Correction to This Article
A Sept. 17 Travel article incorrectly said that Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, France, turned over Joan of Arc to King Henry V of England. Joan of Arc was captured and handed over to the English in 1430, eight years after Henry's death.

A Little Dijon on the Side

The statue in the middle of Dijon's Place Francois Rude is a nod to the Burgundy area's wine tradition.
The statue in the middle of Dijon's Place Francois Rude is a nod to the Burgundy area's wine tradition. (By Kyle Erickson)
By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 17, 2006

As my train glided into Dijon, a dark, gray blanket of clouds covered the city and a light, cold rain began to fall.

The woman sitting across the aisle from me -- an elegant grandmother from southern France en route to see her grandchildren -- looked out the window and sighed.

"Is there never sun in Dijon?" she asked no one in particular in French. After all, when the train had pulled out of Marseille a few hours earlier, the sky was a radiant blue and there was not a hint of humidity in the air. She looked at me and shook her head, answering her own question: "I have never seen it."

I had come to Dijon -- or I should say, through it -- on my way to explore Burgundy and its mythic wine country of tiny villages that starts at Dijon's back door. This was my first trip to this intriguing, distinctly northern-facing city in eastern France, and during my stay of less than 48 hours, I never saw the sun either.

I did, however, discover many of the profound charms Dijon has to offer. Like culture: This city of Gothic churches, palatial splendor and medieval timbered villas has a long, rich history dating to the glory days of the medieval Dukes of Burgundy. I walked from one end to the other on its beautiful pedestrian stone streets with cafes and tearooms animated by the energy of some 33,000 students. And I ate superbly well, getting the royal treatment in restaurants that offer up one of France's finest cuisines at prices that would be unimaginable in Paris or the sunny southern coast from where we had come.

I also learned more about mustard in general -- and Dijon mustard in particular -- than I'd ever imagined there was to know.

Visiting Dijon in the off season (late fall and winter, when there's even less sunlight than usual), at times I had the feeling that I had some of the city's treasures to myself. Which, in fact, I did.

An Easy Town

My first stop, after dropping my bags at the hotel and borrowing one of the big multicolored umbrellas on loan to guests (with 158 days of rainfall per year, they were prepared), was the heart of old Dijon and the old Palace of the Dukes.

Dijon is built around this seat of power, and most roads lead here -- making it almost impossible to get lost. I walked through the covered market, through streets with medieval half-timbered houses and the Place Francois Rude, where a century-old fountain is topped by a bronze statue of a nude grape-stomping winemaker know as the Bareuzai (a Burgundian expression referring to the pink-stocking effect winemakers got from going knee-deep in pinot noir.)

The one important bit of history one need know about Dijon is that for 113 years that ended in 1477, it was the seat of power for one of the most powerful states in Europe -- presided over by the Valois dukes, whose lands stretched through present-day Belgium and the Netherlands. Which explains why Dijon often resembles Belgium or a city of central Europe more than it does France.

What is today the Palace of the Dukes and States-General of Burgundy is a complex of buildings and towers built over centuries, todaty housing a museum and City Hall.

My goal that afternoon was to climb the famed 150-foot Tower of Philip the Good -- built as a lookout by the duke who spited France by turning Joan of Arc over to his pal, Henry V of England.

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