David Atkinson, The Daily Telegraph, August 22, 2013
The dying days of summer find Place de la Liberation very much alive. I pull up a chair at a pavement café, order a kir royale and take in the scene: children playing among the dancing fountains, the rumbling bass of a jazz combo in the corner and the last warming rays of September sun radiating off the stately 15th-century buildings. The square was a car park 15 years ago. But, recently, Dijon’s royal square has reclaimed its status as the pulsing heart of Burgundy’s main city.
From my vantage point, I reflect on the fact that Dijon and I have a past. I first came here, lured by Burgundy’s reputation for good food and fine wine, during my university year out in Paris. I found it, to be honest, a bit dull. All those fusty museums and overly fussy buildings dedicated to the Dukes of Burgundy with names like Charles the Bold and Philip the Good. Student friends at the time were equally dismissive. “Dijon?” they would shrug with Gallic disdain. “C’est tres provincial.”
Some 20 years on from my last visit, it was time for me to give Burgundy another chance. Le Grand Dijon, an ambitious project to breathe new life into the historic city centre, masterminded by the go-getting local major Francois Rebsamen, is bearing fruit. Dijon’s sleek new tram network has just been unveiled, pedestrianisation has eased congestion in the medieval streets and tired old squares have been thoroughly spruced up with young-upstart new restaurants opening along side Michelin-stared local heroes Stephane Derbord and Jean-Pierre Billoux.
Fountains at the Place de la Libération
Furthermore, while Burgundy has traditionally been associated with classical art, Dijon now stands at the vanguard of France’s burgeoning love affair with contemporary art and design. The Chinese-born, Dijon-adopted painter, Yan Pei-Ming opens his new studio in Dijon this autumn. L’Usine, the city’s new contemporary art space, was unveiled quietly last summer while everyone was still talking about the collapsing roof at the Centre Pompidou-Metz, and even the Musée des Beaux-Arts is getting a Grand Dijon-style new look. The new courtyard restaurant opens next summer while the collection will be divided into three sections, including modern art for the first time, by 2016.
“When I first saw a Richard Serra sculpture as an art student in Dijon, I knew straight away it was art,” says Xavier Douroux, Director of L’Usine and lynchpin of the new Burgundian art scene. “France is catching up fast with contemporary art but many artists have been working in Dijon for years,” he adds. “They’re taking art to small villages across Burgundy and opening it up – not to the elite, but to everyone.”
Douroux is showing me around L’Usine, the city’s minimalist new arts space located just off Place Wilson. We wander from one huge white-walled space to the next, taking in works by Burgundy artist Bertrand Lavier and culminating with a huge canvas of trademark conceptual self portraits by the American artist Cindy Sherman. “We gave her one of her first shows,” says Douroux. “I loved challenging the bourgeois attitude of the Dijon establishment.”
The futuristic design of Alesia MuseoParc
The next day I take a guided, art-themed tour of the wider region with Sherry Thevenot of Dijon-based Bourgogne Authentique. She drives through lost-in-time villages, passing fields of giant sunflowers and harvest-ripe vineyards, towards the hamlet of Vitteaux. A short walk through the medieval backstreets along the River Brenne reveals a discrete but surprising installation, Shadow Circuit, by the Paris-based artist Christian Boltanski. The projections of angels, devils and witches bring a Halloween effect to the historic facades, a theme inspired by the shadow puppets of ancient China.
From here it’s a short drive to the imposing Chateau de Sainte Colombe-en-Auxois, a restored 17th-century mansion in a sleepy village some 60km northwest of Dijon. The erstwhile country pile has been turned into the base for Arcade, a centre for contemporary design. It hosts three major exhibitions between April and October each year, showcasing young designers in textiles, furniture and lighting amongst others. Students, recruited from the Paris art schools, act as interns to guide the curious, sometimes bemused, visitors around the works, explaining the ideas and themes behind them.
We spend the rest of the day cruising the backroads of Burgundy, stopping to take in striking in-situ artworks. These include the futuristic design of Alesia MuseoParc, the new museum of Roman history beneath the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, by Bernard Tschumi Architects, and a boat-shelter installation by the architects Shigaru Ben of Pompidou-Metz fame in the village of Pouilly-en-Auxois. The most striking piece of all, however, is one that strikes at the heart of Burgundy’s rural depopulation and depleted community spirit.
Dijon’s royal square is the pulsing heart of Burgundy’s main city
Xavier Douroux has been working with international artists over the last few years to create an art trail around old lavoir, communal village washhouses for clothes and livestock last used around 1850. The 13 lavoir and accompanying installations trace an offbeat arc through Burgundy’s dairy-framing heartland, bringing new life to dying villages. The tiny village of Blessey, close to the source of the River Seine, is home to one of the finest examples from the trail. The Swiss artist Remy Zaugg worked with the local community to build a dyke behind the old village lavoir and choose words to be engraved into the white-stone wall. Catch the sun at the right angle, the water lapping gently against the wall, and you will finds words such as arbre (tree), murmure (whisper) and ruisseau (stream) reflected in the ripples.
