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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Dijon and Bourgogne

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The morning market of Dijon is only operational four days a week but has a reputation of being one of the best covered markets in France. The Thursday market is a scaled down version which only leaves Tuesday, Friday and Saturday but there was no way we could be in Dijon on the weekend. I had therefore reduced our planned three night stay in Lyon to two so that we would be in Dijon Tuesday morning. We were excited and optimistic as we headed into the old town via one of the narrow lanes that extended northeast from our Airbnb. Almost every building was constructed from the beige limestone known as Burgundy stone, giving the old town a distinguished and homogeneous appearance that was unlike any of the French towns we had visited before.

Eventually we came across a colorful, good-sized market hall in the center of an open square with fruit and flower vendors lining the outer walls. There were only stalls in the square directly around the market building without any spillover into the surrounding streets so the scene lacked the riotous energy that we've felt in places like Versailles and Sète. Indoors the style was clean and modern with the usual array of vendors selling cheese, fresh meat, and preserved food. It was a perfectly decent market but there was very little to distinguish it from others and the atmosphere was somewhat sterile. At this point I was scratching my head trying to understand what exactly evoked such rapturous accolades of a place that seemed to be quite ordinary. The only conclusion I could come up with was that Tuesday was probably not a full scale day either and we would have had to come on a Saturday to see the market at its best. We searched in vain for a bistro inside the building but all we found was a small coffee stand that served some light snacks. Fortunately one of the options was escargots so we were able to have a light breakfast before moving on.

Dijon's center was quite pretty thanks to the stately brown limestone buildings with an occasional half-timbered facade interrupting the pattern. Some of the wider avenues had a few more chain stores and fast food outlets that detracted a little from the area's character so we tried to keep to the side streets. One of the obligatory stops for visitors to Dijon is La Chouette, an owl carved into the stone outer wall of the Église Notre-Dame for reasons lost to posterity. Local legend claims that those to touch la Chouette with their left hand shall be granted a wish. La Chouette has become a symbol of Dijon and an owl graces the plaques that mark the tourist trail around the old town.

Dijon has been the European epicenter for mustard production since the thirteenth century. However the term "Dijon mustard" is not protected and currently most of the condiment sold under that name is produced elsewhere in the world. Only a few manufacturers remain in Dijon and they are required to use locally grown brown mustard seeds and local white wine rather than vinegar. We dropped into one of the city's famed mustard houses, Moutarde Maille, to taste some different varieties. I can't claim to be a mustard connoisseur so the different varieties largely tasted the same to me. They came in cute colored pots so we bought a small one to have as a souvenir.

One of the best things about morning markets is that they give us motivation to get out of our accommodations early in the morning. It was still quite early in the day and we felt like we had absorbed enough of Dijon, so it was clear that it was time to get out on the road for a day excursion. I had several smaller towns within a half hour of Dijon on my itinerary and in the unlikely event that we had any time left over I had some back-up options further afield.

Our first stop was Le Cassissium on the outskirts of the small town of Nuits-Saint-Georges. I hoped that this small museum of black currant liqueur attached to a factory might be similar to the Vivanco wine museum in Rioja, which had wowed us with its beautiful rural setting and spectacular design. Unfortunately Le Cassissium turned out to be a bland building in a nondescript industrial neighborhood with nothing of interest in the surroundings. We already knew from the reviews to avoid the overlong tour so we just took advantage of the free tastings. The sweetness of the liqueur was so overwhelming that Mei Ling and I could barely stomach a couple of samples. The kids were more excited by the rows of colorful non-alcoholic syrups but we had to put a halt to that before we found ourselves dealing with three diabetics. This had clearly been a mis-step but fortunately we were able to extract ourselves after losing only half an hour.

The center of Nuits-Saint-Georges was much more appealing than Le Cassissium. Most people stop here because it's a major destination on the Burgundy Wine Route but we had no winery visits planned for this trip. Aside from the fact that it's hard to entertain the kids during a wine tasting, neither Mei Ling nor I is a fan of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. We do love small French towns, especially those that occupy that middle ground between mundane and touristy. Nuits-Saint-Georges had one busy little square with some outdoor cafes and outside of that there was just a small network of quiet streets lined with a pleasant variety of colorful buildings.

