Dijon: Yes, the one where the mustard comes from

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After kicking off our trip in Paris, working our way through Lyon and making our entirely questionable stop in Marseille, our plan was to work our way over to the Atlantic coast and the Bordeaux wine region.

“It’ll be great to go from a bustling city to a quiet, serene setting,” we told ourselves.

“We’ll get to cover a whole lot of the country that way,” we said.

“Our time in Bordeaux will be the relaxation period of our vacation, to unwind from all the touristing,” we decided.

“It’s wine country!” we cheered.

But let me share with you something that we discovered, one night after we lumbered back to our entirely excellent hotel room in Lyon, flush with food and affordable digestifs.  It came to us while I noodled around on the internet, ensuring that my credit cards had neither been helpfully shut off by my bank nor maxed out by my freewheeling, and Tina thumbed through our Lonely Planet guide to France and researched our future.

As it turns out, there isn’t actually very much to do in Bordeaux.  The city itself has a few attractions, but it’s really — for tourists, anyway — a city from which one launches one’s expeditions into the surrounding countryside.  The wineries, the chateaus, all of that picturesque goodness that one might associate with Bordeaux?  It’s not exactly on the municipal bus route.  Your options for getting out and sampling the alcoholic goodness of the wine region are, therefore:

  1. Rent a car and enter into the gruesome rock-paper-scissors process of deciding who the embittered French wine region designated driver will be, sowing the seeds for permanent and lasting damage within your alcoholically-enthusiastic relationship, or
  2. Pay anywhere from two hundred-and-fifty to four hundred Euro (per person) to join a guided wine tour of the area, pausing only briefly to weep into your hands when you realize that costs nearly as much as the plane ticket to get there, or
  3. Rest some bicycles and head out of town on a self-powered adventuHA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAHAAAAAAAAAAoooohhhhh, who are we kidding with that one.

Not that any of these options are ridiculous on their face, but rather that when you try to fit them into the idea of a grand national tour, they feel a little bit incompatible(y expensive).  And so, as we looked forward to the second half of our trip, we found that we still very much wanted to visit a wine region, still greatly desired a slower pace and a quieter setting, but with no desire to travel four hours and spend hundreds of dollars.  What to do?

Enter Dijon.

Situated roughly halfway between Lyon and Paris, Dijon is the traditional capitol of Burgundy, and also of wine and gourmet food.  Aside from the mustard that famously bears its name — and which actually describes a method of preparing mustard, rather than products from the region — Dijon offers escargots, fresh local markets, oh-so-funky cheeses like Epoisses and more creme de cassis than you can shake a stick at.  It’s actually a tough call whether I liked it just as much or more than Lyon, but in either case it’s definitely worth a place on anyone’s itinerary if they’re in the area.

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The first thing that we noticed about Dijon is that, wow, is it ever young.  Nowhere else on our travels did we see so many young people, so often and in such high concentrations as we did while we were in Dijon.  Part of this can definitely be attributed to the university that’s not far from the center of the city, and much of the rest is likely because — as a city of roughly 200,000 — there aren’t that many places for young folks to hide.  But it was refreshing to see, and gave the whole place a bit more of a vibrant atmosphere than we were expecting.

It also made me feel like a total weiner, rolling my suitcase down the main drag in front of a bunch of teenagers — but isn’t that the joy of international travel?  You can go to entirely different parts of the world and be a complete dork with no consequences, because nobody is really paying attention to you to begin with?

Quiet, this is how I comfort myself.

The youth is particularly noticeable against Dijon’s varied and vibrant backdrop of buildings that seem to date from every period in European history, all the way back to medieval-looking wooden houses, jutting out slightly above their ground-floor pharmacies or dainty shops.

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Dijon has so much character that you can only really appreciate its depth by walking around, and because it’s so small you could conceivably cover the heart of the city in one or two days.  Tina and I certainly tried, and even without the help of either the buses or the free shuttle that whizzes around the city center once every twenty minutes or so.  Unless you really stray off the reservation, it’s difficult to get lost; even when you do, as I inevitably did, there’s always something fascinating to see and some solid landmarks to help you find your way home.

Chief among those is a long continuous path through the heart of Dijon, marked in the streets and sidewalks by a continuous series of brass arrows.  

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Acting as the pedestrian tourist route, the path of arrows touches on no fewer than twenty-freaking-seven of Dijon’s visual or historical highlights, ranging from the local cathedrals to the monumentally impressive Palais des Ducs, to the occasionally baffling.  On our second afternoon, Tina and I decided that we would walk the entire length of the tourist trail.  The weather was bright, the spirit was in us, and no doubt Tina had a secret knowledge that the tourist path would lead us down some of the more major shopping avenues in the city.

Me, I was just happy to get out walking, so I was up for anything.  The arrows took us through some beautiful neighborhoods, strolled us through the grand market (more on that in a bit), and to some of the more standard sights like the Hotel de Ville.  Did I object when the trail took us all the way across town, nearly out to the train station, just so that it could ensure we’d visited the Dijon Tourist Office?  Possibly.  Possibly I did, and it might have involved swearing that even the locals would have a hard time mistaking.

But for every entirely confusing and arbitrary decision, there was something neat and interesting — and by far, la chouette was my favorite.

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Positioned on the side of Notre Dame de Dijon, la chouette is a little statue of an owl that’s just above eye level.  It’s been work down to smoothness by all the people who walk by and rub it with their left hands for good luck, and very possibly by all the variations of rules for how its own good luck is supposed to work — some say that you’re supposed to touch it with your left hand and make a wish; others say that you should touch it and then avoid a similar statue of a dragon nearby, or turn your good luck into misfortune; others still will say that you don’t get your wish until you go find the dragon.  