Did you know?
Gustave Eiffel was born in Dijon in 1832 but left under a cloud after his design for Les Halles in Dijon was rejected. He went on to design a certain tower in Paris.
We finish back in Dijon, dipping into the Musee Rude, dedicated to the 18th-century sculptor born in Dijon, and the work-in-progress Musee de Beaux Arts, which traces the city’s art movement from the 15th-century Dukes of Burgundy, who championed Dijon as a centre for classical art, to more contemporary work. Afterwards we stroll over to Place de la Liberation for a glass of something local and fruity, my image of bourgeois Burgundy suitably transformed.
“Burgundy used to be known as provincial,” smiles Sherry Thevenot, raising a glass. “Now it’s provocateur.”
Musee de Beaux Arts
If you are flying to France, Paris’s two airports are the nearest and most convenient hubs for Burgundy. But you’ll still need to hire a car or take the train to reach your final destination.
The high-speed TGV trains leave from Paris’s Gare de Lyon: voyages-sncf.com. Burgundian destinations include Dijon (1hr 35m), Auxerre (1hr 40m) and Chalon-sur Seine (2hr 25m).
Burgundy is approximately five hours drive from Calais, six if you’re heading to the south of the region. There are two principal routes from the Channel ports, one via Reims and the other via Paris. Better to take the A26 motorway to Troyes and then branch southeast (if you’re heading for Dijon or Beaune), or south if your destination is Vezelay and the Morvan. Motorway tolls cost about 25€/£20 from Calais to Burgundy.
Two companies currently operate daily sailings from Dover to Calais, P&O ( poferries.com ) and DFDS Seaways ( dfdsseaways.com ). The trip takes approximately 90 minutes. Prices vary considerably according to the departure time: check the websites for the latest offers.
Burgundy’s regional train network, known as TER ( ter-sncf.com ), is efficient and relatively cheap, but some of the region’s greatest draws are accessible only by car.
Dijon Tourist Office ( visitdijon.com ); Burgundy Tourism ( bourgogne-tourisme.com ) and France Guide ( uk.franceguide.com ). Guided art-themed visits with Bourgogne Authentique (bourgogne-authentique.com)
Railbookers (020 3327 2439, railbookers.com ) offers a two-night package, including return standard class Eurostar travel from London St Pancras International to Dijon and accommodation at the Sofitel La Cloche Hotel on a B&B basis from £315pp
The inside track
Most museums are free to visit but many close on Tuesdays.
Les Halles in Place du Marche open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday mornings to taste local produce and talk to producers.
If you are cycling the country lanes, make sure to pack a high-visibility jacket. This must be worn on days with poor visibility or at night. The French police can be quite hot on this.
What to avoid
Guided visits by the tourist information office are busy and often booked at peak times. Pick up the free Owl’s Trail map and guide yourself.
It takes around seven hours to drive from Calais to Burgundy, which sounds fairly doable, but don’t forget you’ll be driving this side of the Channel, too, and making pit stops. Break the journey.
Central Dijon is very safe but riding the new tram to outlying suburbs is less advisable.
The best hotels
Carpe Diem £
Carpe Diem is a far cry from some of the more pretentious hotels that dot the region. This place offers a warm welcome, beautifully furnished rooms and excellent home cooking. (53 Grande Rue, Massangis; 00 33 3 86 33 89 32; acarpediem.com ; rooms from £52 B&B).
La Ferme de Marie-Eugenie ££
A lovingly restored, friendly, family-run hotel serving home-cooked food, it represents all that is best about rural France. (225 Allée de Chardenoux, Bruailles; 03 85 74 81 84; lafermedemarieeugenie.fr ; doubles from £80 B&B).
L’Abbaye de la Bussiere £££
Sheer luxury, combined with history, elegance and top-quality gastronomy located some 20 miles south west of Dijon. (La Bussiere-sur-Ouche; 03 80 49 02 29; abbayedelabussiere.fr ; rooms from £170).
The best restaurants
L’Auberge du Marronnier, Chateauneuf en Auxois £
A wonderful place to while away a sunny afternoon with classic Burgundian fare at very reasonable prices – menus from £12. (Place du Marche; 03 80 49 21 91).
Restaurant Stephane Derbord, Dijon ££
A top-notch restaurant at very affordable prices, Stephane Derbord’s cooking is inventive but not outlandish. The lunchtime menu is excellent value at £20. (10 Place Wilson; 03 80 67 74 64).
Le France Jerome Brochet, Montceau les Mines £££
Jerome Brochot is a young and talented chef who takes traditional Burgundian dishes and gives them his own personal touch. The Charolais of beef with artichoke puree is outstanding. (7 Place Beaubernard; 03 85 67 95 30).