There weren't many restaurants to choose from and we decided to settle the lunch question immediately. The restaurant we chose was full except for a large empty table in the front that we looked at hopefully when the owner came to greet us. She ignored the table and told us she couldn't take us at the moment and we would have to return in an hour. That didn't seem too awful and we weren't terribly hungry yet so we agreed and set off to explore the rest of the town center. We found that if we walked just a couple of blocks the cafes and stores disappeared entirely and were replaced by more utilitarian buildings. The pretty tiled sidewalks gave way to concrete and asphalt. It was a different atmosphere but still interesting to see.

One hour hadn't seemed like a long time but it was really tough to drag our walk out that long, especially as the temperature had once again risen into the nineties. We finally gave up and returned to the restaurant fifteen minutes early where the smiling owner welcomed us to the same large table she had denied us earlier. Perhaps the kitchen had simply been too busy to accommodate us at the peak hour, but based on prior experience I suspect our initial denial was a reproof for not having made a reservation. The food was good and the kids powered through their second large order of snails that day. Somehow Cleo and Ian never get tired of eating snails. We repaid the owner for sending us on a walk by declining dessert in the restaurant and then having cakes in a pâtisserie before we returned to the car.

I had an idea that we might walk from Nuits-Saint-Georges to the hamlet of Vosne-Romanée through the vineyards but the long stroll before lunch and the rising heat eliminated that from consideration. Instead we drove fifteen minutes south to the larger town of Beaune, which is considered the wine capital of Bourgogne. Beaune has been a center of viticulture since the city was established by the Romans two thousand years ago. I felt a little guilty as we passed the Arch of Saint Nicholas and secured a prime parking spot on the main street of the old town, knowing that we would not be contributing any tourist dollars to the town's prime industry. We took a short walk through the energetic shopping streets of the antiquated center, absorbing the elegant atmosphere of distinguished hotels and intimate tasting rooms in the typical beige shades of Bourgogne.

Beaune's main tourist attraction is the Hôtel-Dieu, a former hospice that is now a museum. The building is famous for its roof of colorful glazed tiles in geometric patterns. These tiles have been a status symbol in Bourgogne since the thirteenth century and Hôtel-Dieu is one of the greatest exemplars. The roof can only be seen from the interior courtyard and we decided to settle for a photo of the less colorful outer wall, having already seen several tiled roofs in Dijon. We passed by a few other architectural highlights of Beaune such as the Basilique Notre-Dame and the city hall before taking our leave of the city.

We traveled a little further afield to reach our final destination of the day trip, the medieval town of Châteauneuf-en-Auxois. The route to this isolated hilltop hamlet took us along one lane roads through rolling green hills and the occasional vineyard. As we approached Châteauneuf we were surprised to see a large group of deer clustered inside a fenced-in field. Someone was obviously raising them for meat. We pulled over for a closer look and the curious deer ambled over to the fence. I remembered we had some packaged chips in the car and figured it would be fun to let the kids feed the deer. It was going well for the deer at first but then a couple of donkeys came galloping over from the far end of the field and scattered the deer to the periphery. The deer clearly knew from experience not to tangle with the donkeys but they were still adept at eating the chips right under the donkeys' noses. It was a pretty unique experience that we weren't at all expecting to have while driving in the French countryside.

The castle of Châteauneuf was an alluring, dreamlike vision atop a gentle hill. We parked in a near-empty gravel lot at the summit and walked through a stone arch into the town. There was a steady drizzle which we were able to ignore as we came prepared with raincoats. The masonry of the buildings looked to be hundreds of years old yet they appeared warm and inviting. Unlike in Yvoire and Pérouges the homes looked like they were lived in by people who had regular jobs outside of the tourism industry. There were many more signs of true habitation here than in the other medieval towns. The town was so small that we could see the surrounding countryside through the gaps in the buildings from virtually any point.

The 13th century stone castle dominates the southern end of the town. It had just closed when we arrived which didn't trouble us very much as we had already been inside quite a few medieval castles and the hour was growing late. A drawbridge across a dry, grassy moat led to a closed door between two imposing cylindrical towers. Behind the castle we had unobstructed views of the patchwork of fields in the valley below us.

It was amazing how much there was to see in the tiny village. Every building had its own individual character but they all shared a rustic and authentic beauty that made us wish we could wander through the quiet little streets for hours. One gourmet shop was too beautiful to resist and we spent a pleasant half hour browsing through all kinds of local delicacies from fruit preserves to liqueurs.

