Monday, November 3, 2014

Crisscrossing the Côte d’Or

No view,
no landscape,
however varied,
 picturesque or grandiose
can make me forget
 my little valley in Burgundy.
- Alexandre Dumas.
French author.

Village upon village and valley upon valley drifted past as we crisscrossed the Burgundian backroads from Quemigny-Poisot to Vougeot, from Gevrey-Chambertin to Dijon, from Nuits-Saint-Georges to Beaune and beyond, to Chalon-sur-Saône and then back again along the “Grand Cru Highway” to Gilly-lès-Citreaux.

It was the end of March. Spring was still loosening itself from winter’s claws and the valleys and rolling hills were an ugly dark greyish brown. This is not how I would have liked to see the Côte d’Or or any wine country for that matter! The famous grapes were nothing more than possible reborns. Just hope! Hope for a good harvest year.

It was cleanup time in the vineyards. It was the start of the new production year. Everywhere small white or blue Peugeot industrial vans could be seen, parked on narrow gravel roads between the domaines, the estates. These little vans are the transport of choice for the capped, coated and gloved “vine crafters” who methodically worked up and down along the miles and miles of strung wire and among the thousands upon thousands of gnarled grape vine stumps, some already skillfully pruned by these pruning artists, some not…yet. Here and there smoke from small fires rose in thin columns into the still air, fueled by vine offcuts. Occasionally one would see a farmer in one of those tiny, narrow, strange looking, stilted vineyard tractors tilling between the vines.

I was quite surprised when we saw a farmer using horses to till the narrow stretch of land between the vines. We stopped and I took some pictures. As I was watching the horses in action and as an aspiring farmer myself, I wondered about his choice of tilling power; was it because he couldn’t afford a tractor, or was it because his soil management policy is based on natural production methods and that he believed the lighter horse does less soil compacting than the heavier tractors.

I'm drifting off...

My dominant memories of Burgundy are of its friendly helpful people, the historic splendor of old town Dijon, and the region’s incredible food and wine. My only regret is going to Burgundy at the “wrong” time. It was really still winter, granted, at the very end of winter, but still, late spring would have been a better time to visit. Summers can be hot, fall you will have nice colors but it is the busy harvest season. But in mid to late spring, I can imagine a quilted, and ever changing landscape as grape leaves sprout and transform from patches of yellow and lime to darker shades of green depending on the season’s progression.  

 Place des Cordeliers dated 1642
Dijon, famous for arguable the best mustard in the world, is not only the capital of Burgundy, but also an architectural marvel. Both M and I were pleasantly surprised after only a few minutes of walking through the old center of town.

I parked our car on the western end of the historic district behind the Eglise St-Michel, a flamboyant Gothic church from the 16th century. I had no map of the city so we followed the tourists’ information signs that you see in most French cities, to the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy and the Place de la Libération, a semicircular square in front of the Duke’s Palace. Dijon’s “Trafalgar Square”. Unfortunately it was a Monday and the palace which now houses the Musée des Beaux Arts, the Fine Arts Museum, was closed.  Many museums in France are closed on Mondays. If I wasn’t so free and easy and looked at or even just brought our guidebook, I would have known about the closure. On the other hand, an open museum would have meant several hours of missing countless other architectural wonders we discovered on our walkabouts.

Dijon is a maze and we soon realized we do need a map or else we will be walking in circles all day. We found a tourist office in a street behind the palace where we picked up a map and a booklet about Dijon, called The Owl’s Trail. The booklet had an easy to read map and was stuffed with interesting facts about the buildings, churches, squares and streets of Dijon. A booklet worth its weight on gold.   

Dijon's Notre Dame church 

From the information center we walked around to the Dijon Notre Dame where we lingered for a moment. The façade struck me as something I would expect in Venice. The thin upper arches caught my eye first (is it Byzantine? I wondered, wrongly) and on closer inspection fifty one gargoyles in three rows of seventeen, is supported by three very tall Gothic arches.  Inside a service was in progress so we stay for only a minute or two. The natural light inside was quite amazing.  Colored stained glass windows, mostly blue, keeps the bottom portion of the church darkish while the upper windows are clear glass and this play of light gives the roof a floating effect.    

 Dijon Notre Dame Church façade with its 51 false gargoyles. The real gargoyles from the 13th Century did not stood the test of time except for a few at the back of the church..

