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Originally published Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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A taste of Dijon, France's overlooked medieval city

While world famous for its mustard and its wine, the medieval city of Dijon has the reputation of being the best-kept secret in France. About five centuries ago, Dijon...

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

If You Go

Dijon hotels, sights

The city has 42 hotels, including three four-star and seven three-star hotels. Most are in the historic town center. Get details on hotels and city sights through the tourism office,

www.dijon-tourism.com/uk/

Wine

Get information on the wines of Burgundy at www.burgundy-wines.fr. For a day tour from Dijon of Burgundy vineyards, including a wine-cellar visit and wine tasting, see www.wineandvoyages.com

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While world famous for its mustard and its wine, the medieval city of Dijon has the reputation of being the best-kept secret in France.

About five centuries ago, Dijon was the capital of the vast Burgundy region that was ruled by dukes who made the city the center of arts and architecture. Dijon had about 23,000 residents at the time of the dukes, and it has grown to a population of about 150,000. It is a 90-minute train ride southeast from Paris and sits on the doorstep to Burgundy's fabled grape-growing region.

The center of the town once was enclosed by ramparts, which were torn down to make way for expansion. Five "places," or town squares, linked by wide boulevards, are in the location of the old walls, marking a circular route around the city.

Cobblestone streets wide enough for a hay wagon still wind through the inner circle of town, leading to Dijon's impressive displays of cathedrals, gardens, palaces, museums and gated town houses. The city's centerpiece, the Palace of the Dukes, contains the Fine Arts Museum and looks out onto the expansive Liberation Square.

The evening of my arrival in Dijon, I dined at one of its fine restaurants, then walked off dinner through the narrow streets. A misty drizzle dampened the cobblestones, which reflected the dim streetlights and added a sense of mystery to my shadowy stroll into the Middle Ages. The streets were clearly named at the beginning of each block, so a foldout map dispelled some of that mystery.

Among my discoveries: gnarly gargoyles staring down from the facade of Notre-Dame Cathedral, built in the 13th century; the city's version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, glowing in blue lights; a bartender in a black turtleneck who didn't speak English but sang along with Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue" on the jukebox; and a McDonald's restaurant with a line of customers at the walk-up window.

Two other observations: One, the standard costume for the women of Dijon is skinny jeans or black tights, a dark sweater or jacket, with a touch of color from a knit scarf or hat, and knee-high black leather boots. Two, if your French is faulty and your waiter knows little English, just order the "plat du jour." It will be good.

The next day, I joined a walking tour with guide Sherry Thevenot, who explained the city's storied past.

"All of French history starts here in Burgundy," Thevenot said. "It's wonderfully situated. I can jump on a night train and be in Venice, in Rome, and it has easy access to Paris.

"Dijon has never been able to toot its own horn, but the city now has decided to invest in its own treasures. In the last four years, the heart of the city has really changed. They are renovating the 103 town houses and creating pedestrian streets, all paved in Burgundy stone.

"There are a lot of medieval cities in France, but they are not modern. To be able to modernize the city and keep the medieval feeling, that's the beauty of Dijon."

Dijon, of course, is famous for one other product. Our final stop on the tour was at the Maille mustard shop, which has been in business since 1747.

"The mustard seeds are macerated in wine; it can only be bought in this shop and in Paris," Thevenot said. "Everything else is made with vinegar."

While walking is easy in Dijon, driving can be confusing on its one-way streets. Fortunately, the majority of cars are tiny. I rented a red Renault Twingo, which was about the size of Dorothy's ruby slipper.

My destination was 25 miles south at the medieval walled city of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy. I took the Route des Grands Crus, a two-lane highway that led through the vineyards and ancient stone villages along the Cote de Nuits, home of the fine pinot noirs. My arrival was timed perfectly; it was the second weekend of November, when the world's largest wine auction is held in Beaune.

The private auction was for the high rollers; I remained with the serfs enjoying the street festival outside.

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