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.Read More
The Palais des Ducs
The Palais des DucsThe focus of a visit to Dijon is inevitably the seat of its former rulers, the Palais des Ducs, which stands at the hub of the city. Facing the main courtyard is the relaxed place de la Libération, built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, one of the architects of Versailles, towards the end of the seventeenth century. It’s now something of a suntrap on a good day, and the decision to close it to traffic has stimulated a boom in café trade. The fourteenth-century Tour de Bar dominates the courtyard in front of the east wing, and now houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts, while the loftier, fifteenth-century Tour Philippe-le-Bon can be visited only on guided tours. The vista from the top is particularly worthwhile for the views of the glazed Burgundian tiles of the Hôtel de Vogüé and the cathedral; on a clear day the Jura mountains loom on the horizon.The Musée des Beaux-Arts has an interesting collection of works from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century; among the highlights are the Flemish paintings, particularly the Nativity by the so-called Master of Flémalle, a shadowy figure who ranks with van Eyck as one of the first artists to break from the chilly stranglehold of International Gothic, Burgundy’s homespun phase of Gothic art.
Visiting the museum also provides the opportunity to see the surviving portions of the original ducal palace, including the vast kitchen and the magnificent Salle des Gardes. Displayed here are the lavish, almost decadent, tombs of Philippe le Hardi and Jean sans Peur and his wife, Marguerite de Bavière, with their startling, painted effigies of the dead, surrounded by gold-plated angels.
Architecturally more interesting than the dukes’ palace, and much more suggestive of the city’s former glories, are the lavish townhouses of the rich burghers. These abound in the streets behind the duke’s palace, most notably on rue de la Chouette. Some are half-timbered, with storeys projecting over the street, others are in more formal and imposing Renaissance stone. Particularly fine are the Renaissance Hôtel de Vogüé, 8 rue de la Chouette, the Hôtel Auriot at no.40 rue des Forges, plus the Hôtel Benigne Malyot and the Maison des Cariatides at no. 1 and 28 rue Chaudronnière respectively.