Travel

Wine, Mustard Medieval Vistas: Dijon Is France's Best-Kept

DIJON, France — While world-famous for its mustard and its wine, the medieval city of Dijon has the reputation of being the best-kept secret in France.

About five centuries ago, Dijon was the capital of the vast Burgundy region that was ruled by dukes who made the city the center of arts and architecture. Dijon had about 23,000 residents at the time of the dukes, and it has grown to a population of about 150,000. It is a 90-minute train ride southeast from Paris and sits on the doorstep to Burgundy's fabled grape-growing region.

The center of the town once was enclosed by ramparts, which were torn down to make way for expansion. Five "places," or town squares, linked by wide boulevards, are in the location of the old walls, marking a circular route around the city.

Cobblestone streets wide enough for a hay wagon still wind through the inner circle of town, leading to Dijon's impressive displays of cathedrals, gardens, palaces, museums and gated town houses. The city's centerpiece, the Palace of the Dukes, contains the Fine Arts Museum and looks out onto the expansive Liberation Square.

The evening of my arrival in Dijon, I dined at one of its fine restaurants, then walked off dinner through the skinny streets. A misty drizzle dampened the cobblestones, which reflected the dim streetlights and added a sense of mystery to my shadowy stroll into the Middle Ages. The streets were clearly named at the beginning of each block, so a foldout map dispelled some of that mystery.

Among my discoveries: Gnarly gargoyles staring down from the facade of Notre-Dame Cathedral, built in the 13th century; the city's version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, glowing in blue lights; a bartender in a black turtleneck who didn't speak English but sang along with Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue" on the jukebox; and a McDonald's restaurant with a line of customers at the walk-up window.

Two other observations: One, the standard costume for the women of Dijon is skinny jeans or black tights, a dark sweater or jacket with a touch of color from a knit scarf or hat, and knee-high black leather boots. Two, if your French is faulty, and your waiter knows little English, just order the "plat du jour." It will be good.

The next day, I joined a walking tour with guide Sherry Thevenot, who explained the city's storied past.

"All of French history starts here in Burgundy," Thevenot said. "It's wonderfully situated. I can jump on a night train and be in Venice, in Rome, and it has easy access to Paris.

"Dijon has never been able to toot its own horn, but the city now has decided to invest in its own treasures. In the last four years, the heart of the city has really changed. They are renovating the 103 townhouses and creating pedestrian streets, all paved in Burgundy stone.

"There are a lot of medieval cities in France, but they are not modern. To be able to modernize the city and keep the medieval feeling, that's the beauty of Dijon."

Dijon, of course, is famous for one other product. Our final stop on the tour was at the Maille mustard shop, which has been in business since 1747.

"The mustard seeds are macerated in wine, it can only be bought in this shop and in Paris," Thevenot said. "Everything else is made with vinegar."

While walking is easy in Dijon, driving can be confusing on its one-way streets. Fortunately, the majority of cars are tiny. I rented a red Renault Twingo, which was about the size of Dorothy's ruby slipper, if she wore a size 11.

My destination was 25 miles south at the medieval walled city of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. I took the Route des Grands Crus, a two-lane highway that led through the vineyards and ancient stone villages along the Cote de Nuits, home of the fine Pinot Noirs. My arrival was timed perfectly; it was the second weekend of November, when the world's largest wine auction is held in Beaune.

The private auction was for the high rollers; I remained with the serfs enjoying the street festival outside. Vendors sold a feast of food from carts piled with breads, cheeses, sausages, spices, mushrooms, chocolates and nougat, a nut-filled confection.

A day later, I hitched a ride along the same route with Laurent Delelee, who operates Wine and Voyages and takes visitors on tours of the vineyards, cellars and wine-tasting rooms of the Cote de Nuits. He pointed out the stone houses of the winemakers in each village.

"Winemaker, winemaker, winemaker — if a person doesn't make wine, he works for someone who does," Delelee said. "Some 30,000 people in Burgundy make wine. But it's such a small place — in volume it's 10 percent of Bordeaux — it's hard to get. When it's rare, it's expensive. And when it's expensive, people want it."

The coast is a 20-mile-long, southeast-facing hillside of limestone covered by a foot of clay, with trees on top and towns on the bottom.

"It's the geology that feeds the plant," Delelee said. "Here, we do not irrigate, we do not fertilize."

The grands crus vintages, the best of the best, come from vineyards highest up the slope, he said.

A small horse-drawn plow sat idle at the end of two furrows of freshly turned dirt in a vineyard high up on the hill. The vineyard was owned by the Romanee-Conti estate, home of the most expensive wine in the world. The average price, Delelee said, was 4,000 to 6,000 euros, which translated to $6,000 to $9,000 per bottle.

"It's a very small piece of land, from this plow to that wall right there," he said. "It produces about 3,000 bottles a year. Imagine, 3,000 bottles for the world. Think about how many restaurants we have in New York, Japan, Paris — and they all want the grands crus of Burgundy. It's a drop in the ocean."

We ended the tour with a round of wine tasting. Delelee didn't uncork a Romanee-Conti, but he did offer a grand cru Pinot Noir that came from a vineyard 600 yards away. It was good, and 39.99 a bottle. My notes are fuzzy as to whether that's euros or dollars.

IF YOU GO

INFORMATION ON DIJON: Office of Tourism, 33(0)892 700 558 and dijon-tourism.com. The city has 42 hotels, including three four-star and seven three-star hotels. Most are in the historic town center.

INFORMATION ON FRANCE: France Tourism Development Agency, 1-212-838-7855 and franceguide.com.

WINE AND VOYAGES: Tours depart from the Dijon train station. The cost, including a cellar visit and wine tasting, is about $82. Information: 33(0)3.80.61.15.15 and wineandvoyages.com.

INFORMATION ON THE WINES OF BURGUNDY: burgundy-wines.fr.

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