The Dukes of Bourgogne (the real French word for Burgundy) used to have splendid names like Philip the Handsome, Philip the Intrepid and so on, and it was with one of these that Scotland formed the “Auld Alliance” back in the 13th century, so long historic connections with Scotland.
Over the winter season Easy Jet fly direct from Aberdeen to Geneva (mainly for the skiers) and this is a handy way to get to Dijon, avoiding going through Paris. From the railway station underneath the runways at Geneva, a train takes you to Lausanne where you cross platforms for the TGV (High Speed Train) that goes directly to Dijon. From the station it is a short walk down through the Place Darcy with its “Porte Guillaume” which is another Arc de Triomphe that Paris is famous for, to the historic “Hotel du Nord”.
The hotel dining room was packed; far more people there than were staying at the hotel – a good sign – locals eat here! The food and wine is superb. The next morning, as arranged, I was met by Bruno Sotty. His company, A Chacun son Escapade run tours and arrange complete packages for individuals or groups, to tour the vine yards in the region. This was going to be something special!
We left a rather cold and grey Dijon to follow small roads through frost covered vineyards and idyllic chateaux to see the vines that produce the most famous (and most expensive) wines in the world. We stopped to look at a small parcel of vines – just 1.8 hectares – at Rominee Conti – this precious terrain produces a maximum of 600 bottles a year, and it is the most expensive wine in the world! The vines were covered in sharp spikes of frost, as were the remaining small clusters of grapes that they told me were always left for the birds. It was rare for the vines to be so frosted, so rare that people were driving out from the towns to take photographs!
From here we passed through a small village, Chambol Musigny, stopping to photograph a tree beside the road. This Linden tree was planted around the year 1600! It is still growing, but like many elderly people, has grown rather fat around the midriff!
Continuing, we stopped to photograph the striking Chateau du Clos de Vougeot. I was learning all the time. The word “clos” refers to the wall that surrounds the chateau and its lands. Originally belonging to the Cistercian monks, the French Revolution dissolved the monasteries, and it was sold off. Over the centuries it has been parcelled out and now the vines within the walls have been split into 80 “climats”. These small plots and their vines (there are 1,247 in the Burgundy region) have been classified by Unesco as world heritage. Visiting the chateau and its buildings was fascinating. There are 4 wine presses – gigantic wooden affairs dating from 1477 that can crush up to 4 tonnes of grapes at a go. The wine juice is then put into huge oak vats to ferment. This produces carbon monoxide, so the building is round an open courtyard with loads of ventilation, with the floor sloping to an opening side, as the gas is heavier than air and so would naturally drift away. In the old days they also used candles, placed on the ground, which would go out if gas was there. They called these “rats”. In the shop you can buy one of these. The candle sits in a metal spiral. As the candle burns down you turn a metal disk up the spiral which pushes the candle upwards. Ingenious! In the building is their well. This is very deep, and looking down you can clearly see how the monks dug through around 20 metres of earth before hitting rock, and then having to hack through around 40 metres of rock to find their water source. It is this bedrock of “calcaire” limestone that gives the land the special character to give the wine its taste.
Lunch was taken at a hotel en-route – superb of course, with the usual French custom, vital in Burgundy, of a discussion about which wine to take with which menu choice, and a constant supply of freshly baked bread.Our fascinating journey continues to the Caves Patriarche. For hundreds of years this was a convent. Then came the Revolution and it was sold. The buyer started using it to store bottles of wine, but ran out of cellar space. Simple solution – he bought up neighbouring houses to gain access to their cellars which he then broke through to create one vast underground network of dome roofed “caves”. Then he rented out all the houses. That sort of lateral imaginative thinking sounds like he might have come from here in the NE of Scotland! A tour round the “Caves Patriarche” was an eye-opener for me. For a start, you are given a shiny metal shallow wine tasting cup. Then you are let loose in the cellars. In each one there is a barrel with a couple of bottles on the top, you just pull the cork out and help yourself. There is a spittoon also, as real wine tasters don’t swallow. I couldn’t bring myself to spit out such great wines, but was warned that if I drunk it all I wouldn’t make it to the exit! So, I was selective and sampled some of the most expensive wine I have ever drunk. They say that there are millions of bottles in these cellars – a tour is well worthwhile.
