Dijon: An Ancient City in an Ancient Land

Physician's Money Digest, December 2006, Volume 13, Issue 12

Age is a virtue, especially when it comes tothose cities whose old age encompasses afascinating history. Some of our localfavorites in North America have such historyand include: Boston, Santa Fe, Montreal, SanAntonio, Quebec City, and, of course, San Francisco.But despite Europe's high expense, its cities offer someof the richest culture in the world, and two of Europe'soldest and greatest nations are Britain and France."Spain did not come along until the 15th century, andItaly and Germany until the 19th century," says historianJames O. Goldsborough. "Russia, until Peter theGreat, was Asia."

Though much of the recent French-US rancor wasthe result of arrogant politicians, it wasn't felt by thepeople; France has continued its efforts to welcomeNorth Americans. And Americans who are ready to goback and practice their few words of atrocious Frenchwill find, as always, a land that knows how to live.

The Culture and Beauty of Dijon

Dijon, the capital city of Burgundy—a region incentral France—and one of the country's oldest cities,is tailor-made for tourists whose needs are a moderatelypriced hotel with a central location, a goodrestaurant, and a city small enough to be easilyexplored on foot.

The ease of transportation in Dijon is made possiblethrough services offered by Rail Europe (888-382-7245; www.raileurope.com). In only 100 minutes,one of France's fastest trains can take you fromParis to this city that became famous in 1336—whena banquet for King Philippe IV consumed 300 litersof mustard and the city became a condiment-producingicon. Dijon is big enough to offer its 150,000 residents,25,000 students, and numerous visitors thebenefits and attractions of a large city with the localconvenience of a small city. And if you choose lodginglike the Hostellerie du Chapeau Rouge (33-380-508-888; www.chapeau-rouge.fr/uk/index.html), allthe medieval architecture, museums, restaurants, andshops lie around you.

Its convenient tourism office offers superb mapsand walking guide books in English. The Office deTourisme (33-892-700-558; www.dijon-tourism.com/uk) is only a 10-minute walk from the hotel.Ask specifically for the 26-page booklet, "The Owl'sTrail," which is possibly the best guide published inany country for a walking tour of a city.

Town of a Hundred Churches

With this guide in hand, you are ready to explorethe city. In this "Town of a Hundred Churches" youwill find Saint-Philibert—standing just across fromthe Hostellerie du Chapeau Rouge. Saint-Philibertwas built in the middle of the 12th century—andthat's not old compared to Saint-Benigne, aBenedictine abbey constructed back in the year 1007;its crypts and vaults hold relics like wood carvingsand tombstones that go back to the first century AD.If you walk a bit farther, two blocks away is PlaceFrancois-Rude, a square constructed in 1904 in themiddle of a medieval city, where you can enjoy a coffeeor cognac with the locals. A statue of a grape harvestertops its fountain. A block beyond sprawls thecovered market surrounded by outdoor restaurantsso typically French they almost seem a cliché.

Dijon's 13th-century Notre Dame Cathedral isalso close by, its façade spawning rows and rows ofgargoyles waiting, says a guide, to drop down on anyexiting peasants who were not devout enough intheir morning prayers. The peasants were probablymore intimidated by the power of the four GreatDukes of Burgundy, whose palace lies next door,built by the first duke, Philip the Bold,in 1364. He was called the Boldbecause he fought the English sobravely at the Battle of Poitiers. Hisson, John the Fearless, got his namebecause he fought with the Englishagainst the King of France. The nextduke, Philip the Good, was named,said the guide, because he was "goodwith the ladies," siring 15 illegitimatechildren. The last duke, Charles theBold, was named that in derision; helost his life and the kingdom to LouisXI. All cause reflection as travelers siptheir glass of wine, and add, what else,but dijon mustard to their croquemonsieur sandwich, and live the goodlife in France.