Dijon France is one the most attractive cities in Europe. In its well preserved, and immaculately restored medieval center, one can stroll for hours, soaking in the rich architecture. Every corner reveals a new surprising restaurants. Wine bars are cheek to cheek. Fine cuisine is the rule here, with the scents of roasted meats and flavorful baked goods floating ahead like a prophet of upcoming greatness. This is a town dedicated to gastronomy. If you are tempted to think not, consider this: Most European city’s plaza is centered on a church. Dijon’s is centered on its city market, Les Halles. Let that sink in, and you will be on your way to understanding Dijon.
There are many glorious sights in the city, starting with the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. The building houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts, one of the outstanding museums in France, as well as City Hall. Before the Palace lies the semi-circular Place de la Libération, packed with restaurants and bars. Children play in undulating streams of its fountains, shooting up from the pavers. In the center of town is Place François-Rude, named for the local sculptor whose works are in the Musée des Beaux-Arts. As befits the capital of Burgundy, the central feature is a statue of a grape picker smashing his harvest with his feet. On Saturdays, vendors set up stalls with a variety of goods, from Provence style table linens to children’s clothes, antique prints to local wood carvings.
Walk further and you find the stunning city market. Its iron and glass skeleton designed by the then-unknown Gustav Eiffel, whose name graces the iconic tower in Paris. One knows where they are before arriving, as the air fills with the scent of meat, fish, and cheese. Once inside, there is an endless display of the freshest produce imaginable. There are the tiny bi-colored French radishes piled next to scarlet red ripe tomatoes. Every variety of the seasonal harvest is represented: citrus fruits, melons and cherries alongside spring onions and emerald green broccoli. There is enjoyment in seeing the richness of the display, even if one isn’t buying for consumption.
There are other can’t miss architectural spots, from the 13th-century church of Notre Dame, with its row upon row of gargoyles, to Cathédrale St-Bénigne. This impressive gothic cathedral was built over the tomb of its patron saint, the final resting spot for many of Burgundy’s heroic leaders.
There is one other must-see: the Amora Museum, dedicated to mustard, and a short walk from the city center. The story of mustard, seamlessly interwoven into the city’s history, is fascinating. There is the story of how 15th-century legislation was enacted to protect the purity of Dijon mustard. A real surprise to to learn that Pope John XXII was so determined to bring mustard with him to Rome, had a moutardier placed on the papal payroll. Bigger surprise to learn the position lasted for centuries. But no one embodies all that is mustard more than Antoine-Claude Maille, the king of mustard-makers. Maille was as influential on the food culture as if he had been a great wine negociant.
So, after the mustard education, what better place to stop first than at the Maille company store? It’s right in the central shopping zone, across the street from Galleries Lafayette, France’s top department store. One of only two (the other’s in Paris), it is packed with one-of-a-kind items. Mustard with green peppercorns is my favorite, perfect on a ham sandwich. But you will also find mustard with tarragon, mustard with blackcurrant, mustard with blue cheese, mustard with cognac, and mustard with pimentos among the choices. There are variety packs of small jars, which make perfect gifts. The hand painted mustard jars, along with their ornately carved mustard spoons, also make excellent gifts.
Exit Galleries Lafayette and turn left, on Rue De La Liberte. In the next block, before Place François-Rude at 61, is Bourgogne Street. It is a supermarket of Dijon. Every unique food item produced in Burgundy, is inside their walls. From the tiny anise hard candies of Flavigny to the outstanding small batch confitures of the Domaine du Roncemay in Damson plum, blackberry, mirabelle, strawberry, rhubarb and many other flavors. Of course there is cassis here, as well as the traditional spice bread of La Maison Auger. It is a foodie paradise, and not to be missed, as important to sampling the gastronomy of the region as is Les Halles, mentioned before.
There is no comparison to staying in the center of the city. Easy access to all the sites, the shopping, the restaurants and bars, without retrieving your car or hailing a cab isn’t something to give up easily. Sadly, there aren’t a lot of good choices inside the pedestrian zone. Two to be exact. On our visit, Hôtel de la Cloche was fully booked, making the choice of the Ibis Styles a fait accompli. Yes, it is a mid-range chain, but the location can’t be beat. Next door to Galleries Lafayette, there is a public underground garage adjacent. But you will never need your car since you are in the middle of everything. Rooms are serviceable, clean, and modestly decorated. Breakfast is adequate – if not McDonald’s is a block away. The location makes this an unbeatable choice, even if it isn’t a luxury destination.
So, when you are ready to branch out from Paris, Dijon is an excellent choice for seeing more of what France has to offer.