Once back in Dijon we deposited the car at the Airbnb and set back out into the old town in search of dinner. We had left the rain behind at Châteauneuf and there were many more people in the streets than there had been the previous evening. There was an almost electric vibe in the air and there seemed to be a sense of anticipation among the pedestrians we passed. We passed a tiny Korean restaurant and impulsively decided to try it rather than seeking out Burgundian cuisine. It was pretty cool to sit out on the main drag of the old town and watch a growing number of people streaming back and forth. When I went inside to use the bathroom I saw a more bizarre restaurant kitchen than I could have ever imagined. It looked like a regular apartment kitchen that had been enlarged but it was still nowhere near large enough for the amount of cooking that was going on inside. Every single stove burner had a steaming pot on it and every inch of counter surface was covered with teetering stacks of pots, pans, and any conceivable kind of kitchen implement. It looked like a scene from a Dr. Seuss book. I was tempted to take a picture but I was worried my action would be misinterpreted.

By now I had figured out from flyers posted on the lampposts that Tuesday nights were music nights during the summer in Dijon. Several bars and restaurants on the main street had set up canopies outside and bands were beginning to warm up their instruments. It seemed like the entire center of the city was beginning to transform into a giant street party. Things began happening very quickly after that with impromptu musical performances on the sidewalks, people in bizarre costumes, and a generally riotous atmosphere descending. We encountered a large group of people folk dancing in a small square and Mei Ling and the kids were pulled into the mix of it. One guy somehow managed to execute some rather impressive turns with a large dog standing on its hind legs, which stunned me so much that I forgot to take any pictures until it was over. The crowds grew so thick that it became hazardous to keep exploring with the kids so we kept to one particularly entertaining block. Suddenly lightning flashed across the sky and a steady rain began to descend on the revelers. I still had our raincoats in my backpack which saved us from being soaked and we began to make our way back to the Airbnb. The downpour hardly discouraged most of the partiers and it seemed to excite some into new heights of ecstasy as they threw themselves around to the rhythm of whichever band they happened to be closest to. It was an amazing ending to a fulfilling day of exploration of this legendary region.

On Wednesday morning Les Halles was closed but my research had uncovered a weekly market called Marché Port du Canal. Dijon was the first French city we had stayed in that wasn't built on a river but it is adjacent to the Canal de Bourgogne, a manmade waterway that provides one of the two ways to cross France from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The canal was originally constructed in the early nineteenth century for purposes of shipping but is now only used by private boaters and pleasure cruises. The port may have once been a busy commercial hub of the city but on this drizzly Wednesday morning there was very little activity. There was a small market mostly based out of trucks and few customers. However there was a rotisserie, fruit vendors, and a friendly Congolese lady cooking West African food so we were able to create a rather interesting breakfast.

There were a few smallish cruise boats moored at the side of the peaceful, greenish canal but the only sign of life was a group of rather listless ducks. After lunch I had the idea to try out an activity I'd kept in reserve for slow days. We had experimented with Geocaching in Miami with mixed success but we had never had time to try it away from home. My app identified a cache in the small park next to the port but try as we might we were unable to locate it despite the GPS showing that we were practically on top of it. But even we couldn't miss finding the enormous bronze "winged dream" sculpture that celebrates the architect Gustave Eiffel who was born in Dijon.

We probably would have missed the last highlight of Dijon if we hadn't been fortunate enough to select an Airbnb just a couple of blocks away from it. The International City of Gastronomy and Wine was an enormous complex of exhibition spaces and food shops that had opened just a month before our arrival. I hadn't come across it at all during my research but its ultramodern design had immediately caught our eye when we first drove into Dijon. The most dramatic architectural feature was the suspended oblong of the Ferrandi culinary school which appeared about to crush the busy cafe underneath it.

Inside we purchased surprisingly inexpensive tickets that included access to four separate exhibitions on French cuisine. It turned out to be a good deal since the displays were well-designed and entertaining. Mei Ling and I could probably have spent the rest of the morning in there but the kids were tearing through so quickly that we could barely absorb any of the copious information that was being presented.

The City is a renovation of the seventeenth century Hôtel-Dieu of Dijon, and many of the original architectural elements remained in the vast complex. In the center of the development was a collection of cafes and gourmet food shops that we had practically to ourselves. It was essentially the same products that were available at the morning market except at a much higher price point. We didn't make any purchases but it was hard to resist the colorful and appetizing displays.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:33 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog beaune nuits_saint_georges tony_friedman family_travel_blog chateauneuf_en_auxois

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