Okay, choose a Sunday morning for exploring the old quarter delights of this medieval jewel. No traffic, few pedestrians and only nature’s sounds to keep you company. Dijon, capital of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy in the middle ages, began as little more than a minor Roman fortress town (Divio) on the road between Lyons and Mainz. Robert the First chose it as his ducal capital in the year 1015, and during the next century or so successive royal leaders strengthened its fortifications to include an expansive enclosure with 11 separate gateways. Under the Valois dukes in the 14th and 15th centuries, Dijon was transformed into one of the richest, most splendid cities in the western world.
Start your run at the place de la Libération across from a cluster of buildings that comprise the Palace of the Dukes and States-General of Burgundy. Designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the architect whose vision shaped Versailles, this monumental assemblage built around a central courtyard (the Cour d'Honneur) now contains the magnificent Museum of Fine Arts. Before hitting the old quarter's side streets, climb the massive, dominating Tour Philippe-le-Bon for a preview of today's 10-kilometer loop. The 46-meter high perch affords an exquisite view of the palace grounds and the tightly-packed lanes and colorful rooftops of the old city. Let your eyes follow the broad boulevards as they radiate out from Dijon's compact urban center through wooded parks and flower-rimmed plazas to the regional capital's nearby pastoral surroundings.
Now that you have traced the route visually, descend to street level and pick up the rue des Bon Enfants on the left cusp of the semi-circular plaza. Jog past a 17th century mansion that houses the period-furnished Magnin Museum and bear right on the rue Philippe Pot to the Palais de Justice, another sumptuously adorned Renaissance colossus that was once host to the duchy's parliament. Follow the rue du Palais to the tiny rue de l'École de Droit; turn left past the history-rich municipal library and left again on the rue Chabot Charny as far as the place du Théâtre. In former times, the 15th century church on your right – now a small museum with sculpture of François Rude – was the Saint Etienne Abbey. Turn right onto the rue Vaillant and proceed to the place Saint-Michel – site of a towering white sandcastle that frames the eastern edge of the old quarter. The St. Michel church, built between the 15th and 17th centuries, is a blend of flamboyant gothic and renaissance styles.
Next, follow the rue Vannerie (basket-making) for several blocks and take a left on the rue Chaudronnerie (coopersmiths) past the Maison des Cariatides at No. 28. Lovely maidens adorn all ten upper floor windows of this sparkling renaissance town-house, including the large gable that brings sunlight to an otherwise bleak garret. Continue threading your way through the narrow passageways directly behind the palace grounds by turning left on the rue Verrerie (glass-making, of course). Store-front antique shops and rustic cafés abound in this neighborhood of half-timbered houses with ornately sculptured door-frames resting below lightly corbelled overhangs. Bear right on the rue de la Chouette, named after an owl sculpted on a pillar across from Dijon's Notre Dame church. Locals maintain that rubbing the owl will bring wisdom and happiness. It is here where you'll also discover the multi-colored, glazed roof-tile patterns that are Burgundy's unmistakable signature.
Hemmed in by the church lot's narrow dimensions, the 13th century Notre Dame is a marvel of ornate gothic architecture topped by the archetypal Burgundian zig-zags of yellow, black, red and green. With its two bell-turrets and gargoyle-ladened galleries, this medieval landmark rivals Munich's town hall that mesmerizes onlookers with its famous glockenspiel. Located high up in one of the bell-turrets is a purloined Jacquemart clock whose lonely old clock-striker was given a wife, then a son (Jacquelinet) and finally a daughter (Jacquelinette) to help with his daily chores. Jacques' hammer strikes the hours, and his children tend to half- and quarter-hour notices. Pick up the rue des Forges and jog past uncountable medieval and renaissance façades to the place François Rude. Surrounded by curb-side cafés and more than a dozen 16th and 17th century buildings is a fountain with a statue of Bareuzai – hands on hips, trampling grapes brought in from the harvest. Cross the plaza and follow the rue de la Libérte one block to the rue Bossuet. Turn left past the watchtower of the coin du miroir and proceed to the place Bossuet, a charming niche named after a 17th century prelate whose statue on the chevet of the Saint Jean church overlooks his boyhood neighborhood.
Loop around the church square and take the rue Danton past the romanesque church of Saint Philibert to the place Saint Bénigne. The Cathedral of St. Benignus is another wonder of gothic architecture built over and around a former Benedictine abbey and basilica. The exterior features a Flamboyant spire, brightly-colored tile roofs and twin octagonal towers that afford a panoramic view of Dijon and its surroundings. Inside is the original Romanesque rotunda and a maze of pillars and colonnades. Pilgrams come here every November to commemorate the life of Benignus, a third century martyr who was among the first to bring Christianity to Burgundy prior to the Germanic migrations.
Continue up the rue Dr. Maret past the Archeological Museum – itself once part of the St. Benignus abbey – and proceed to the place Darcy. Take time to loop through this thickly-treed public garden with its fountains and swan pond before heading down the boulevard de Sévigne to the Arquebuse Gardens. Named after a company of 16th century riflemen (or harquebusiers), this large botanical garden is another shady landmark on the western edge of the old city.
One has several options at this point. Proceeding west along the avenue Albert the First leads to the Charterhouse of Champmol, the famous 14th century monastery built originally as a royal burial place for Philip the Bold. A more southerly course down the rue de l'Arquebuse and along the rue de l'Hôpital crosses the river Ouche and spills into the busy port on the Canal de Bourgogne. For this run, however, I've chosen to head back on the rue Mariotte toward the Cathedral of St. Benignus and continue across town to the rue Pasteur until reaching the place Wilson. At this large circle just south of the old quarter, proceed down the magnificent, tree-lined Cours Général de Gaulle to the Parc de la Colombière. To complete the run, come back up to the place Wilson and follow the rue Chabot-Charny back to the ducal palace.