A Day in Dijon in December
Dijon, driving in for the night, didn’t leave the best impression. The city seemed like a dismal, small, run down nowhere in the middle of eastern France.
However, we had a hotel booked and no time to drive elsewhere, so we found a parking spot and figured we’d make the best of it for the next twenty-four hours.
Turns out that first impressions can lead you astray. (How often we forget this and let impressions rule reason. In so many things.)
Dijon, of all the places we visited in France on our road trip back to Lausanne from Christmas 2018 in Normandy, stands out as my favorite sojourn.
Parcours de la Chouette and Shopping
From our hotel, we left to find the Parcours de la Chouette, a walking tour that follows little brass owls embedded in the sidewalks through Dijon’s major tourist attractions.
We never managed to find the full trail, and the visitor center had shuttered for the day due to France’s Yellow Vest demonstrations. (We saw a lot of preparations for alarming things—heightened police presence, barriers around key government buildings—and no alarming things.)
However, finding what we could of the trail led us immediately away from our initial impression of Dijon—bland, depressing, nondescript—into an entirely different understanding of the city: You can’t enjoy Dijon by car. The best of the city sits behind a bank of buildings into which only pedestrians can pass.
The pedestrian shopping area had several fun and unique shops, including a kiosk selling solely wooden puzzles (where we had fun failing to solve any of the ones we tried), a signature Maille shop featuring a world of Dijon mustard in more flavors I knew existed, some of which they dispensed beer-tap style, and an entire boutique—La Boutique de la Truffe—of fresh, dried, and prepared truffles in all sorts of forms. (The smell of the place!)
The Coolest Cathedral: Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon
Of the tourist attractions, though, the best first: The most wow-pow unique cathedral I’ve seen in so long that I can’t remember one I like more. (Surely I have another I like better?)
First, ignore the Wikipedia photographs of the place. I apologize that I didn’t take any. (I need to get better at taking pictures.) When I looked on-line to ensure I had the name of the cathedral correct for this post, I had to move through a process of deduction, as the pictures look so different from what I saw in Dijon that I didn’t feel certain they represented the right church.
My guess is that professional photographers or, at minimum, highly skilled amateurs took the photos you can find on-line, using fancy lenses that made the street look less narrow and medieval and that depict a far more open view of the cathedral than you will find possible to acquire. The façade and the interior pull far less light than the professional photos show and from no vantage point can you acquire a distant, complete perspective of the front of the building; these photos make it look like the cathedral sits in a square that allows for a broad view of it. False.
And frankly, the dark façade and the crowded street—over which the architects crammed dozens of gargoyles clustered in rows along two arcaded galleries with several tightly packed columns each—with an entranceway sunk into a murky, colonnaded porch with three tall arches, make for the cathedral’s distinctive impression. The pictures erase this effect.
After the stunning exterior, which evokes a feeling of the mysterious and the powerful and the sinister—frankly, the occult—the inside doesn’t disappoint. When we visited, a group of secular women had pulled a group of chairs into the transept to the right of the altar to chant together. (One held an iPhone as a guide to the chant, which felt incongruous in a way that felt right at the same time.) The statuary inside, carved from wood, has a rawness and a passion and a drama far less staid than the stonework found in most other cathedrals. Candles flicker in the colonnaded triforum above you. When you turn to leave, you’ll see the door from which you entered has a spooky face in the point above the center of its frame that you can’t see coming into the nave.
Dijon has a bigger cathedral, the Cathedral of Saint Benignus of Dijon, that looks much like every other cathedral of its time and place. If you have limited time in Dijon, as we did, I see no need to spend much time there after seeing this one.
A Spontaneous Visit to the Palais des Ducs
I dragged Arnaud to the Musées et Patrimoine de Dijon, a component of the Palais des Ducs, with the argument that the museum had no cost of entry, so we might as well pop into it.
Honestly, I didn’t have an intense enthusiasm to see it, either. I’d convinced myself to go with the selfsame argument I gave Arnaud and the feeling that we might as well see a museum while in town.
My complaint? Dijon shamefully undersold the place. I would have gladly paid to see the museum if I’d known what treasures it held and how beautifully it displays them.
The museum has impressive galleries of medieval and renaissance art that any visitor should spend time to see. Yet the tombs of the dukes with their jaw-droppingly ornate decoration, beautifully presented, and the collections of weapons and body armor from different parts of Europe during the middle ages and renaissance make for collections of each more extensive and illuminating than I’ve ever seen. We wished we’d visited with more time in the museum’s day to view everything.
Of note: The museum has undertaken renovations to expand its collection and representation of the period’s history. Given the extent of the works underway, which must have a hefty price tag, I figure the free-entry feature could change once they’ve completed the renovation.
Hotel des Ducs
From undersold to oversold, onward to the hotel in which we stayed, the Hotel des Ducs.
Though perfectly clean, the website makes the rooms look positively spacious: Not true. Our double room could fit no more than our bed and a strip of floor that the door to the room and the door to the bathroom accessed to serve in-and-out purposes. We had to climb into and out of bed from the foot of it.
We hear the hotel has larger rooms available; we booked at the last minute, so we may have gotten stuck with whatever they had left.
Other than the rooms, the hotel felt dorm-like: A nice front-desk staff, assorted guidebooks and brochures in the lobby, a few vending machines, and a small corner area for breakfast (the cost of which the hotel does not include in the room price).
We thought we could use the small tables-and-chairs area to the left of the entrance for a quick lunch and a break from the room, yet we learned upon sitting down with a couple of sandwiches that the space had some other purpose that they didn’t want our presence to besmirch. We ate in the car instead.
Would we stay at Hotel des Ducs again? Likely not. Yet I’ll give it this: The hotel makes for a quiet, clean, and central spot at a really good price—not an easy to find combination, and sometimes an essential one. With a bigger room, provided the cost doesn’t skyrocket as a result, I’d recommend considering it.