Its name is practically synonymous with mustard, the region of which it is capital means fine wine, the lake outside town evokes France’s favorite apéritif … almost inevitably, a Dijon weekend will have a gastronomic theme. Yet as you proceed from winery tour to fancy meal, as you shop for spice bread and decorated mustard pots, or as you make your way to the mustard museum, be sure to sample the flavor of Dijon the city as well.
The Dijonnais take huge pride in their history, from the Gallo-Roman castrum (fort) of Divio to the city’s glory days as seat of the dukes of Burgundy, whose court rivaled France’s own. The entire city center was declared a protected area in 1966, and Dijon has France’s only official Inspector of the Safeguarded Sector. The streets around Notre Dame church, the ducal palace and the law courts are studded with well-preserved 15th to 17th century houses. Thoughtful city officials have provided many of these showplaces with discreet plaques bearing descriptions in three languages.
The palace, dating from the 14th to 18th centuries, houses the Musée des Beaux Arts. Ordinarily a foodie tour would include the great 15th century ovens of the ducal kitchens, with their ingenious chimney; however, they are closed for restoration. Also under wraps, sadly, is the celebrated Puits de Moïse, sculpted by Claus Sluter in 1395-1405. It is in the grounds of a hospital near Lake Kir, on the site of a monastery founded by Duke Phillip the Bold as his dynasty’s last resting place.
The monastery was sacked during the Revolution, but the tombs of Phillip and his son, John the Fearless, were saved; they are a top attraction at the fine arts museum. Here, for now, is your main chance to see Sluter’s work: the Dutch-born sculptor was responsible for many of the 40-some statues of mourners around the base of Phillip’s monument.
In addition to a well-known medieval collection and a wide range of French art, the museum has a good selection of late 19th century and early modern works, founded on the collection of a Franco-American couple, Pierre Granville and Kathleen Parker. Another popular attraction is the room devoted to François Pompon, a Burgundian student of Rodin’s who was famous for his sleek animal sculptures.
North of the palace is Notre Dame, a gothic gem decked with rows of gargoyles and a 14th century mechanical clock. On the outside north wall is a small carving of a Dijonnais symbol, the owl, worn to Pomponesque semi-abstraction from centuries of being stroked for luck. Down the street, the early 17th century Hôtel de Vogüé sports a superb example of the multicolored tile roof typical of the region. One of several notable buildings in the rue des Forges, between Notre Dame and the palace, is the Hôtel Chambellan, which houses the main tourist office (tel: 220.127.116.11); its gothic courtyard is among the loveliest in France.
To learn about Dijon’s 600-year history as a world mustard capital, visit the museum at the Amora factory (book about two weeks ahead for a Saturday tour, tel: 18.104.22.168). Maille, a condiment maker owned by the same company as Amora, sells a huge assortment of mustard pots based on traditional designs, starting at 150F (32, rue de la Liberté). The charming shop of Moulot & Petitjean (13, place Bossuet) carries gift-wrapped assortments of another Dijonnais goody: “pain d’épice,” or spice bread.
The city’s premier food event is the Foire Internationale et Gastronomique, a trade fair devoted chiefly to regional foods and wines, October 21 to November 11. And the Fête de la Vigne, marking its 50th anniversary August 26 to September 1, is at least nominally food-related, though it mainly celebrates international folk music and dance. Coming up sooner are: “Primer Plano,” a festival of Hispanic film, focusing this year on women directors, with guests including Rosa Vergès and Carmen Maura, April 24 to May 1; and “Théâtre en Mai,” which brings together innovative directors from around the world, May 14-26. Call the tourist office for program details.
Wine and Voyages, a Franco-American group based in Nuits-St-Georges, offers morning and afternoon tasting tours of vineyards in the Côte de Nuits and Hautes Côtes de Nuits, starting at 225F a person, and can pick you up at your Dijon hotel (specify this when you reserve, tel: 22.214.171.124). For more extensive tasting over lunch, dinner, or both, Dijon boasts three Michelin one-star restaurants. Its best-known chef, Jean-Pierre Billoux, moved recently to the venerable Pré aux Clercs across from the palace (13, place de la Libération, tel: 80.38.05.05). At Jean-Paul Thibert’s (10, place Wilson, tel: 126.96.36.199), the extraordinary service, cellar and sommelier almost compensate for somewhat lackluster fare. Eric Conan’s cuisine makes half board at the Hostellerie du Chapeau Rouge a particularly good deal (see below).
You should start at least one meal with a kir, of course, though you may want to mix regions and have a kir royale, based on Champagne rather than the more authentic but less drinkable aligoté, a white Burgundy. Canon Félix Kir, the colorful cleric who was Dijon’s mayor after the war, didn’t invent this mixture of aligoté and crème de cassis (yet another Dijon specialty); but he did popularize it, serving it to guests at the mairie. One story has it that his aim was to get rid of an aligoté surplus.