As the States have been whittling away at different “day off” holidays, Switzerland has been staunchly celebrating them. Easter is just such a holiday and, accordingly, Mark had Good Friday and Easter Monday off. The boys are on spring break right now as well and with two free days off bracketing a weekend we decided we would do some Easter traveling.
After much thought and being rankled by an airline’s wanting a simple 3 hour flight to take over 24 hours (I mean, really, Expedia. You should not be making a family with two kids under the age of 10 take a 20 hour layover.) we decided we would take the train to Dijon, France.
In high school one of my friends hosted an exchange student from Dijon. His name, incredibly, was Pierre. They only thing I remember about him was his black hair and total bewilderment at how interested we were in Dijon. Or maybe he was bewildered that we kept asking him about mustard. He didn’t seem impressed about his hometown and their mustard making abilities at all. So, while I was looking forward to seeing Dijon, I was also not expecting much.
Dijon is only a 90 minute train ride from Basel. The train we took was one of the special high-speed trains that gets to Paris in 3 hours. At some points we were rocketing along the track at over 310 km/hr!!
There was a moment of excitement when 5 people in florescent orange armbands came into our compartment and zeroed in on a man sitting one row behind us. They flashed their badges and I think asked to see his ticket and identification. They asked more questions then left him alone – quickly heading into another train compartment.
We made it to a rainy Dijon and to our hotel in no time. They do have mustard in Dijon. They sell it everywhere, including in the lobby of our hotel. Our hotel, The Hotel Montigny had just been renovated. It was a 2-star hotel with 3-star aspirations. Certainly the breakfast was 3-star. On top of all the pastries you’d expect in France, they even had pancakes for E and Nutella for H!
We checked in with no problem. They had given us 2 adjoining rooms with 2 single beds for the boys and a double bed for Mark and I. The beds were new and also hard as rocks. The boys didn’t notice, but I was sore every morning. Keeping things positive, Mark said that didn’t even feel me move in the middle of the night. I replied that, yes, that would be true as movement doesn’t usually travel through stone.
We ventured back out into the rain and found the Jardin D’arcy. It’s a lovely garden that I had thought would feel very Jane Austen give the name of “Darcy”, but really felt much more like a corner of the Versailles gardens.
I was devastated to learn that instead of being named for that Jane Austen hero Mr. Darcy it was instead named for an engineer called Darcy who built aqueducts into the city. Very worthy of celebration, but not very romantic.
Our first adventure was wine tasting! Our lovely guide Christopher from Wine Voyages took us through the Côte de Nuit range in Burgundy into Nuits-Saint-George. Christopher also told us all about how to read a Burgundy label. Basically, the more lines of information on there the better.
What I found interesting is that here no one owns an entire field. An entire field would cost €10 Million!! A wine grower will own 5 or more rows of vines in several different fields. If the wine producer is getting all their grapes from a particular field they can put the name of the field on the label. If they have to use grapes from several different fields in the same town then they name it after the village. If the grapes come from several different villages they name it after the region where the grapes are grown. The more specific the information the better the wine.
Also, if you see a winery that includes the name “Clos” it means the field is enclosed behind a wall. Clos are everywhere because they play an important role in soil conservation. The ground is so poor and rocky that they must try and prevent as much soil runoff as possible so they can continue to grow flavorful grapes.
We visited two different wineries on our trip. Both had wonderful caves where they kept the barrels of wine. The walls are covered with a mold that you don’t dare wash off. It’s the same mold that penicillin is made from. Perhaps it imbues the wine with certain medicinal properties.
The Marchand winery is owned by a man our age (so very, very young) who had local artists paint his gravity pressing barrels.
We came away with 4 bottles of wine, because that’s what would fit in our luggage. Legally, we can bring in 7 bottles of wine each and not have to pay a duty tax on it. Perhaps we need to rent a car for a little day trip this summer.
It was drizzling a bit when we got back, but that didn’t deter us in the least. We wandered around part of the old town and found fantastic buildings dating from the 12th century up to present day.
They probably have the most churches per capita that I’ve seen for a long while. Most of them are Catholic churches that became Protestant through the Reformation and then went back to being Catholic again. This means that a lot of ornamentation and statues were stripped out of the churches and destroyed. The Catholics weren’t able to put them back in afterwards and in many cases decided not to replace them. Below are pictures of Dijon’s Notre-Dame and you can see some of the damage.
Of course we had to eat dinner. The kids voted for this place.
We had a very typical Burgundy meal. Mark and I had Beef Bourguignon with boiled new potatoes. The boys had steak with fries. Yes, the kids’ menu was steak and fries.
I decided to plunge right into the French culture and eat snails! I got 6 because I didn’t want to try 12. The shells were about the size of large marbles and they were filled with a bright green liquid. The green liquid is a garlic, butter, and parsley sauce. I got these things that looked like two spoons held together by a spring at the ends and a very narrow fork with 2 tines.
