The next day dawned with a well rested Fergy and brought with it not only a new month but also the Mayday public holiday which I had totally forgotten about so most places were closed. I had decided that I was going to go to Dijon for no better reason than I wanted to buy some mustard to send home to my foodie friend. Honestly, I am not joking. I did eventually manage to purchase said delicacy but I never got round to posting it and at time of writing in July 2018 it is still sitting in my London flat awaiting delivery!
Even after all these years I still keep discovering new ways to travel and this was one such day as I had my first experience of carpooling. It had happened quite randomly as I was searching on the rather useful Rome2Rio website for my potential options and carpooling was one suggested. I must say that whilst I had obviously heard of the concept before I had never really considered it but it looked like a very cost-effective option, being just a touch more expensive than a bus and far, far cheaper than the train so I thought I’d give it a go.
I used a website called BlaBlaCar and was put in touch with a young lady called Natasha who was making the rather long journey from Luxembourg, which turned out to be her family home, and all the way to Clermont Ferrand (her current home) by way of all major points in between. I was a bit hesitant about having to submit an image of my passport to the website but I suppose that is to ensure the safety of the drivers, there are a lot of crazies out there. In the event, I went on to use them a few times with great results and, as far as I can tell, was not subject to any form of identity theft so all appears good.
Natasha picked me up bang on time outside the train station in Nancy (where I had had the obligatory drink, but only one) in a comfortable but rather full car. It appeared she was effectively moving all her worldly goods and possessions and so there were only the two of us along with all the baggage. We set off and immediately got to talking, once again completely in French. She spoke good enough English but was somewhat hesitant to do so. This was no problem as I was actually getting used to speaking nothing but French by this stage and was amazing myself on a daily basis that I could actually be understood. We chattted about this and that but of course, with me being me, it had to all get a bit surreal.
A while into the journey the conversation somehow included the fact that I am a musician of no fixed ability at which point the charming young lady did no more than turn off the stereo and demand that I sing for her! What? I was stone cold sober as I had not been drinking, being unsure of the situation regarding comfort breaks en route. It is a known fact that I never knowingly perform whilst sober so it was a bit of a strange experience with just the two of us in the car and me knocking out everything from Irish folk songs to the Beatles and the Stones by way of just about everything in between. It was totally a capella and accompanied only by my drumming on the dashboard. As I say, totally odd.
After a brief pit-stop at a motorway services not far from Dijon we were back on the road and the journey was finished uneventfully as Natasha was a very good and safe driver. She dropped me at the railway station as arranged and we parted on great terms with a promise that we would go out for a drink if I ever made it to Clermont (regrettably I didn’t).
I knew that the apartment I had booked in Dijon was literally ten minutes walk from the station and so first things first and straight into the bar at the station for a pint of lunch. I normally don’t go in much for station bars as they are usually a ripoff, being geared towards a fairly captive audience but this place was rather pleasant. It was not markedly more expensive than other places which I was still finding rather expensive even by the London standards I am used to. A couple of very pleasant pints and a bit of a chat with the barmaid and it was time when I could check into my apartment.
This was a day of firsts as until this trip I had never even considered the concepts of carpooling or of renting a whole flat (apartment) for myself as I am perfectly happy saving my beer tokens for, well, beer. I am quite content in hostels or cheap hotels as I am sure my reviews here will attest but I had had a quite wonderful experience in Metz with a similar place which I hope you have had a chance to read about and so I decided I would chance it again in Dijon. What an inspired choice it turned out to be as I hope the following paragraphs will show.
I loved the name – Sweet Home Dijon – as it was reminiscent of the song Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd which is one of my favourite rock tracks ever. I had found it on one of several online booking sites I use and if the reader searches on the name given or the address of 15B Avenue Albert 1er 21000 Dijon they should find it. I always like a central location as it usually leads to slightly more expensive rates but when balanced against the hassle and expense of getting public transport to a more remote suburban location then I reckon it is a price worth paying. Sweet Home Dijon had a wonderfully central location on Rue Albert 1er which is basically out the back of the rather decent train station although be aware that the rear entrance closes at night so you have to walk the long way round but even that is not too far.
I should say that the front (only) window looks out over the marshalling yard of the station which may not be to everyone’s taste but I love trains so it suited me nicely. Despite the proximity to the station and the fairly main road to the front of the premises, external noise was never a problem.