We switched back and crossed the Place de la Libération again and came upon the Palace of Justice, construction started in 1518, the Burgundian Parliament building during part of the 16th century. Its carved front door and its Hall of St. Louis evoked a lively and noisy vision of scattering parliamentary delegates and shopkeepers talking to visiting ladies in vertugadin en bourrelet dresses, billowy at the hips with puffed up arms, wearing 1580’s version of the Jackie Kennedy pillbox hats, who came to listen to a public hearing or to their husbands or fathers speak in parliament and shop at the same time. This place was a beehive during the early 17th century. Upon entering the empty St. Louis Hall, the front door was slightly open and I, inquisitive as always to explore nooks and crannies, but also hesitantly walked in with M on my heels. Two policemen at the end of the long hall gave us a beady-eye look as they guard the entrance to modern day Dijon’s Court of Appeals. Once they saw I was just shooting pictures with my camera and no threat to them or the guarded justices they ignored us and we continue gawking at the arched wooden ceiling and intricately carved crossbeams of the hall.


The Palace of Justice

It was easy to mentally drift off while walking down the narrow streets with their many timber-framed houses and dreamingly imagine all the dramas of life that played out on these alleys and passages through the centuries.  

 Dijon Street Scenes

Besides Paris, M feels Dijon is the second most beautiful town in France after Les Baux-de-Provence. Dijon has beautiful and delicately carved door entrances, many 15th century timber-framed houses that somehow survived time and weather’s onslaught over the centuries, and numerous architectural styles from different periods and they all appear to blend seamlessly together as if a single architect designed and built the historic town in one lifetime. 
Returning from Dijon we drove to Nuits-Saint-Georges, only about 10 minutes’ drive from our hotel, for a walk through a restored part of town, some shopping (and dealing with a store clerk whose English was as non-existent as my French) and dinner at Restaurant des Cultivateurs.

The dinner was good traditional Burgundian food and so much better than what we had the night before at Le Clos Prieur. We looked at two other restaurants before we stumbled upon des Caltivateurs. The display menu outside the front door looked decent and the many pieces of porcelain roosters and other chicken related artwork inside looked inviting. M loves chicken art. The restaurant had a cozy country feeling to it, created by wood-beamed ceilings, exposed brick walls and tables covered in checkered red and white tablecloths; simple, typical, no-frills! The wine list was all local. The Domaine Philippe Gavignet, Bourgogne Hautes-Cotes du Nuits, “Clos des Dames Huguettes”, a 2014 gold medal winner at a Paris wine show, was enjoyable.

 Nuits-Saint-Georges street scene

During dinner we had another rather amusing “lost in translation” moment (the second for the night after the store clerk). We had a few of them on this trip, which is not surprising at all seeing that we hugged the French countryside for most of the vacation. It always amazes me on business travel trips when I hear some people complain about the lack of English among the local people. OMG…while back home they are the same crowd that complains if a foreigner, English-abled, visiting their backyard can’t understand their local accent…

M wanted to find out more about some of the desserts on the menu and asked the waiter for a translation of one of the dishes. He couldn’t help so he asked another diner, who couldn’t translate the dish to English either. He went to another table for help and the whole issue snowballed. Eventually several of the diners tried to help with the translation until one of the waiters disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a bottle of honey and a loaf of gingerbread to explain what was in the specific dessert.

Friezes in Dijon

“Ah! Merci” M exclaimed to great applause and laughter from the whole restaurant. We were somewhat embarrassed being the center of the attention, but only for a fraction of a second, because the spirit of friendliness and the desire of Burgundians to help a non-French speaking person were very touching. 

She decided against the gingerbread and honey dessert and asked what the next dessert item was and I thought, oh no, here we go again, but luckily a woman at a table close by could translate the rest of the menu items and M eventually settled on a cherry or berry pie. However, she ended the evening by ordering coffee for us in perfect French: “Deux grands cafés s'il vous plaît”.

It was incidents like these and a general sense of spontaneity and freedom throughout the whole trip that made this vacation in France one of our most memorable vacations.  



1 comment:

Monica Hanekom said...

I lived that part of our trip so very much. Dijon is just mind blowing, I would go back anytime. Fantastic scenery.