Shrug off the rules. Demolish that cake. Sip sweet Burgundy wine. You are in Dijon. Indulge.
Text: Shubhra Krishan | Photos: Nitin Gopal Srivastava
That’s all the connect I had to the city of Dijon, before I visited it. Truth to tell, I didn’t even know Dijon was a city and not a brand. But a city it of course is, and what a charming one! Set invitingly in the core of French countryside, Dijon starts to demyth itself even as you approach it by train. The rolling wheels chug you past enormous fields, but even with Dijon just 30 minutes away, you find yourself wondering, “Where is the yellow?” It never does loom up. “Dijon” mustard, I quickly learn, can come from anywhere. It isn’t what you call an “appellation controlled product.” A fellow passenger goes so far as to say that most of the mustard here comes from Canada, not even France! If that leaves me feeling a tad cheated, I am about to be comforted with pleasures I cannot yet imagine. The train pulls into the station, we walk out, and it is love at the first step—yes, there is such a thing! Dijon opens into view like an extended pedestrian square. A gleaming tram streaks the street. You’ll notice at once how non-touristy and utterly French the vibe is: mamas and papas and their infants walk or tricycle about, sporting sunlit haloes around their locks and shoulders.
No suffocating high rises cluttering the skyline: Just the open blue sky and a lot of sunshine, more lemony than mustard! The tourist office representative who meets me outside the station is a comely lady dressed in a flowing vermillion skirt and a dainty white blouse, the perfect attire for this light, lively place. We walk across to our hotel, passing streetside cafes. I glimpse a loaded plate starring a beautiful sandwich surrounded by crinkly lettuce leaves and sliced strawberries. A circle of mustard sits on the side and the first wave of hunger rises. And here’s where the news starts to get better than ever: that glimpse is just a tiny teaser, not even a trailer to the gourmet pleasures of Dijon. I say this with confidence because each one of the six full meals we had here, at different restaurants—and Dijon is a compact city, mind—was brilliant without exception. For some of the dishes, I actually wished the good thesaurus could toss up an adjective strong enough to describe “overwhelmingly delicious.” Yes, the pungent yellow condiment may have given Dijon its name and fame, but the city’s own flavor is definitely not piquant! I would say it’s a sweet, creamy delight of a city with a caramelly hint of salt. Did you know that Dijon also serves up some of the best blackcurrants and gingerbread on the planet?!
The experience of dining in Dijon is heightened several notches by its sylvan setting—earth, sky and not much else around. Those chefs, bakers and winemakers literally have a field day! And you want to know the real beauty of it all? Dijon is less than two hours by TGV train from Paris!
Two days is all it takes to get to know the city’s curving alleys and winding streets well. Heck, the city is not even large enough to take a hop-on-hop-off tour! The old town is still draped in the whiff of history, and residents and guides take immense pride in their museums and majestic buildings. If most of it is too provincial for you—as admittedly it was for me—just enjoy the pleasant walk and the views, before cozying up at one of the Michelin-starred tables. Shopping is almost as fun as the food in Dijon. On and around the arterial street, Rue de la Liberté, you’ll find incredible bargains on shoes, bags, and knick-knacks for the house. Going high-end? Top-of the- notch brands are never more than an arms-length away. 32 Rue de la Liberté houses the iconic Maille mustard store, equal parts museum, and shop!
While you’re here, tuck into the delicious spiced bread, locally called pain d’épices, and be sure to pack some for home. You will also want to buy Dijon’s famous kir, a sin-dark-and-delicious blackcurrant liqueur. By day three, you’ll want to bike out into the countryside and spend the day among the vineyards. Pull a chair at a streetside cafe, order a blackcurrant kir, and watch the sun turn he sky a deep shade of mustard and then rich wine. This is the good life as you always imagined it. This is Dijon. Le vie est belle.
5 Signature Experiences
Follow the Owl Trail, which takes you through 22 of Dijon’s best attractions. Simply follow the signs etched on the ground, with a compact booklet to guide you along. Touch the Notre Dame owl with your left hand, and make a wish. Chances are, it will be granted. Why left hand? It’s the one closer to your heart!
Climb the Terrace Tower to get your whews—oops, views! After 316 lung testing stairs, the city is laid out before you like a colourful cornucopia of roofs and spires. The breeze is infinitely cooler here, and it is possible to forget the world below while gazing down at it.