I shall not go into the details of how I accessed the premises in order to protect the security of future guests but suffice to say that the instructions e-mailed to me were spot on and I managed to open the door onto what I can only describe as the flat (apartment) I always wanted to live in. Without going into details too much, I shall let the images speak for themselves.
Yes, it was a studio flat i.e. no separate bedroom but it had everything I would have required and then some.
The kitchen would have made a Michelin starred chef happy with every gadget known to man, the sofa bed turned out to be delightfully comfortable and the bathroom not only had endless supplies of hot water at a very decent temperature but also a washing machine which was very welcome to a man who was travelling on not nearly enough luggage and needed laundry on a regular basis.
The whole flat was absolutely immaculate, I reckon it would have taken me a week to get it looking that spick and span.
To get there I walked past the Ibis Hotel which is no more than about 100 yards away and looked at the room rates which were over double what I was paying for that wonderful flat. Don’t get me wrong, I have had many very pleasant stays in Ibis Hotels and have no issue with them at all but I really did think I had much the better of the deal as evidenced by the room rate on the sign outside especially when the Ibis inexplicably bumped up their prices the second day I was there.
I know the superb apartment I have described was a little outside my normal price range but that is purely due to me “flying solo”. For a couple sharing the costs then this wonderful residence becomes much more affordable and is vastly superior to a soulless hotel room. I really cannot speak highly enough about this place which was one of the highlights of my three and a half month trip.
I sent my mate Jo a Whatsapp message with a picture and her two word reply was “very swanky” which I reckon just about summed it up.
Well pleased with my choice of bed I decided to have a bit of an explore and headed in what the road sign indicated as the “centre ville”. As I say, I had picked Dijon purely on a mustard buying whim but what an utter delight it proved to be. I suspect that unlike other European cities, Dijon must have been relatively untouched by the Second World War as there is still any amount of very old architecture to be seen. It is utterly delightful.
The first place of note I discovered was the Porte Guillame in Place Darcy.
It is true that the Porte Guillaume (William Gate) looks a touch incongruous now sitting in splendid isolation as it does in the middle of a tidy pedestrianised area surrounded by shops and a cinema etc. It has the appearance now of a purely monumental structure but it was once a functioning defensive gate in a system of city walls. It was not the first such structure in this location nor was it the first name given to such gates which seemed to vary according to the political whim of the day.
The first record of a gate here is in the 12th century and was originally known as the Porte de Condé after the Governor of the region. In a fit of revolutionary zeal it was renamed Liberty Gate at the time of the French Revolution shortly after this version of the gate was constructed in 1788 in the neoclassical style and to the design of Claude-François Attiret. Attiret was a famous architect in the Burgundy region as well as Paris where he still has several works exhibited in the Louvre. The current name refers to William of Volpiano who was variously known as William (Guillaume) of Dijon or William of Cluny (962 – 1031) and was a Benedictine monk originally from the Piedmont region of modern-day Italy. He was associated with many religious establishments but notably the Saint Benigne Abbey in Dijon hence the local connection.
Today it is a very popular meeting place, especially amongst the young people who seem to congregate here at any time of the day or evening. Whilst I don’t dislike the Porte Guillaume at all and it is obviously well maintained, I cannot help feeling that it is disproportionately large for it’s 21st century surroundings although it must have looked fine when the walls were there but what do I know?
First things first and so time to find a bar. OK, I had put a couple away in the station buffet which I shall tell you about in the next instalment but that had been a while previously.
I have been drinking for a long number of years and, before anyone starts on me I know it is not clever and I certainly do not advise anyone to imbibe the way I do. However, it has led me to some of the most remarkable places with my travelling allowing me to indulge my pastime in countries near and far. In terms of physical appearance and location I would have to say that the Au Moulin a Vent (Windmill) bar / restaurant in central Dijon has to be in the upper echelon.
I chanced upon this place when I was wandering about with no idea where I was or where I was going as I had not orientated myself yet. I found myself in a small square which boasted a lovely fountain and a roundabout (carousel) which transpired to have been designed and built by one M. Eiffel. You may have heard of his Tower in Paris. My eye next fell upon the beautiful medieval building which are such a feature of this amazing city and you can see in the image. Pleasing as it was aesthetically, it turned out to be a bar / restaurant as well so happy days.
As I have mentioned this was the first of May (Mayday), the international socialist celebration and a public holiday in France which probably accounted for the roundabout and as such the place was completely packed inside and out in the lovely and quite extensive al fresco area. I had to hang around for a little while until a small table became available and I planted myself there. I have to say that service from the traditionally attired waiter was a little slow but that was to be expected given the circumstances.
