The invitation from the French Government Tourist Office (a.k.a. ATOUT France) beckoned a group of journalists to come meet “Les Pleurants” in the famous and decadently rich wine region of Burgundy. “Les Pleurants,” it turns out, are “The Mourners,” almost 100 of them exquisitely carved out of alabaster and forming a procession around each of the tombs of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless who lie in state in the Beaux Arts Museum in Dijon. We were invited to view “Les Pleurants” on location before these exceptional works leave France for the first time on a grand 2-year tour of the United States.
We were also invited to sample the luxury lifestyle of the handsome city of Dijon, which is more often than not just a stop on Rail Europe’s high-speed TGV line, which now goes all the way to Marseilles; or a town that is often just the starting point for a bicycle trip (along all or part of the Burgundy by Bike network); or a river cruise (along some part of the 750 miles of Burgundy waterways). Here, there’s cuisine that is simply divine, architecture that stops you dead in your tracks and hotels that are true gems—a perfect fit for the high-brow set.
But arriving as we did at the train station, one has little sense of the enchanting medieval city that lies just a few blocks away, where old streets and historic buildings have been restored with loving care. A walking tour through the center of the city, though, takes visitors past some of the most impressive medieval mansions and Gothic churches in France.
And Dijon makes it easy to hit the highlights: just follow the Owl Trail, indicated with brass plaques set into the sidewalks. The 22-stage “trail” can be walked in an hour, leaving plenty of time to tarry at the many museums, galleries, boutiques, restaurants and cafes to which the wise old owl points the way. These include the historic houses that line the Rue des Forges; the Notre Dame church, a masterpiece of 13th century Burgundy architecture; Place de la Liberation, one of the most beautiful royal squares in France; the Cathedral of Saint-Benigne with its flamboyant polychrome roof and inside, the fabulous Romanesque crypt sheltering the Saint’s relics.
Visitors to this stunning city will need lots of time for a stop at the city’s most dazzling architectural sight: Palais des Ducs, a huge building assembled over centuries and housing the Town Hall and the Beaux Arts Museum, whose superb and eclectic collection—paintings and sculptures from early French and Flemish masters to modern artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Rodin, as well as Byzantine enamelwork and African arts—is considered among the best in France. And no one misses greeting the stone Owl himself (stop #9), for centuries a good luck charm for passersby who rub it with their left hand and make a wish.
And without doubt, Dijon is an urban haven for foodies. It’s a joy to wander the aisles of the Central Market (open Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays), gazing over the glories of French food ingredients, before diving into such Burgundy specialties as Bresse chicken, Epoisses cheese, boeuf Bourguignon and those divinely garlicky Burgundy snails.
Our group of journalists had some great food experiences that every traveler can enjoy. In this mustard capital of the world, we dropped in at Boutique Maille, an 18th century company and a Dijon institution. The mustard varieties (beautifully packaged) form a long list. This is the only shop offering fresh Dijon mustard straight from the pump, and indeed, locals come in frequently to refill their ceramic mustard jars. We also stopped in at La Rose de Vergy, a pretty shop full of delightfully packaged buys of homemade biscuits, macaroons, chocolates and a regional specialty pain d’epices, reminiscent of gingerbread.
We took a cooking class at l’Atelier des Chefs—a store that offers classes and cookwares. During our visit, we learned to prepare and, of course, stayed to enjoy the 3-course meal. It felt rather like taking a personal page from the recent film “Julie & Julia.” Certainly, the great Julia Childs would have approved of the marvelously equipped kitchen in which we prepared a menu that started off with pumpkin soup dressed with sauteed chestnuts, croutons of that native “gingerbread” and freshly roasted foie gras. And yes, there were more shallots to chop for more courses ahead and many lovely Burgundy wines to match.