Gape at the 57 stone gargoyles: they depict the war between good and evil, I am told. Regardless of their purpose, they are intriguing creatures, grotesque and leery, gazing down at you from a lofty arch of the Notre Dame. Locals whisper that they detach themselves at sundown…shiver!
Stroll down the colourful, aromatic markets of Dijon, stopping by to sample a stunning variety of mustard, cheese, local liquor and bread.
Drink kir, a cocktail made from one of Burgundy’s famous blackcurrants. Made from crème de cassis, a liqueur and white wine, the drink is named after Felix Kir, who was Mayor of Dijon in the mid-1840s. You might also like to visit Lac Kir, a lovely lake west of the town centre, named after the good Mayor. Tour a wine cellar in the Côte de Nuits: Beautiful stone houses with vines growing nearby—that’s all the clue you need to spotting a Burgundian wine-grower’s cellar! They are talented, passionate, and welcoming.
3 Great Eats
L’Edito: A stone’s throw from the city’s grand archway, this vibrant brasserie is done up like a library, with a printing press sitting inside! And it does the most amazing salads and pizzas. Ever tried a crisp, smoky German-style pizza called flammkuchen? I tried it here for the first time, and it was love at first bite. Although the place is nearly always packed, they understand visual appeal, and whatever you order will make your taste buds sing!
L’Epicerie: Dijon locals love this cosy, lovely restaurant, and you can instantly see why. It’s like walking into an antique shop, with old advertising pieces on the walls. The chairs don’t match. Quirky bric-a-brac sits around. The food isn’t just put together, it is composed, like a fine piece of music. And the flavours…we tried the grilled seabass, lamb chops, delicate camembert, french fries and a lovely chantilly-laced dessert. Delicious!
L’Oiseau Des Duces: A beautiful restaurant with beautiful food, deservedly awarded a Michelin star. The location, overlooking the Place de la Liberation, is lovely, and in the summer, you can sit on the terrace, sipping a vintage from their incredible wine library.
1 Super Stay
Hotel Vertigo: The best city hotels are those that put you right in the middle of the action. Shopping, entertainment, local attractions. On that front, Vertigo Hotel & Spa has snagged the perfect spot for itself. You step out and lo! the city’s widest shopping street is yours to stroll. This is indeed the beating heart of Dijon, with the magnificent Place Darcy (18th-century gates created by Henry Darcy Dijon) standing right outside the hotel: You are one minute away from the tram station, and five minutes from the extensive Les Halles. The beautiful Cathedral and Palace of the Dukes are a pleasant 10- minute walk, with abundant stores and boutiques to engage you on the way. As for the hotel itself, it is designed to catch and keep your attention. Sunlight bounced off the windows as I walked in, and at night, the building simply oozed romance!
Inside, the vibe is strikingly different. In contrast with the old-city setting and the classical Haussmann building, this is a true “Design Hotel” indeed. The first words that will bob up in your mind are “modern” and “contemporary.” Starting with the elevator, which lets you stare down the glass floor and up at the glass ceiling, it’s a vertiginous experience (in a fun way)! The rooms are chic and trendy, and you are sure to spend time noticing and admiring the quirky features. The hotel’s website describes it best: “More Paris than Cote d’Or—Vertigo’s interiors are a black-and-white contrast to the exterior. The interior’s modern color scheme is aided by Ligne Roset design pieces, suspended beds, mirror-cum-media- entertainment-system, photograph bedecked ceilings, and many other little surprises.” The little surprises included a Mac Mini and Missoni toiletries. The wifi was free, with a strong signal.
There was so much to see in Dijon that we didn’t get a chance to stay in our room as much as we would have liked. We also had to pass up the chance to enjoy the hammam and spa, which looked lovely… Even worse, we learned only later about the hotel’s superlative surprise: you can hire a BMW i3 electric car and BMW electric and pushbikes absolutely free of charge, on a first-come-first-served basis! But then, I know where I’m staying on my next trip to Dijon, and I’m going to make enough time for all of this! Breakfast was sumptuous and delicious, with efficient service to match. One little quibble, though: the fine print mentioned a charge for boiled eggs, which meant a nasty shock at checkout…it hurt to shell out an amount for which I could have enjoyed a year’s worth of omelets back home.
But all in all, this is an interesting, inviting, and exciting hotel. Do check it out, or rather, check in!
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