Burgundy: a feast for the mind and the belly

If you’ve ever wanted to step into a working time machine in the hope of exploring a bygone era, a visit to Burgundy, France, is about as close as you’re going to get, writes Bonnie van Dorp.

The moment I set foot into Dijon, I knew immediately that it was a destination I would one day return to. Every corner I turned, every building I laid eyes on seemed to have a story to tell. And the short time that I would have in Dijon, it’s capital, would never be enough.

For those who haven’t had the privilege of visiting Dijon, perhaps the first word that would come to mind is ‘mustard’. You wouldn’t be wrong. Dijon Mustard is, in fact, a famous international export. But what the capital city really is renowned for is the arts; spanning everything from architectural to culinary and everything in between.

The Dukes of Burgundy

Dijon invites the curious — but not those who are in a hurry. There are treasures to discover here, but you should amble at a leisurely pace with the stylish locals so as to not miss a thing.

My first stop is Palais de Ducs, or the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, which is situated right in the heart of the city centre. Comprised of multiple buildings dating back to the Middle Ages, the remarkably-preserved palace is very much the pièce de résistance of the historic quarter.

Image courtesy Rozanne Gauthier

The oldest part of the building was erected on the grounds of a Gallo Roman fortress in the 14th century, whilst the majority of the palace was completed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Having once been inhabited by the all-powerful dukes, the palace is today the Town Hall and is also home to the mayor’s office and the Museum of Fine Arts, along with other administrative offices.

Everything about the palace is grand — a touch flamboyant even. For those looking to walk off a few holiday croissants, a climb up to the 46-metre terrace tower comes highly recommended. The tower was erected under the rule of Philippe le Bon (Phillip the Good) in the 15th century, and at the top visitors will enjoy gorgeous views over the region.

The owl of Notre Dame

After visiting the Palace, I continued along my way with my knowledgeable guide, Carmen Caussanel, in tow. Our next stop would be the famous Church of Notre Dame in Dijon.

Along the way, I noticed a number of markers in the shape of small brass owls, each engraved with an ascending number. Carmen tells me that the owl is actually the unofficial symbol of the city and each of the owl markers — 22 in total — lead tourists around a 3km loop to a historic monument of note. Some of the sites include La Maison Milliere, a half-timber house built in the 14th century, the private mansions of wealthy 17th-century parliamentarians, and Dijon’s very own little Arc de Triomphe.

The final marker can be found in front of the Church of Notre Dame. Not that it’s hard to miss. The Church of Notre-Dame has been heralded as a masterpiece of 13th-century Gothic architecture and Carmen tells me that it has even been attributed to bringing many miracles to the city. I count 51 gargoyles perched on the church, representing different monsters, animals and people, but truth be told, I could look at this building all day. There is just so much detail to drink in.

Carmen leads me around to the North side of the chapel, and there carved into a seemingly unremarkable corner is a small stone owl. She explained that the owl mysteriously appeared one day several centuries after Notre Dame was erected and nobody knows how it got there. Local legend dictates that if you rub the magic owl with your left hand and make a wish, the owl will grant it. And that is how the owl became the unofficial symbol of the city. I give its head a little pat, whisper a wish under my breath and hope for the best.

The first feast

Once the evening set in, I departed on foot to Louiseau de Ducs which is located back near the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. The restaurant wasn’t far from where I was staying at Maison Philippe le Bon, and, despite it being quite dark, I felt quite safe walking there on my own.

The one Michelin star bistro is housed within a gorgeous 16th-century building; its interiors modern and inviting. I was particularly excited for this meal as it would be my first gastronomic experience in Burgundy. And if there’s one thing that Burgundians do well, it’s gastronomy.

Thirty-five-year-old chef, Louis-Phillippe Vigilant, heads the kitchen here along with head pastry chef (and fiancee) Lucille Darosey, who is an expert at working with chocolate. Together, they designed a delicious six-course meal with ingredients sourced from local artisanal producers for me to enjoy. The gastronomic experience that they had created for me differed slightly from their normal menu as they had to work around a few finicky dietary requirements, but at no point did I feel as if I had missed out on the full experience.

Each dish was excellently balanced and paired perfectly with a regional wine. The most memorable dish for me was the perfect organic egg with creamy Jerusalem artichoke and black truffle. I left the restaurant with a happy heart, a full belly and an overwhelming urge to unbutton the top button of my jeans.

Historic stays

It had been a big day of exploring Dijon, and I was looking forward to getting in a few winks before hopping onto my regional train bound for Beaune.

