The first Valois duke of Burgundy recognized a good deal when he saw one. His bride, Margaret of Flanders, was reputed to have the ugliest face in all of Europe — gallantry having died young — but she was the richest heiress in Europe. Besides, the duke was no Adonis, afflicted with one of the biggest noses on the continent. When he married Margaret in 1369, he acquired Flanders, today’s Low Countries, making him both rich and powerful. They called him Philip the Bold.
Philip’s ascent raised the curtain on the golden age of the dukes of Burgundy. Philip is gone, but Burgundy, a region in central France, is as golden as ever, ripe and inviting in the lazy, hazy days of midsummer, inviting visitors to lose themselves into a golden autumn.
The roads are lined with low stone fences, climbing gentle hills to guard the vineyards that produce Burgundy’s famous deep, rich pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, vineyards first brought to Burgundy by the Romans. Black and white Charolais cows graze in somnolent contentment among fields of rapeseed that paint the hillsides as yellow as Dijon mustard.
The city of Dijon (population 156,000, mustard, gingerbread and all) was the capital of the Duchy and today is the administrative capital of Burgundy. It’s easy to reach, less than two hours from Paris by TGV high-speed trains. Narrow ancient streets are lined with half-timbered houses. The roads south lead to the strip of Burgundy, the Cote d’Or (gold coast) where the wines, some of the best known and most expensive in the world, are produced with patience and care, many of them in small vineyards.
History abounds here, and a visitor can hardly avoid punctuating visits to the castles of the Burgundy dukes, where history comes alive, with frequent sampling stops. “A visitor has two reasons to dally in Burgundy,” an innkeeper remarks with rue and wry, “a little history and a lot of grape. The wine goes best with dalliance.” A visitor can enter the medieval world of the dukes with a Pommard, a Clos Vougeot, a Chassagne Montrachet or another of the wines that go well with the history.
The ducal palace is now the city’s Fine Arts Museum, home to the tombs of Philip the Bold and his son, John the Fearless. Alabaster sculptures 16 inches high, carved by Philip’s Flemish court sculptor, Claus Sluter, portray mourners weeping, praying, singing, lost in thought (perhaps grief) encircling the tombs.
Three stories of gargoyles adorn the 13th century cathedral of Notre Dame, and a Jacquemart clock, brought from Flanders by Philip the Bold, keeps time in the tower. A stone owl, once said to mark the entrance to the Jewish ghetto, is reputed to bring good luck when touched with the left hand. Small brass owls embedded in the pavement mark the stops for museums, shops and cafes on the 22-stage walking tour. One of the stops, the Maille shop, sells dozens of exotic varieties of Dijon’s famous mustard.
Just outside the city is the former Charterhouse of Champmol, now a mental institution, where the tombs of Philip and Jean were originally located. All that remains of the original buildings are a chapel doorway and the Well of Moses, a splendid monument depicting six lifelike Old Testament prophets, carved by Claus Sluter.
Philip the Bold bought the fortress of Germolles for his wife, who turned it into the first residential castle. Six centuries later, part of it is still inhabited, with the initials “M” and “P’ clearly visible on the silken walls of their bedroom. The capitals above one ornate fireplace are the work of Sluter. Much of the original castle burned, but parts of the chapel, the entrance towers and the main building remain and are open to visitors.
The castle-fortress of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois, once owned by Philip the Good — these gentlemen were much flattered with flattering — is one of the last vestiges of Burgundian military architecture of the 14th century. It’s open to the public with concerts and other performances, and the castle contains 17th century decorations and furniture.
The Burgundy Wine Museum, the former ducal palace, displaying traditional winemaking equipment, is a popular destination in Beaune. The original wine cellars of the dukes now belong to a wine merchant. The town is marked by the magnificent Hotel-Dieu, a 15th century hospice, founded in 1443 by the chancellor of Philip the Good and his wife to relieve poverty and famine after the Hundred Years’ War. The almshouse was a hospital for rich and poor alike as late as 1971, and now it’s a museum with two masterpieces of medieval art, a polyptych of the Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden, and a statue of Christ carved from a thousand-year-old oak tree. A geometric pattern of glazed polychrome tiles covers the roof, and is worth a look.
Langres, one of the gateways to Burgundy, was given in 1179 by an earlier duke to his uncle, Bishop Gautier, and became a duchy. Ramparts still surround the city, but only a single arch remains of the third-century wall, as do 12 ancient towers and seven gates. Denis Diderot, the encyclopedist, was born here. The city is known for its cutlery, and the National School for Wicker Culture and Basketry stands in the near-by village of Fayl-Billot.
Troyes is a city of art and history in adjoining Champagne, where the Treaty of Troyes was signed in 1420 giving Henry V of England and his heirs the throne of France. Troyes is where the term “troy weight,” the unit of mass used for precious metals and gemstones, was coined. Gorgeous half-timbered houses line its tiny streets, together with 10 churches and a memorial to the 11th-century scholar, Rabbi Rashi. A museum of modern art shares a lovely house that was once an ecclesiastical palace.
Troyes is home to Europe’s largest factory outlet center.
Shakespeare got Burgundy just right. His duke of Burgundy described the duchy in “Henry V” as “this best garden of the world/Our fertile France.” Just so.