Dijon, France — Its chateaux will not make you forget the Loire Valley and its cathedrals won't call up Chartres, but Burgundy -- the belly of France -- is bound to leave you with mouth-watering memories of its food and fond associations with its prices.
Dijon and Beaune, 30 miles apart on the vineclad Cote d'Or, are two of the region's most important cities, but the Burgundian essence can also be found in towns and villages like Nuits-St. Georges, Tournus, Solutre, and Romaneche-Thorins, all of which I explored on a 140-mile spin through the narrow green corridor.
There are nowadays a number of exotic ways to get around Burgundy -- biking, barging, ballooning -- but one can still rely on the old internal combustion engine or the French National Railroads, whose France Vacances card makes train-hopping highly worthwhile. However you decide to go (and I was on a guided bike tour), the current 7.3 to 1 franc-dollar ratio can buy treatment the Dukes of Burgundy might have envied.
Dijon was the seat of the Burgundian dukedom from the 12th to the 15th century, and it was in this historic, spired town that I began my seven-day southward journey, hopping off a train one Saturday morning after a 2 1/2-hour run from Paris.
Dijon is justly proud of its museum and dukely palaces, which can occupy the mind indefinitely, but I made straight for the city market. Burgundy is known far and wide for its Bresse chickens, Charolais and Auxois beef, Epoisses and Gevrey cheeses. All of these delicacies and more were spread out across the handsome and recently restored fin de sieclem ironwork market.
Even more specifically, Dijon is noted for its mustards, gingerbreads, and black currant (cassis) concoctions. Mustard I found in astonishing variety -- flavored with aromatic herbs, cassis, raspberry, etc. -- in the Grey Poupon Maille Moutarde shop, as pretty as a jeweler's, on Rue de la Liberte. Dijon's gingerbread -- pain d'epicesm -- though not as popular as it once was, is evident in all the local pastry shops. It, too, comes in fancy shapes and flavors -- some with fruits, some with almonds. But the classic form is the big brown brick , or pave Dijonaism.
Cassis, plucked from the hills south of Dijon, is the basis for sundry and delectable ice creams, sherbets, and candies. Or it can be the foundation of a cooling drink on a sultry afternoon: cassis syrup, water, and ice. This I enjoyed in a tiny sidewalk cafe looking across at the splendid palaces of the long-ago dukes.
Beaune is less than an hour's drive from Dijon, though it's longer of course if you tarry in the little stone villages en route, Gevrey-Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Nuits-St. Georges, with their narrow stone lanes and world-war monuments. Beaune, cobbled, partly walled, with a string of appealing outdoor cafes on its main square, makes you want to stay put for a spell. But if you get restless there are guided minibus tours into the countryside, leaving from the tourist office, and a much loftier-kind of excursion with a local hot-air balloon operation.
I phoned the Centre Aerostatique de Bourgogne, and the chef-pilote,m Pierre Bonnet, told me he takes up groups of four or five in a basket, either early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the turbulence caused by the sum. On this day he said the threatening clouds gathering on the horizon would make an ascent too iffy, and I took his word.
For two nights I stayed contentedly at the little ivy-covered Le Cep in the middle of town, throwing open the broad windows onto a watch-charm courtyard despite the apparent threat of mosquitoes. In a niche next to the bed stood a can of Johnson's Raid a la citronelle.m Beaune's other notable four-star hostelry , the Hotel de la Poste, is just outside the city wall, and while its tariffs start at $54 (and Le Cep's at $39), there are perfectly adequate two-star rooms for $25 and less. If you subscribe to my theory that the more ordinary the town the better the food and lodging, this may explain the glorious dinner I had at my next stop, Chalon-sur-Saone. The pink-perfect rack of lamb at Les Trois Faisons was but a footnote to the garlicky snails and the oeufs a la mode Bourgogne,m eggs poached in a rich brown sauce with bits of bacon, mushrooms, and ham. If the dish ever reaches America, the Sunday brunch will undergo a vast transformation.
Another travel axiom of mine is that the simplest little hotels are found in the loveliest settings. This provide out with the two-star (on a scale of five) Relais de Solutre, nestled high in the Puilly and Fuisse vineyards near Macon.
Perhaps the best combination of food and lodging I found in Burgundy was my last stop, Les Maritonnes, in the Beaujolais village of Romaneche-Thorins. Guy Fauvin, the tireless chef and owner, will even carry guests' bags upstairs if need be. Les Maritonnes's kitchen wins one star (out of a possible three) from Michelin, and it deserves at least that. M. Fuavin's frog legs were served in such heapings abundance I took them to be the main course and nearly didn't leave room for the entrecotem that followed, to say nothing of cheese and dessert. Such are the daily crises one faces in this region of France.