The elegant eastern city of Dijon has been the capital of Burgundy since the early 11th century, and there are plenty of buildings that reflect the historical importance of the Burgundian court. The main monument to this former glory is the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, a classical building whose 18th-century façade masks its older origins; it dominates the Place de la Libération. Just behind, at 34 Rue des Forges, is a small tourist office, although its operating hours are shorter than those at the main branch, at Place Darcy (00 33 3 80 44 11 44; www.dijon-tourism.com). This opens 10am-6pm daily, 9am-7pm in summer.
The long drag that connects the palace with Place Darcy is the city's main artery, Rue de la Liberté. The main shops are clustered along here: these include the department store Galeries Lafayette at 41-49 (open 9.15am-7.30pm, Monday to Saturday) as well as several small, long-established food shops. Traditionally, Dijon is the home of both mustard and pain d'épice, or spicy bread, both of which can be bought locally. Mustard supplier Maille is across the road from Galeries Lafayette in an ancient building bearing the name Grey-Poupon; Mulot et Petitjean sells a selection of delicacies and is at 13 Place Bossuet. Other city centre shopping opportunities include the market at Les Halles, near the Place de la Banque, which operates from 6.30am-1pm on Tuesday and Thursday to Saturday; the building was designed by associates of one Gustave Eiffel.
The modern city centre is roughly pentagonal in shape, enclosed by a series of boulevards and squares. Although this small area is easy to get around on foot, Dijon can offer an unusual but effective mode of transport: the Segway. This recently invented contraption has an electric motor and two wheels, combined with the appearance of a pogo stick; step on to the platform and steer, and it does the rest. For around €15 (£10.75), you can join a 90-minute tour, accompanied by a guide, who will first show you how to use your machine. Tours start from the main tourist office, and are available from May.
Dijon has a good choice of accommodation, although several of the best hotels are run by national chains. These include the Hôtel La Cloche, at 14 Place Darcy (00 33 3 80 30 12 32; www.hotel-lacloche.com), first established in the 15th century. Double rooms start at €167 (£119), with an extra €15 (£11) for breakfast. The recently refurbished Hostellerie du Chapeau Rouge is in the heart of the old town close to the cathedral at 5 Rue Michelet (00 33 3 80 50 88 88; www.chapeau-rouge.fr) has double rooms from €132 (£94), singles from €123 (£88) and breakfast is €13 (£9.30). The Hôtel Philippe Le Bon is in a peaceful part of town at 18 Rue Sainte-Anne (00 33 3 80 30 73 52; www.hotelphilippelebon.com). It has doubles from €84 (£60) and singles from €72 (£51), with breakfast an extra €12 (£8.60). The centrally located Hôtel des Ducs, at 5 Rue Lamonnoye (00 33 3 80 67 31 31; www.hoteldesducs.com), is good value with rooms from €64.80 (£46), with an extra €9.50 (£6.80) for breakfast.
This ancient city is an enticing mix of historic buildings. Some, like those along Rue des Forges, are interesting for their architecture; others house exhibits or art collections. The Musée Magnin, at 4 Rue des Bons Enfants (00 33 3 80 67 11 10; www.musee-magnin.fr), is an old family home which now contains a large private art collection. It opens 10am-noon and 2-6pm from Tuesday to Sunday, and entrance costs €3 (£2.15).
Within a few miles of the city are some of the finest vineyards in the country. The nearest of the Burgundian wine villages is Marsannay, five miles south of Dijon on the way to Beaune, and accessible on the number 24 bus which departs from the railway station. There are opportunities for trying the wines at the Château de Marsannay (00 33 3 80 51 71 11; www.avco.org/chateau-de-marsannay), which opens 10am-midday and 2-6pm daily, closed on Sundays from November to March. On offer is a tour of the cellars, followed by a tasting of six different wines, for €10 (£7.15). If you have your own transport it is easy to continue along the well-signposted wine route towards Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-Saint-Georges.
The historic city centre is the Place de la Libération, a lovely classical square - albeit semi-circular in shape - which is the setting for the most important of Dijon's old buildings, the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy. This contains the Fine Arts Museum (00 33 3 80 74 52 70; www.dijon-tourism.com), whose art works are housed in the rooms of the old palace; these include paintings, porcelain, furniture and a particularly good collection of medieval treasures.
But the main reason to visit the museum is to see the ancient palace rooms, the finest of which is the Guards' Room on the first floor, an impressive space lined with tapestries and containing the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy. There is a model of the original palace in the Armoury . The museum opens 10-5pm daily except Tuesday, longer in summer, and entrance is free. Just off the Cour d'Honneur is the tower of Philippe Le Bon (00 33 3 80 74 52 71; www.ville-dijon.fr), named for this 15th-century Duke. Wind your way up the steep staircase to see the layout of the palace from above and a fine view across the old city; look out for the colourful tiles on the roof of the 16th-century Hôtel de Vogüé. Some of the streets in this area date from centuries back: walk along the Rue Amiral Roussin for a variety of architectural styles, from the ground floor arcades and timber frames of the 15th century to the elegance of the Renaissance.
