When just about anyone who isn’t French hears the word “Dijon,” they think about mustard. In Dijon, however, they do not identify themselves with mustard. It must be said that a fair amount of mustard is indeed made in Dijon, but the reason is simply that mustard is made with vinegar, and vinegar is just wine with a problem.
Dijon is the capital of Burgundy, and Burgundy is all about wine. The 60-kilometer stretch between Dijon and Beaune is a trip through some of the greatest names in French winemaking, all divided up into tiny parcels of land where grapevines spread over steep hills and village church bells ring with the happy prosperity that comes from centuries of raking in fortunes selling the fermented juice of the Pinot Noir grape.
That prosperity allowed the duchy of Burgundy to be a major player in the continental political scene during the Middle Ages. In fact, Joan of Arc didn’t get roasted by the perfidious English alone; the Burgundians were in on it, too, back when they ruled a swath of land that stretched all the way to the North Sea, under the reign of rulers such as John the Fearless.
The Burgundians quickly laid aside their imperial pretensions to concentrate on the much less stressful business of squashing grapes. When you put the two together, you end up with a truly wonderful little city—one that mixes two distinct medieval atmospheres: that of grandiose architecture built only by really pretentious rulers of a certain stature, and the understated opulence you find in old merchant cities, like those of Flanders. What’s more, Dijon was spared the ravages of mankind’s latest big wars, being off the typical invasion routes into France. The city is therefore beautiful and preserved, with a local culture that is distinctly provincial.
It also holds a special place in my own heart, since Dijon was the first place I lived in France, almost 25 years ago. Exactly how I, as a young American, came to live in Dijon is a long story, but pure chance had a lot to do with it. As it was, the charm of the city was lasting, and, although I only spent a year there, it warms me still.
My wife and I, with our two sons in tow, recently returned to Dijon, to visit some lasting friends and to wander the streets in which we first fell in love. My immediate destination was the church of Notre Dame, because it’s just so different.
Like all French cities, Dijon is stuffed full of churches. I’m well aware that religion was a central theme of medieval life throughout Europe, but I’m amazed all the same at the ecclesiastic density of old cities. Anyway, among the churches in any French city will be at least one named “Notre Dame” (Our Lady). There may be more, but then they start getting identifiers (“Our Lady of Lorette,” “Our Lady of the Prairie,” “Our Lady of Incontinence,” whatever). The Dijonaise Notre Dame is pretty typical, as Our Ladies go, once you’re inside; it’s the outside that’s worth a gawk.
First, and most strikingly, there’s the façade. The front of Notre Dame is a broad flat surface with a whole bunch of gargoyles jutting out from it. They’re in four rows, with a few smaller individual gargoyles scattered about. They’re much newer than the church (the church dates from the 13th century; the gargoyles were added in the 19th), and they aren’t actually gargoyles at all, since real gargoyles have something to do with drainage, whereas these just leer at you. There are 51 in total, each of them different. All together, they make for a truly unusual church façade.
Ever since I first saw them, in 1984, it struck me that you can probably tell a lot about someone by which gargoyle they prefer. It’s kind of like a sculptural Rorschach test. I therefore decided that I would ask a number of people which is their favorite gargoyle, starting with my family and one of my Dijonaise friends.
“That one,” said my 13-year-old son.
“You mean that one, the sixth from the right on the second row?”
“Yeah, the one that looks like a zombie.”
It did look like a zombie. Its head is tilted back and its mouth gapes open. Scary gargoyle.
My 16-year-old agreed with his brother, but also pointed out the fourth from the right on the second row.
“It’s a dog/pig/man thing. Weird.”
My wife didn’t have a favorite gargoyle and found the whole thing rather silly, so I asked my Dijonaise friend. He agreed with my younger son. We were heading toward a consensus on the zombie-like gargoyle, but then my older son changed his mind, pointing out the seventh from the right on the top row. He said it looked like a guy playing bongos on another guy’s head, which, I realized once he had mentioned it, was kind of true. I also noted the far-left gargoyle on the bottom row, which had somehow escaped my attention thus far. It was a fairly normal-looking cow. Exactly what’s supposed to be scary about a cow is beyond me. For that matter, the sixth and seventh gargoyles from the left on the second row were sheep. Granted, they looked like traumatized sheep, but they were still sheep, and compared to the various Bruegelian forms surrounding them these barnyard animals were distinctly out of place.
I figured we needed another opinion. There are always a few people hanging out in front of Notre Dame to look at the gargoyles, so I approached a couple and asked them about their favorites. The question caught the man off guard, but the woman didn’t hesitate.
“I’ve always liked that one,” she said, pointing to the ninth from the left on the top row. “It’s an angel. What’s an angel doing there amid all that horror?”
A very good question.
The gargoyles aren’t the only figures sticking out of the church, nor are they the most famous. That distinction goes to a tiny owl carved into the wall on the church’s north side. It’s about six feet off the ground, and you’d hardly notice it if you weren’t looking for it. Most people, though, are looking for it. For hundreds of years, in fact, the little owl on the side of the church of Notre Dame in Dijon has been granting wishes to the inhabitants of Dijon. You’re supposed to touch the owl (with your left hand) and there you go! When you go past the owl, you’ll see all kinds of people touching it, many of them lifting up little children so that they too can touch it and get a dose of good luck right from an early age.
No one knows the origin of the owl: why it was sculpted there and why it’s considered to bring good luck. It’s services have been solicited, though, by countless thousands, to the point where it’s worn down to a bump on a perch. One interesting thing is that, if you look across the narrow street, you’ll see, on the roof of a building opposite it, an iron owl, and on another roof, stalking it, an iron cat. No one has ever been able to explain these to me.
The owl is on the rue de la chouette, which means “street of the owl.” As you walk along this street, you’ll quickly come to the rue Verrerie, which is worth noting for a number of reasons: first, it’s a beautifully preserved medieval cobblestone street, and, second, I used to live there, at No. 11, with my wife (who wasn’t my wife then). We went to check out the door to the building, which hadn’t been changed in the 24 intervening years (nor, probably, in the preceding 300), but evidently they had changed the lock, because back in our day a swift kick would open the door despite its being locked. I banged it a few times, until the dismayed looks of passersby persuaded me to cut off my historical research.
It should be said that, though the aspect of the rue Verrerie hasn’t changed much since I lived there, the general level of snootiness certainly has. Back then, it was a pretty low-rent area (which is why we lived there, since we had no money), whereas today it’s lined with antique shops and bourgeois couples discussing the merits of some old chair or another.
On one level, this saddened me, simply because no one likes to see changes in the places of one’s heady youth (and those were very heady times), but, on another level, I was glad to see that the street had been prettied up. It seemed to me that the many charms of this street had finally brought it the recognition it deserved.
Dijon as a whole, with its church front of gargoyles and its little worn owl, deserves a bit more recognition. So go, visit, be charmed, choose your favorite gargoyle.