More Than Mustard: A Dijon Weekend
Driving along the "route des Grands Crus," our guide kept pointing out various esteemed vineyards and winemaking houses - and, whenever we stopped for a photo, admonishing all of us not to taste the grapes or cross the stone walls surrounding the vineyards.
Oh, but how tempting it was: to sneak a bunch of grapes from these illustrious houses - and then to imagine pocketing the grape seeds and planting them in the States. Our own "Grand Crus" grapes in our own backyards!
After all, the "route des Grands Crus" is the "Champs-Élysées" of Burgundy, home to some of France’s most famous labels, including Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne Romanees, Morey-Saint-Denis, which, in an oenophile’s world, is equivalent to Cartier, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton.
Located approximately twenty miles from Dijon, the Cote de Nuits wine region produces robust and elegant red wines with an intense, fragrant bouquet, most famously made with the Pinot noir grape. The Cote de Nuits region is where monks practiced winemaking for nearly 700 years and today is the headquarters of the prestigious "Chevaliers du Tastevin," the brotherhood of wine enthusiasts.
And here you thought Dijon was all about mustard. As the gateway to the most prestigious vineyards of Burgundy, Dijon is the capital of the Burgundy region, a city nestled within one of France’s largest protected areas of nearly 250 acres.
A former duchy in the Middle Ages, Dijon was home to the Dukes of Burgundy for more than 400 years, from the 11th to the 15th centuries, and was a city of extraordinary wealth and power and a center of learning and science.
The train from Paris to Dijon covers the nearly 200 miles in approximately ninety minutes, making Dijon a lovely weekend getaway.
Apart from mustard, many people know Dijon for its owl. The small stone sculpture of an owl (or "la chouette" as the locals refer to it), carved into the exterior facade of Dijon’s 13th-century cathedral, Notre Dame, is considered a good luck charm and visitors from around the world touch it - with the left hand only - and make a wish.
A walking tour, called "The Owl’s Trail," designates 22 places of interest in the city center and is marked by owls imbedded in the cobblestone and pavement of Dijon’s city center.
Our tour along the "route des Grands Crus" ended just as the sun was dipping below the horizon. We passed through the village of Vougeot with its Chateau du Clos de Vougeot, the "Acropolis" of Burgundy wine, and then our guide turned onto a stone drive that was the entrance to the Chateau de Gilly.
The 11th-century abbey (which was home to the monks who built the fabled Chateau du Clos) was renovated in the 17th century and became a chateau-hotel in 1988.
Dijon is also the home of crème de cassis, without which aficionados of Kir Royal would be lost. That evening, while gazing out over the French gardens, we raised our glasses of Kir and toasted to the foresight of the winemaking monks who helped make Dijon the center of oenophilia.
WHAT TO DO:
Boutique Maille: The only shop in the city that offers fresh Dijon mustard straight from the pump - and then offers it for sale in corked stoneware ceramic jars, wrapped in copious amounts of paper to insure that the mustard arrives intact and enables you to have a taste of Dijon in your own home.
Founded in 1747 by the official vinegar maker at the royal court of King Louis XV, Maille is the definitive Dijon mustard. Inside the charming (and tourist-laden) boutique on rue de la Liberte, there are no less than eighty varieties, including seasonal mustards and mustards with exotic spices or fruit and in flavors such as goat cheese pear or black truffle and celery root or Armagnac and prunes.
No sandwich will ever taste the same after you slather yours with a Dijon mustard from Maille.
LINK: Boutique Maille
Bourgogne Street: Located in the heart of Dijon’s city center, Bourgogne Street sells regional products from numerous prestigious houses, including homemade biscuits, gingerbread, candies, and other local specialties that will delight all epicures with a fondness for French cuisine.
LINK: Bourgogne Street
Philip the Good’s Tower: For one of the best perspectives on Dijon, climb the winding staircase of the 15th-century tower that looks out over the city. At a height of 150 feet, the tower symbolized the power of the Dukes of Burgundy - and today, it still affords an impressive view. If you squint and hang over the balustrade, you might even see Mont Blanc in the distance.
LINK: Phillip the Good’s Tower
Les Halles Market: Constructed in the 19th century by architects working from the plans of Gustave Eiffel (yes, that one, a native son who was born in Dijon), this splendid covered market is a culinary cornucopia of regional specialties. Surrounded by food stalls, antique vendors, booksellers, and charming restaurants, the neighborhood provides a fascinating insight into Dijon quotidian life.
LINK: Les Halles Market
(Travel feature continues on next pages: Where to Stay, Where to Eat, Getting There...)