Having now passed through so many famous vineyards and tasted so much excellent wine, it was time to go to my next hotel, L’Octroi Saint Jacques in Beaune. This is a super bed & breakfast. It is very well situated not far from the railway station, and close to the town centre. The b&b part is in a separate small house. My room was absolutely top quality, and peaceful too. Breakfast was served in the basement, typically French with fresh bread, fruit, cheese and so on, and very good quality tea.For dinner, I went past the Hospice to Place Monge to the Brasserie Monge I must admit that after such a culinary day I did not have much of an appetite, so looked for the smallest item on the menu, an omelette. The boss really tried to tempt me with other dishes, including his special of the day, but I insisted that I just wanted a small bite. He delivered me an omelette about the size of a house with green salad and a bucket of bread. Tremendous value for money. Afterwards I asked for tea – and what a great tea service it was – probably the best in France. The tea bags were top quality, the tea pot excellent too – the spout did not drip, a jug of cold milk and the water was piping hot. I like France and its culture, but despaired at their inability to make a decent cup of tea – except here at Brasserie Monge!
The next morning was time to explore Beaune. First was the Hospice. This Middle Ages ornate and Unesco recognised building is one of France’s most prestigious historic monuments. Its Gothic style, glazed patterned roof tiles, was built by a rich man to help care for the sick. It is an experience to go round it, with your English language audio guide in your hand, and see the rows of beds and the clever ventilation system. So much thought went into creating this masterpiece of a hospital, centuries ahead of its time. There is the medicine preparation room, the large kitchen, and so much to see. To ensure that the hospice would be funded for all time, 60 hectares of vineyards at Beaune were given to it. They still produce excellent wines today, which are auctioned on the third Sunday in every November. Beaune is a lovely place to wander around. It is very popular, and tourists are everywhere, even in December. Being in the centre of the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuit, wine shops seem to dominate, and you can certainly eat and drink well here.
As dusk was falling, and the clever lighting on the old hospice gave it a magical glow, I made my way back to Dijon by train and returned to the Hotel du Nord. The next day was time to explore Dijon. It is a very special place too. It is busy and bustling, with shopping being a major item, and oddities such as the owl. This is the symbol of Dijon, and if you can find it, one is on a corner of a building – worn smooth as if you rub its head in passing you are assured of good luck. There is the well of Moses. This is an unusual structure, with life sized statues of the prophets around a hexagonal structure in the middle of a well. Medieval, it is unique. The Palace of the Dukes is also special, with the guided tours explaining the wealth and grandeur of the Dukes. There are churches, galleries, museums and wonderful architecture everywhere. I have been to Dijon many times, and still like to go and wander the streets and continually find something new. Around three quarters of the tourists are French – they know a good place to visit! There are many specialities here, Boeuf Bourgignon is well know, spiced bread, blackcurrant liqueur that is added to white wine to make a Kir, (named after the famous Canon and one time mayor of Dijon) and of course mustard. There is a great variety of mustards, and you can visit and taste it in several places. I wished that I had allowed more time to just wander around Dijon; there is so much to see.
In the evening, I returned to the covered market (still in use four days per week). This is a busy area when the market is on, and all around the market itself the streets are packed with restaurants. With such a tradition of top quality food, it is difficult to eat badly, but one of the best places is the oddly named DZ’envies. The contemporary interior and efficient busy staff serve excellent food with appropriate wines to accompany each dish.
The return home was smooth again. Train to Geneva, where I stayed at an anonymous airport hotel to be able to catch an early flight the next day.