I ordered a large beer as is my wont and it eventually arrived, reasonably served but nothing to write home about and in truth I cannot now remember what brand it was which must say something. In a departure from normal Continental procedure I was asked to pay when the beer arrived as opposed to the usual pay at the end system but in their defence it was manically busy. The beer was definitely more expensive than usual but I suppose you are paying for the location and possibly the fact it was a holiday.
I would recommend that the reader stops here for one drink just to soak in the amazing atmosphere and then moves to one of the numerous other, cheaper bars in the area. Obviously, the roundabout will not be there but it is still worth it for the beautiful surroundings and the building itself.
Time to walk a bit further in what proved to be an architecturally stunning city and by the time I inadvertently came upon the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon in the centre I really was suffering complete sensory overload. I had started the morning in Nancy which is no less than a UNESCO World Heritage Site and then found myself wandering round Dijon which, in my humble and totally uneducated opinion, should be. I literally did not know where to look next. OK, I had a half an idea there was a big church nearby as I could see the top of it even above the closely packed streets of fairly tall medieval buildings that been holding me in thrall and naturally I had to go and investigate.
In truth I thought this must be a Cathedral as I know the city was big enough and important enough historically to warrant one, which it does, but that is elsewhere. This is the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon and I must say I have been in much less majestic cathedrals around the world. This is such a superb monument to a God I do not even believe in although that is irrelevant, it is a subject I have mentioned before in this journal and won’t labour the point here.
The front of the church is a slightly unusual configuration of two tiers of pillared openings above the three main entrance ways but it contains absolutely my favourite feature of the whole building which are the amazing gargoyles that you really should have a look at. They are only late 19th century replacements of previous incarnations and are merely decorative rather than functional but they are very beautiful if gargoyles can ever be said to be beautiful. Legend has it that the original gargoyles were removed shortly after the church was opened in 1220 with the building replacing an earlier one on the site. The reason for the removal was that one of the original gargoyles allegedly fell on the head of an usurer standing outside waiting to be married and killed him instantly. Strangely, the gargoyle was an image of a usurer which is a bit spooky if true. The whole front facade is completed by two turrets which I also found slightly unusual.
On entering the church the thing that struck me most forcefully, as it often does in such buildings, was the sheer height of the vaulted roof. How 13th century workmen with only the most primitive tools, scaffolding and so on managed such a feat never ceases to amaze me. What makes it the more remarkable is that due to constraints of available space there are no external buttresses as is usual but the entire structure is supported internally.
Features of note include two automatons used to tell the time and an external statue of an owl which is said to grant wishes if you touch it with your left hand whilst making one. The owl is also now the “mascot” of the city and even features on the badge of the local football (soccer) club. Whilst these are secular features, the main item of sacred interest is undoubtedly the Notre-Dame de Bon-Espoir aka the Black Madonna to whom various miracles have been attributed not least causing the Swiss Army to lift a siege in 1513 and the Nazi German forces to up sticks and go away in 1944.
The Black Madonna phenomenon is of great interest to me as it has many esoteric associations with Knights Templar and the like and is especially relevant in this region as many of the major players in the original brotherhood were from here. I won’t bore you with it all but it is well worth looking up. I had not been thinking about it but on reflection later I found it strange that I had made my way from Flanders to Burgundy which were the centres from which the original Templar cadres were drawn. As I have mentioned elsewhere I do have a huge interest in crusading knights of all Orders and again I had to wonder if something had been propelling me in that direction.
One way and another this is a superb church building in a country that is certainly not short of them and you really should visit if you are in Dijon. Once more I shall create a separate entry to give you a better idea of the grandeur of the church and not clutter up this entry unnecessarily.
By this time I was suffering architectural overload not to mention a slightly stiff neck. Here I was in another beautiful French city and again rubbernecking slack-jawed at what appeared to be an unending supply of the most magnificent old buildings. I have a habit of always looking up when I am sightseeing as ground levels can often be vandalised by modern shop fronts but the upper storeys are frequently left intact. Hence the neck problem.
After the Church of Notre-Dame, my next major discovery was of a secular nature – the Hotel Aubriot.
I am not sure if the Hotel (not a hotel in the accepted English sense of the word) is generally open to the public as it is now privately owned but I was there on Mayday which is a public holiday and it appeared shut although still well worth a look from the outside. The building originates in the early 13th century and is built on a large vault or cellar which was originally the haunt of money changers. About 1320 Hugues Abriot was born here as son of the then owner Guillaume. He was eventually to become Provost of Paris and Bailiff of Dijon amongst other positions and is an important figure in French history although, in the way of these things, he fell from grace somewhat spectacularly later on.
