijon.
It began as a simple fortress, built during the 3rd century to keep out the Barbarian invaders. It was rebuilt from 1366 by the first of the Valos Dukes, Philip the Bold.
The main building was built by Jean Poncelet, an architect from Lyons, between 1450-1455. The ground floor, with its ribbed vaulting, is used for weddings (we see at least two going on), the waiting room and passageway connecting the Court of Honour to Place des Ducs.
Begun in 1681, it took over a century for the palace to be built, and works were carried out by some of France’s most famous architects. “All the greatest artists of kingdom built the Palace,” Sylvie tells me.
The magnificent structure we see today is actually a complex of buildings, built in the 17th C for Louis XIV; 18c under Louis XV, and just before the French Revolution for Louis XVI. The palace looks out to a magnificent semicircular public square designed in 1686 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart (one of the architects of Versailles), renamed Place de la Libération after the French Revolution.
The Gabriel Staircase, created by Jacques Gabriel, the King’s engineer and architect, between 1733-1738, consists of two straight flights of stairs between galleries and is said to be unique in France. It is popular place for wedding parties to take their photos.
The building was finally completed in 1786; the decoration of the façade overlooking Rue des Forges is typical of the Louis XVI style in Dijon.
Apartments of the governors of Burgundy, in the first of the King’s House, now house the Mayor’s offices and the committee rooms (closed to visitors).
The oldest structure of the Palais des Ducs that remains is a stone tower dating from the time of Philip the Good (1396-1467), who was the Duke of Burgundy from 1419-1467. The intriguing history sounds made for Hollywood: Philip, the son of John the Fearless, became Duke after his father was murdered in 1419 at a meeting with the Dauphin (who became King Charles VII of France). Not surprisingly, Philip allied with England against France, but later, in return for concessions, ended the English alliance and made peace with Charles VII.
Philip the Good was quite a character: he declined membership in the English Order of the Garter in 1422, which could have been considered an act of treason against the King of France, his feudal overlord. Instead, in 1430, he created his own Order of the Golden Fleece, based on the Knights of the Round Table and the myth of Jason.
In 1430 Philip’s troops captured Joan of Arc at Compiegne and later handed her over to the English who orchestrated a heresy trial against her, conducted by pro-Burgundian clerics.
Despite the truce with France, Philip’s relations with Charles were not great. In 1440, he supported the rebellious nobles in the Praguerie and gave asylum to the dauphin (later King Louis XI), who was constantly in revolt against his father. Then Philip’s own son, Charles the Bold, took control of the government in 1465. The end of the dukes came in 1477.
You buy a ticket for a timed entry to the tower (a maximum of 19 people at a time), and the guide uses a key to unlock the massive wood door, and then you climb 317 steps to the top, 52 meters high, to the most fabulous 360-degree view of the city (entrance every 45 minutes, 3E).
The wing housing the Musee de Beaux Arts, art museum (free entrance) was built during the 19th century on the site of the Sainte-Chapel (1803). Admission to this phenomenal art museum is actually free (I visit twice).
I explore some more – I love looking at the mansions, and contemplating what the historic placards mean and think about the extraordinary timeline they represent: Rue Vaubon, n 21: Hotel LeGouz de Gerland – built 1669 for Charles LeGouzde Gerlund, maker of the Dauphine’s robes; Stephen Liegeard mansion, built 16C and remodeled in 19c for Liegard, poet and member of Parliament; Hotel Viard de Samery, Rue du Petit Pote n 19, built originally in 1541 for Simon Viard – law – modified in 18C- early French Renaissance.
It is astonishing to find exquisite examples of architecture from just about every important era: Middle Ages, Classical, Renaissance, Arts Nouveau, Art Decoratif. (The tourist office has lists and you can take guided tours oriented around different historical and architectural themes.)
Sofitel Hotel de la Cloche
There is no better way to feel yourself part of Dijon’s rich history, than staying in a historic hotel that has been a part of the city’s story for over a century, Sofitel Hotel de la Cloche. Here (depending upon your sensibilities), you can feel yourself part of the nobility, or grateful for being in a society where ordinary people can have access to such luxury.
The “Ostellerie de la Cloche” is mentioned as far back as 1424; the present building, Hotel de la Cloche, now the Sofitel, has been situated on the Place Darcy since 1884.
The most luxurious hotel in Dijon, many famous people have stayed here: Albert I of Belgium and Princess Grace of Monaco were regular visitors; Maurice Chevalier stayed here to “recover” from the after effects of being honored at the Clos de Vougeot, the Burgundy wine society.
This magnificent historic building came close to being demolished in the 1970s, but after becoming a cause célèbre in France, the minister of culture added the hotel’s facade and roofing to the list of protected historical monuments on October 29, 1975.
In 1982, La Cloche embarked upon a second lease of life, and now, the building’s listed facade houses a grand, luxury hotel with two restaurants, one of which, Les Jardins de la Cloche, is entirely new.
Completely refurbished in 1997, the luxury hotel offers cocoon-like comfort, with its hangings in carefully accented tones, its murals, its heavy curtains, its carpet with fleur-de-lys motif.
Its 68 elegantly appointed rooms and four suites have been modernized and refreshed, the interior design is stunning. It is “old world” in the sense of doting service befitting a five-star hotel.
The hotel’s most luxurious suites, each named for one of the region’s great wines (Vougeot, Chambertin, Romanée-Conti), are on the top floor, nestling beneath the hotel roof. Here, you sleep under interlacing beams, relax in soft upholstered sofas and take bathe in the marble bathrooms.
The hotel offers lovely views of Mont-Afrique, the Jardin Darcy, the Gothic spires and motley tiled roof of Saint-Bénigne Cathedral, the hustle and bustle of the Place Darcy.
The Sofitel is conveniently located – walking distance – near the Old Town and a number of attractions, including museums and the Ducal Palace.
That evening, we enjoy dinner in the Sofitel’s restaurant, Les Jardin de la Cloche, in a beautiful garden setting. The service is impeccable.
The Sofitel La Cloche also offers a fitness center and sauna, and the hotel can arrange golf at a nearby course.
La Cloche – 14 place Darcy – 21000 Dijon, Tél : +33(0) 3 80 30 12 32 – Fax : +33(0) 3 80 30 04 15; email H1202@accor.com, www.hotel-lacloche.com/us/us_reservation.php, www.sofitel.com/fr/hotel-1202-sofitel-dijon-la-cloche/index.shtml, www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-1202-sofitel-dijon-la-cloche/index.shtml.
Getting Around Dijon
The city of Dijon offers the Diviaciti, a free shuttle bus for visitors that connects many of the downtown destinations in a loop, along with several parking areas. When we were there, they were also building a light rail line.
It is also easy to rent bikes (this is a biking city) and there are a number of biking paths around, parks along a canal, and some interesting villages not far out of the city (but if you are limited in time, spend it sightseeing in the Old City).
Getting to Dijon
Dijon is easily reached from Paris by train, in as little as 1 1/2 hours, and even a train direct from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (check schedules).
A less expensive train takes three hours and is wonderfully scenic as it goes through the countryside.
The Tourist Office of Dijon has superb materials and has an excellent website for planning purposes. The office can recommended guided tours and accommodations.
Dijon can also serve as a hub for sightseeing to the Cote de Nuits wine region, to Beaune and other important destinations in Burgundy.
Barging through Burgundy: A visit to Chagny Market
Barging through Burgundy: A visit to Chateau Rully
Barging through Burgundy: The Magnificent Hotel-Dieu, Beaune
Barging through Burgundy to Dijon
Monday, 23 April, 2012
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