If you’re looking for a beautiful, small city in France with regional flavor and a depth of culture that can keep you excited for a couple of weeks…if you’re a person who prefers a more leisurely vacation experience…if you've been learning French for a while (we used the free Duolingo and Gamesforlanguge courses) - THEN my wife and I have discovered the town for you!
Choosing a French City
Dijon (see picture above) is on the mainline of the TGV, France’s answer to the problem of fast, comfortable, worry-free travel, and can be reached easily from Paris. We chose it after a bit of casual research and previous visits to France that never amounted to more than two or three days in Paris for the Louvre.
This time around, we wanted to get to know France better. A few months after starting our online French courses, we focused on Burgundy and chose Dijon as our base of operations for launching our experiment in becoming basic, functional French speakers. (While Part 1 describes our experience of "discovering" Dijon, Part 2 focuses on the realities of becoming fluent during a one-month stay.) There we expected to avoid the hectic pace of Paris (and the expense!) while enjoying life in a thoroughly and uniquely French place.
We haven’t been disappointed.
Our first two weeks in the city were full of constant discoveries launched from our base, a comfortable second-floor apartment in the very quiet Rue Proudhon. We had only a short stroll to the magnificent Ducal Palace (see picture right) to be in the heart of historic Dijon, with streets (for pedestrians only) lined with a potpourri of styles, beautiful 18th century palaces, fine 17th century townhouses, and half-timbered medieval buildings.
The broad streets and plazas teem with people of all ages. We were most impressed at the beginning by the affection between parents and children and by the helpful friendliness of the natives when we asked advice or help. Giving us a simple answer often wasn’t enough and people would walk with us to make certain we reached our goal. It made us wonder why our friends back home had so often complained that the French are rude or unfriendly!
What part of France had they visited? Certainly not Burgundy!
If you like to eat, you’ll love les Halles (see picture left), a huge, l9th century steel and glass structure that covers a vast market full of vendors touting everything from cheese to horse meat. On market days (Tuesday and Friday, though there are some vendors open for business on Thursday as well) the pedestrian areas within a couple of blocks of les Halles are crowded with booths of vendors selling everything from books to clothing, and the crowds pulse with excitement.
The pedestrian sections of the old town are the focal center and heart of the place, both beautiful and full of elegant shops, good cafes, and plenty of opportunity for people-watching. The broad avenues emanate out from the gorgeous Ducal Palace and the 12th century church, Notre Dame, with its unique, Burgundian version of Gothic and the relief carving of the owl that small crowds of tourist always seem to be rubbing (for good luck).
There are surprises galore in town that challenge and stimulate the patient tourist. Take the Musee de beaux Arts whose collections are divided into epochs (Middle Ages, Renaissance, etc) that are each displayed in a wing of the ducal palace built at that particular time. Wander across the magnificent half-moon plaza in front of the ducal palace and take the second left down what looks to be an alley – and discover the delightful Magnin Museum, an eclectic jumble of art crowded on the walls on rooms of period furniture left as they were in the family palais by the last two members of the Magnin family.
A National Campaign?
There are so many pleasant encounters with Dijonais in town and I must report this one. The battery in my watch ran out and we went to the jewelers to get a replacement. A young lady asked what our nationality was (my accent?) and I said American. She said, "Oh, we love Americans!" This happens to us ALL THE TIME. It is so odd, because over the last forty years during our stays in and travels through Europe, the last thing I've encountered is people liking me BECAUSE I'm American - rather in spite of it, if at all. This has been our experience again and again in Germany; in England pleasant condescension if anything. Back many years ago in Paris: rudeness. I'm beginning to wonder, if the French have had a national campaign to teach them to become more friendly and hospitable? If they have, it has certainly worked and it seems to be genuine, so warm, even kind. It goes far beyond just being polite or even reasonably considerate. But it is certainly a delight to be on the receiving end.
In my next installment, One Month in Dijon: Fluency Realities and no "Lover" Option (Part 2), I'll report about the realities of becoming fluent in French during our one-month stay.
T.H.P. is a retired Professor of German, who has taught at several US universities. He speaks German fluently, reads French and is working on improving his French speaking skills.