In due course and after various renovations the building became a court in 1739 before passing through various other hands, eventually ending up in possession of the poet Stéphen Liégeard who became aware of what had become the much mutilated original finery of the building during renovations in the early 20th century. He ordered it restored to it’s original glory much to the joy, I am sure, of anyone passing today, myself included.
I have to say that I rarely follow designated tourist “trails” as I much prefer to just ramble aimlessly and see what I stumble across and it is a travel style that has yielded me some great results over the years. However, I always say that there is no “right” and no “wrong” way to travel, a maxim I wish some of the travel snobs would pay attention to. I realise that self-guided or even guided tours are of great value to many travellers and I would never decry anyone for going on one especially where time may be an issue.
In Dijon the tourist trail is that of the owl which is the symbol of the city and named after a much worn statue on the side of the Eglise Notre Dame de Dijon which is said to grant wishes if you touch it with your left hand and which I have dealt with elsewhere on this journal entry. Although the trail and the attendant literature is offered in many languages, the French term for owl trail is “le parcours de la chouette” which is yet another small thing I have learnt whilst researching pieces for this site. I never stop learning doing this.
I did not do the entire trail myself although I certainly saw enough of the marker signs which are very well situated. There are triangles, usually on the pavement, with the point directing you on your way and each venue of interest is marked by a slightly larger numbered rectangular marker, as pictured. Trust me, you will not miss them. The route is circular and nominally starts at Place D’Arcy but obviously you can pick it up wherever suits you best. Even without following the suggested route a walk round Dijon yields an absolute cornucopia of wonders, it is a superb place and, no, I am not getting paid by the local Tourist Board.
There is a booklet for the tour available from the Tourist Office at 11 Rue des Forges, 21000 Dijon but also at various locations around the route. Well worth doing if you don’t want to miss anything as, let’s be honest, the locals should know best.
I suppose the next move was inevitable really. I had started the day in Nancy with a couple of beers followed by my wonderful day of sightseeing which naturally involved a few more beers. I was tired, inordinately thirsty and ever so slightly off the beaten track so there was only one thing for it and that was to hit the bar. I would not say I was lost, I just wasn’t not entirely sure where I was but I knew I was safe as my digs were right by the station and that couldn’t be too hard to find surely.
Thus decided, I happened upon the Bar Le St. Nicolas and a quick surreptitious glance at the guys sitting smoking outside (I never stare) coupled with another one through the window indicated that this may very well be Fergy territory, allow me to explain. Whilst I can do it, I am not a huge fan of overpriced and terribly trendy establishments and this was certainly not one of those. A few tattoos on display from the guys outside coupled with what appeared to be fairly ribald chat, no frills apparent inside and I was in like a shot to find that my quick recce had been entirely correct. I like places with a bit of an edge, a bit of life and this was certainly it. No, I do not want to go to a bar where I am going to be stabbed or shot but this was just what I wanted.
Certainly I was pretty rough-looking and so no eyebrows were raised until I opened my mouth to let loose with some of my pretty awful French which obviously marked me as a foreigner. I suspect this is a rarity here and did cause the odd glance but nothing hostile at all. A quick chat with the server as to a recommendation for beer produced a very well-kept and welcome but eminently forgettable St. Omer which I do not remember having had before but know now is a brew from the Pas-de-Calais region some distance away. This only made sense to me whilst researching this entry when I discovered it is owned by the Heineken global monster. No surprise there then.
I took a seat in the corner and settled to watch the sport on one of the large screens adjacent. I noticed that there was a table football next to me which was no problem at that time although it did get busy later in the evening when all the young people / students piled in. Certainly the prices are very competitive which may encourage them although it did lead to a couple of injudicious elbows in the ear or shoulder from over-exuberant practitioners of the table football art but always done with good humour, effuse apologies and never a hint of aggression.
OK, the beer was fairly average and in normal circumstances I would probably have tried to visit several more bars on my way home but I think the fact that my saved images tell me I was here for over three and a half hours probably tells the reader all they need to know. Bar Le St. Nicolas was great fun.
I did manage a couple more on the way home and then so to bed in my Ideal Home Exhibition showhouse for yet another great night’s sleep which was becoming quite the norm now.
More of beautiful Dijon tomorrow so stay tuned and spread the word.