The whole family and our waiter were watching me. It was kind of tricky to get the clampers around the shell so that I could still get the fork into the hole of the shell. I pulled out this little black shriveled thing and hoped it would taste good. And it was! Mark was impressed and the waiter ran back to the kitchen to tell the chef the American had actually eaten the snails.
Escargot tastes like a cross between oysters and shrimp. I got Mark to try one; he judged it to be “okay,” but not something he would order. Even H tried a half before declaring, with wrinkled nose, that he didn’t like it. E couldn’t even watch me dig the meat out of the shell and decided in that moment that he was going to become a vegetarian (as he took a huge bite of his steak).
Dijon is actually great for kids. One thing that the kids really enjoyed, and it helped us see the entire city, was following The Owl Trail. The tourism office put together a booklet that is part map and part informational guide and it takes you all around the city.
They have these wonderful brass triangles laid into the ground to help direct you around the city and towards very large brass plaques with numbers that correspond to entries in the booklet. The owl is the city symbol thanks to this tiny 8-inch statue of an owl on the corner of Dijon’s Notre-Dame that dates back to the 13th Century. (The owl is stop #9 on the trail.)
The path starts at Jardin D’arcy and leads you through Darcy Place and their very own Arc de Triomphe although they call it Porte Guillaume.
The beautiful thing about following the owls is that it really helps to get the children into the spirit of sightseeing. They hunt for those little triangles and then when they found the bigger brass plaques the boys were springing up on top of them and begging to be told what was special about that particular spot.
And we adults got to see all sorts of marvelous building and learned all about Dijon. It was better than an audio or guided tour. We could go at our own pace, stop for ice cream, coffee, or crepes when we wanted. We could stop for the day or linger or do whatever and we still had all the information we needed right in our bag.
Something else that helps me get a feel for the city and culture is asking local people about their favorite restaurants. They love to share and they usually give you the absolute best places to eat. During our wine tour I asked Christopher about his favorite place to eat. He named Emilie’s Brochettes. A brochette is a piece of meat cooked on a long skewer over an open flame. They had a children’s menu that included a skewer of steak with fries and a skewer of fish with fries. (Again, the French love their fries.) E got the steak and ate every bite and H had the fish. All the kids’ menus we came across had great food in smaller portions for the kids and it came with ice cream. Now my children think all kids’ meals have ice cream at the end.
Emilie’s was amazing. And very popular with the locals! Thank goodness we had made reservations because every table was full and Emilie was turning people away. I had duck and Mark had andouille sausage. Then we splurged and got a macaroon the size of a saucer with pear ice cream and whipped cream on the side. We ate from 7pm until 9pm. The children were so very good, with the aid of our iPhones, and ate every bite of their food.
In particular Emilie’s serves what our oldest defined as a “meat chandelier.” I thought they looked like metal bird feeders with meat spiked where the bird would rest to peck out the seed. It’s quite an elaborate contraption. I couldn’t take a picture so the best I can do is this sketch.
As I hope you can see, the meat chandelier is hung by a hook from a metal scaffold embedded in a wooden plank that also holds a ceramic bowl with sauces in it. I kind of want to go back just for the meat chandelier.
Even though it is full of buildings that still survive from the 11th century when it became the home of the Dukes of Burgundy, Dijon is a modern French city. We saw all walks of life there. The rich, the poor, the drunk, the university crowd, the mentally ill. This is the first time I’ve gotten such a complete wedge of diversity on one of our trips in Europe. While we were in the Jardin D’arcy we saw a group of drunk students who stripped down to their underwear, yelled something in French about power and liberty, and then jumped from the top of the bridge into the pool of the fountain below. I thought for sure that we were going to witness something gruesome, but once again God protects the drunkard and they were unharmed.
Also, it seems the driving laws here are a lot like Jack Sparrow’s Pirates’ Code. They are more like guidelines and are only followed when convenient. They have “walk” and “don’t walk” signals, but no one – cars and pedestrians – pay much attention to them. I was also shocked by the general untidiness. There was some litter, but mostly I was stunned by the plethora of dog poop all along the sidewalks. So basically, watch your step on the roads and on the sidewalk.
For our last days we continued to wander around Dijon. I did like it quite a bit. We had crepes, drank wine, the kids got a drink called a “sirop” that is almost like an old fashioned soda fountain drink. We also had macaroons in a rainbow of colors and a ton of pain au chocolate and pain au raisin pastries. Everywhere you looked there was something amazing to see.
Dijon is a great place for a family vacation. I wasn’t expecting much from Dijon, but there were so many things to do and see. The boys, at ages 9 and 5, had a good time just walking around town and going through museums. We were all ready to go home by the end, having walked 13km one day and 12km the next, but the boys also wanted to know where we were going to go next.