For a fascinating insight into how the original inhabitants of some of these buildings might have lived, visit the Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne (00 33 3 80 44 12 69; www.ville-dijon.fr), at 17 Rue Sainte-Anne, housed in an old Cistercian convent. It opens 9am-noon and 2-6pm (continuously during summer) from Wednesday to Monday, and entrance is free. A much older building, at least in its origins, is the Cathedral of Saint-Benigne (00 33 3 80 30 39 33), decorated in simple style with wide aisles and a high nave. The earliest part of the building dates from the 12th century when it was an abbey church. Saint-Benigne became a cathedral only after the Revolution in 1792; following that date, works of art were transferred there from other local churches.
The Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne is a chronicle of domestic life as it was lived in the Dijon region in a bygone age.
LE PRE AUX CLERCS (13 Place de la Liberation; 00 33 3 80 38 05 05; www.bourgogne-restaurants.com) The domain of Jean-Pierre Billoux, one of the most renowned chefs in the city. A meal here is a true gastronomic experience, and excellent value: the set menus start at €45 (£32).
LES OENOPHILES (part of the Hôtel Philippe le Bon at 18 Rue Sainte-Anne; 00 3 33 80 30 73 52; www.hotelphilippelebon.com). Specialises in using local ingredients to recreate traditional Burgundian dishes in a contemporary setting.
AU MOULIN A VENT (8 Place François-Rude, 00 33 3 80 30 81 43; www.dijon-tourism.com) The menu bristles with regional specialities, some cooked "à la dijonnaise" - with a mustard sauce - others are Burgundian staples like boeuf bourguignonne.
THE CAVEAU DE LA PORTE GUILLAUME (in the bowels of the Hôtel du Nord; 00 33 3 80 50 80 50; www.hotel-nord.fr) Perfect for trying the local wines. You can order by the glass - either unadulterated wine, or the local kir, named for a former city mayor, Canon Kir, who invented a drink that would popularise the local blackcurrant liqueur. Or choose a selection of wines, at €12 (£8.60) for three.
AU BON PANTAGRUEL (20 rue Quentin; 00 33 3 80 30 68 69; www.bourgogne-restaurants.com) A lively venue beside the main market. The set menus are well-cooked and excellent value, making use of ingredients freshly bought from the stalls nearby.
For more information, contact the Dijon tourist office on 00 33 3 80 44 11 44; www.dijon-tourism.com
Wine and Walnuts
Geo-politically, Bordeaux has been around the block, having done time as an English city and a French capital. Gastronomically, you may be relieved to learn that the French influence has prevailed. Happily, you can eat and drink magnificently while exploring the history of this wealthy maritime city.
At the south-east corner of Place Gambetta, you can pause for a citron pressé at the always-busy Café Dijeaux. Then inspect the chic shops along Rue des Remparts on your way to the superb Musée d'Aquitaine at 20 Cours Pasteur (00 33 5 56 01 51 00), for 30,000 years of human history.
Gosh, dinner-time already? From the east, foie gras and duck; from the west, seafood. These components appear on many menus throughout the city, including the septet of restaurants in Place du Parlement; the prix-fixe menus are usually reliable value, for example at Le Bistrot d'Edouard (00 33 5 56 81 48 87).
"Medoc" means "middle land", the name for the tongue of territory that juts out west of Bordeaux into the Atlantic - and whose microclimate and soil produces spectacular wines. The vineyards start just beyond Bordeaux's peripherique at Blanquefort, but to immerse yourself more satisfyingly in viticulture head out on the train to Margaux for a walk through the wine labels.
The first time I visited Grenoble was by mistake. En route from Paris to Marseille, in my student days, the old-style trains decoupled at Lyon, rerouting some carriages. You can guess the rest.
Now it only takes three hours from Paris. As soon as you leave the station, your field of vision is occupied by the mountains. The walk east funnels you into the old town, a pretty assemblage of townhouses, modern civic buildings and the venerable cathedral. But the steely river Isère is a constant reminder of the force of nature.
Without my teenage backpack, I no longer feel awkward about visiting the opulent Park Hotel (00 33 476 858 123) for a coffee - though I still draw the line at what would doubtless be a very good lunch. L'Escalier (00 33 4 76 54 66 16) is a neatly architectural restaurant that could even suit a student on a splurge.
While in Grenoble, try the Gratin Dauphinois: a local speciality. Wash it down with some Mandrin beer, Grenoble's unique walnut-based brew, and finish with the region's famous green or yellow Chartreuse liqueur.
Simon CalderReuse content