The mistake we made in Dijon was trying to follow the owl’s trail. It seemed like a good idea at first. We picked up an English-language copy of the little booklet, “Dijon The Owl’s Trail” at the tourist office adjacent to the train station. It looked like the 22 points of interest described—and conveniently marked on a map—would provide a charming hour-long introduction to the Burgundian city that was a medieval powerhouse, even if it’s now best known for mustard (ironically, since most of the mustard seed is imported from Canada). Anyway, the owl—la chouette—is a symbol of the town, and we’d already been told to rub the owl sculpture (No. 9 in the booklet) on the back of the Church of Notre-Dame with our left hand (because it’s closest to the heart) for good luck.
We actually came upon the trail, which is marked with triangular brass plates (inscribed with cute owls, of course) imbedded in the pavement, on the short stroll from the station to the Place Darcy and our hotel, the Sofitel Dijon La Cloche. Built in 1882 and originally called the Hôtel de la Cloche (No. 2), it apparently has a “golden book” signed by everyone from Napoleon III to Grace Kelly.
The immediate challenge for us was finding a wheelchair-accessible alternative to the nine steps up to the entrance, and since there was no sign, my companion Fred asked inside and was directed to the back door through the restaurant’s garden. (See “If You Go” section for more.)
The trail officially begins near the Jardin Darcy (No. 1) across the street from the hotel. Designed in 1880 around a reservoir constructed 40 years earlier by engineer Henri Darcy to bring water to Dijon from Val Suzon, it was the town’s first public garden. We didn’t see the “white bear” that supposedly guards the hilly, beautifully landscaped grounds, perhaps because we were concentrating on finding the roll-able entrance and pathways not mentioned in the booklet.
Not far from the park, the trail became very bumpy. We noticed that the arrowhead-like markers led down all the cobblestone streets and lanes, the more rustically irregular, the better. After a few blocks in my small-wheeled companion chair, I was feeling battered, so we abandoned this route.
That did not prevent us from seeing the sights, however. Plenty of the sidewalks are relatively smooth, starting with those along the Rue de la Liberté, the main shopping drag, which runs from Port Guillaume (No. 3), an 18th-century triumphal arch, to Place de la Libération, a gorgeous semicircular square designed in 1685 by Jules Hardouin Mansart (the architect of Versailles) and dominated by the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne, the royal complex that includes the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
We window shopped on the Rue de la Liberté until we came to Place François Rude (No. 6), with its half-timbered houses and grape-harvester-topped fountain, then turned left and continued—through not-too-bumpy cobbled streets—to Les Halles, the covered market designed by native son Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. On Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings, the market bustles inside and out with stalls selling everything from specialties like artisanal sausages and cured meats, honey, and pain d’épice (the local version of gingerbread) to fish, poultry, cheeses, and a profusion of produce including fat white asparagus, fragrant strawberries, and wonderfully ripe melons from Carpentras that the seller let us sample. It was Friday, and little markets—food and flea—were set up in nearby squares, too.
Cafés and restaurants ring the market, and we had a leisurely lunch at Le Bistrot des Halles, which is owned by top chef Jean-Pierre Billoux, whose fancier Le Pré aux Clercs is on the Place de la Libération. Crusty baguettes, salami, and olives began the meal in the picture-perfect lemon-yellow bistro with checkered cloths on the wood tables and a small bar up front. After a local favorite of jambon persillé et pieds de veau with lovely mustard mousse and a petite salad, we shared cuisse de canard confite coated in pain d’épice breadcrumbs atop diced celeriac in caramelized brown butter. Cassis sorbet on snowy-white meringue with black currant berries and juice was a refreshing finale.
After lunch, we struggled over cobblestones and up steps to visit the 13th-century Church of Notre-Dame (No. 8)—with its stunning façade lined with three rows of faux gargoyles and its legendary 14th-century “Jacquemart” clock, augmented in later centuries by the addition of Jacqueline, Jacquelinet, and Jacquelinette. Then we ventured on to the grand Burgundian Gothic Cathedral of Saint-Bénigne, where a young priest kindly pointed out a somewhat hidden outside ramp, though the 1,000-year-old Romanesque crypt (with relics of the eponymous 1st-century saint, Burgundy’s first apostle) wasn’t accessible.
The highlight of the afternoon was the Musée des Beaux-Arts—well worth bumping across more cobblestones to the entrance and asking someone to take us up to the exhibits in a special elevator. We sped through the modern art and even the Impressionists on the second floor to get to the earlier centuries on the first. I especially loved the rooms of vivid medieval paintings—from Flanders, Switzerland, and Germany as well as Burgundy—and the chamber with the marvelously sculpted tombs of Philippe-le-Hardi and Jean-sans-Peur, the first two of the four powerful dukes of Burgundy, surrounded by their portraits and ornate gilded altarpieces.
Dinner at Le Jardin de La Cloche, the semiformal dining room overlooking our hotel’s romantic garden, capped the day perfectly. With our kir, the blend of crème de cassis and dry Burgundian white wine made from the aligoté grape, we got a procession of tasty amuses, such as spicy tomato gazpacho and liver mousse piped onto toast. The 24-year-old chef made some of the silkiest foie gras terrine I’ve ever had and served it dramatically on rectangles of black slate with morel cherry jam and a salad of beet greens. We greatly enjoyed two local specialties—plump snails in the shell in garlic butter and poached eggs with mushrooms in a rich yet tart red-wine sauce—which left room enough only to split a main course of juicy, flavorful Charolais beef filet (from the local white cattle) complemented by potato-wrapped mushrooms duxelles. Too full for cheese or a real dessert, we finished with the “gourmand coffee“ accompanied by a trio of mini sweets, among them a jewel-like raspberry mousse cake. Naturally, the wine list was impressive, with a nice selection of half bottles and by-the-glass selections to boot.
If you go:
* For information on Dijon, check out www.dijon-tourism.com
* Trains run regularly from the Gare de Lyon, Paris to Dijon; the trip takes roughly an hour and 40 minutes. If you book your TGV tickets through the French site www.sncf.com, you can reserve a seat in the handicapped car (usually Car #1) with a wheelchair space. Contact Access Plus, [email protected], to request help getting on and off the train. If you book through Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com), which is the only way to get tickets sent to you in the U.S., you cannot reserve in the accessible car, though you can try asking for Car #1 and can send your seat information to Access Plus to request boarding assistance.
* The historic Hotel Sofitel Dijon La Cloche (www.hotel-lacloche.com) on Place Darcy has an accessible entrance through the garden in back. We were told that our room, 301, was accessible, but it wasn’t in any way. We could barely get my small-wheeled chair through the door, nor could we maneuver it around both sides of the bed in the tiny space. The bathroom had a regular tub, a too-high sink, and no bars. We moved to the recently renovated, garret-roofed Puligny Room on the 5th floor, which was more spacious, done in fifties-retro style, and had a separate shower stall (though not a roll-in one). Be sure to ask lots of questions based on your specific needs.
* For information on Le Bistrot des Halles and Le Pré aux Clercs , go to www.jeanpierrebilloux.com.
Photographs by Fred Swanson. (c)
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