In Celtic times, Dijon held a strategic position on the tin merchants’ route from Britain to the Adriatic. It became the capital of the dukes of Burgundy around 1000 AD, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, under the auspices of dukes Philippe le Hardi (the Bold – as a boy, he had fought the English at Poitiers), Jean sans Peur (the Fearless), Philippe le Bon (the Good – he sold Joan of Arc to the English), and Charles le Téméraire (also the Bold), Dijon flourished. The dukes used their tremendous wealth and power – especially their control of Flanders, the dominant manufacturing region of the age – to make this one of the greatest centres of art, learning and science in Europe. It lost its capital status on incorporation into the kingdom of France in 1477, but has remained one of the country’s pre-eminent provincial cities. Today, it’s an affluent university city: elegant, modern and dynamic, especially when the students are around.
Dijon is not enormous and the area you’ll want to see is confined to the eminently walkable centre. The two tram lines that started service in the winter of 2012/13 have transformed the place, with cars being forced out onto the outskirts; if you have driven to Dijon, you are advised to leave the car at your hotel and forget about it until you leave. Rue de la Liberté forms the spine of the city, running east from the wide, attractive place Darcy and the eighteenth-century triumphal arch of Porte Guillaume – once a city gate – past the palace of the dukes of Burgundy on the semicircular place de la Libération. From this elegant, classical square, rue Rameau continues directly east to place du Théâtre, from where rue Vaillant leads on to the church of St Michel. Most places of interest are within ten minutes’ walk to the north or south of this main axis, which is lined with smart shops, mammoth department stores and elegant old houses.