We sufficed with rubbing and wishing, since it seemed the easiest on the owl.  It’s pretty clear he’s had a rough go of it himself, so we’d take any luck he had to give.

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Sadly, la chouette isn’t the original gargoyle at Notre Dame.  The first chouette was destroyed by vandalism at the start of 2001, and had to be replaced — not just because of its importance to local tradition, but to the tourist trade as well.  Each of the little brass arrows pointing you all over town, not to mention countless geegaws and collectables, are imbued with the appearance of la chouette, and so the tradition lives on even today.

It’s a comfort to see how worn the replacement chouette is, after not even 10 years of dutiful service.  After Tina and I had posed for our respective pictures of rubbing the statue and making our wishes, we stood and chatted about what we wanted to do next.  While we were sorting ourselves out, we watched a clearly local young woman walk through the alley and — without pausing or hesitation — reach out to the chouette with her left hand for a lucky touch as she passed by.

It felt good to do as the locals did, even in that little way.  Then, of course, we did it at the restaurants too.

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There isn’t much more I can add to what’s already been said about Kir, except to say that nowhere in Dijon did we encounter any kind of lily-livered, pinkish cocktail of the sort we saw elsewhere.  Dijon is proud of its cassis, and it dollops accordingly when serving Kir.  Even when we spent an evening watching a soccer match in a local “Irish Pub”, the most popular drink among the university-aged crowd was the Black Snake Bite: three-quarters of a pint of cider, followed by a quarter of a pint of lager, poured over an ounce and a half of cassis.  The result was a happy, bright and flavorful ruby beverage that could be seen at almost every table — and incredibly, served by the pitcher.

That kind of creativity and local pride could be seen everywhere we went, and yet it never failed to be a delight.  Why endure a boring club sandwich when you could have one made of gravalax and local mustard, instead?

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On our second afternoon, Tina and I discovered a little bistro just a few yards away from the Place de la Liberté that had nothing on the menu we didn’t want to try.  It didn’t seem like anyone in the restaurant seemed even slightly concerned with the time of day, or that Tina and I were clearly tourists who had no idea what we were doing — the important matter at hand was lunch, and how it could be offered in the most clever way possible.

Having been shell-shocked after a particularly horrid and costly mid-day meal in Marseille (oh, filthy old Marseille, how you haunt me), we decided to suffice with an appetizer and a proper entree, and split according to appetite.  Somehow I ended up with the larger dish, but Tina cannily zoomed in on one of the local specialties — and how glad we were for it.

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Mmm, escargots in a foamed basil butter, served over a tomato confit.  Let’s take a closer look at that.

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Yes indeed.  And that was the appetizer, people.  Can you see why I’m having hard time not calling Dijon my favorite?  If that doesn’t do it for you, then perhaps this will:  Mustard on tap.

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That’s right, those are bar-style taps, and that’s Maille mustard that they’re pouring out.  Maille is actually the last in the French mustard industry to still actually produce Dijon mustard in Dijon; the rest have pulled out or re-located.  Because “Dijon” is more a style than an actual local product, it’s not considered “local” under the (generally insane and arbitary) EU regulations that protect production — around 90% of the mustard seed is imported from Canada, in fact, so Maille’s connection to the city is more symbolic than it’s ever been.

On the other hand, where in Canada could you ever go to have someone pull a four ounce mustard sample for you out of a tap in the counter?

In fact, I can understand exactly why Maille still has their company store in Dijon — it’s the same reason that that a surprisingly high number of people still live in houses built in the 18th century, that the Palace of the Dukes is still the center of the city government, and that the medieval cobbled square is home to the modern covered market that happens every weekend.  Dijon is a city that has embraced its history and keeps it alive, day in and day out.  It absolutely sells its culture to any tourists who happen to be passing through for the always tasty Burgundy wines, but you can immediately see the pride Dijon takes in itself — whether it’s in the creative food, the beautiful town squares full of bustling cafes, the long string of gardens that loop through the city, or the casual touch of the local students on their lucky stone owl.

The Dijonnaise clearly love their home, and it’s hard not to love it right along with them.

  • Erica

    Have you seen all the buzz about Obama and Dijongate? It’s ridiculous. Those mustard taps are phenomenally pretty and perfect and, really, they need to exist in Canada (even in a copied, somewhat imperfect form).

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      I didn’t hear about the Dijongate thing until you mentioned it — I assume therefore that my insane political rhetoric filter is working properly. Can you imagine if he’d asked for mayo with his fries? They’d be burning him in effigy.

  • L.M. Smyth

    Wonderful pictures, as usual! I love the first one in which the little guy in the stairwell is smiling up at you.

    And good for Canada to make such a contribution to the mustard trade. Who knew?

  • http://bruleeblog.wordpress.com bruleeblog

    Loving these trip reports!

    I guess you didn’t hear about Maille closing their factory in Dijon.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/nov/22/france-dijon-mustard-unilever

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

      You know, it’s funny — I read that, but when we were wandering down some interminably long garden trail, we walked by a great big factory with “Maille” written on the side and a whole lotta cars parked in the lot outside.

      So, I dunno, maybe Unilever hasn’t changed the signs?

  • http://www.noblepig.com/ noble pig

    Beautiful. And I agree about Bordeaux, hard to get around. Good choice on Dijon…I’m living vicariously through you two!