My hotel, Maison Philippe le Bon, is tucked away down a quiet side street and blends right into the UNESCO heritage listed town (with an interesting history to match). The owner tells me that the property was formerly owned by a close relative of King Louis XI in 1490. It was then sold to a congregation of nuns in 1571, before revolutionaries seized the house in 1789. Today, it encompasses three private hotels, with an original gothic courtyard serving as its magnificent centrepiece.

I was lucky enough to stay in the tower suite, which overlooks the courtyard and is located in the oldest quarter of the property. The tastefully-decorated room is the owner’s pet project, and she tells me a great deal of time and effort went into modernising the room while still maintaining all the historic elements that make it unique. The bed is plush and cosy and it doesn’t take long for me to drift off to sleep.

The House of Mulot and Petitjean

In the morning, I head off to sample yet another Dijon specialty – gingerbread (known locally as pain d’épices). The House of Mulot and Petitjean is about a 10-minute drive from my hotel, and I am told that their gingerbread is renowned in the region.

Burgundy gingerbread is unlike any gingerbread that I’ve ever tasted. Despite its name, Mulot and Petitjean’s gingerbread recipe — which has remained unchanged since the company first opened its doors in 1796 — doesn’t actually contain any ginger.

Instead, the secret ingredient is honey. There are a number of different ways to enjoy the delicate pain d’épices and here at the factory, you can sit down with a guide and taste your way through an assortment of spiced breads. For those interested in learning more about the local delicacy and its master gingerbread makers, a guided tour through its museum comes highly recommended. Here, I learned all about the history of gingerbread (did you know that the recipe originated in China?), the historical figures behind the Mulot and Petitjean empire and also the process of decorating and baking the sweet treats. I manage to walk away with a selection of pain d’épices and make mental plans to enjoy them with a hot cup of tea when I reached Beaune.

Beauty in Beaune

After a 20-minute regional train ride, I arrive in beautiful Beaune, a region famous for its wine. There to greet me at the station was a tall gentleman in a tailored pinstripe suit by the name of Monsieur Jean Claude Bernard; the proud owner of the luxurious Hotel Le Cep.

Image courtesy M Joly

On the train, I strike up a conversation with a 20-something-year-old woman who’s heading back home to Beaune from university for the weekend. She asked where I would be staying and when I replied Hotel Le Cep her jaw dropped. She tells me that the hotel is a local institution. “I’ve lived in Beaune all my life and I’ve never had the opportunity to even go inside the hotel,” she said. “I’m so jealous”. I promised I’d DM her some photos on Instagram (and yes, I did make good on that promise).

 

When we arrive at the hotel, I understood immediately why she’d be jealous; Hotel le Cep is the pinnacle of luxury. The hotel is comprised of several interconnected historic mansions boasting a bygone opulence, complete with priceless relics. Monsieur Bernard tells me that his family took over the institution in 1986 when it offered just 21 rooms. Today there are 64 rooms in total, each with a different look and feel.

In the courtyard, Monsieur Bernard shows me examples of sacred geometry uncovered during renovations in the main courtyard, and here I am regaled with stories about an alchemist who used to call one of the wings home. I learn that there’s a lot to do at Hotel Le Cep. It’s a destination in itself. You can unwind at the award-winning spa on site, Spa Marie de Bourgogne, or perhaps indulge in a gastronomic experience at Michelin-star restaurant Loiseau des Vignes. For keen wine connoisseurs, Hotel Le Cep also has a gorgeous wine cellar and a renowned sommelier to guide you through a tasting of its prized vintage collection. Monsieur Bernard would have to throw me out if he ever wanted me to leave.

 

Hospices de Beaune

Just around the corner from my luxury lodging is perhaps the crown jewel of the city, Hospices de Beaune. Founded in 1443 by a wealthy chancellor, the hospital provided much needed medical treatments for the poor, and continued to serve the community until the late 1970s.

Today it is a museum, with its chapel, apothecary and wards perfectly preserved for the public to explore. It feels a little eerie inside, but that’s to be expected. It did house plague victims until their untimely passing, after all.

My guide tells me that back in the day, grateful families and generous benefactors gifted vineyards among other donations to the organisation to support the cause. And as a result, Hospices de Beaune hosts perhaps the most famous charity wine auction in the world, Les Trois Glorieuses, which is held annually in November.

All the proceeds from the auction go into funding the modern facility which is located on the outskirts of Beaune. The bidding can get heated. Last year alone, a single barrel of Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru sold for €135,000 (AU$220,000). Drinking wine for charity, now that’s a cause I could happily get behind.

Final Thoughts

If you took away the historical monuments, the medieval castles and the art — Burgundy’s thriving gastronomy scene is reason enough to visit. The Burgundian passion for food and wine is near impossible to escape. And why would you want to? My advice: Give in, arrive hungry, and bring a pair of stretchy pants to wear on your way out.

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