Sunday, July 8, 2012

A trip to Beaune

How lucky can you get to have a friend who lives near the fabled Cote D'Or wine region in France? On our second day in Dijon, our friend Nancy drove us south to the town of Beaune, right in the heart of wine country.

The center of the town is within the ramparts of the old medieval walls, and when we arrived on a Sunday, the open air market was just closing up. Fruits, vegetables and flowers were outside, and inside were butchers and charcuteries and stalls selling the wonderful Poulet de Bresse, the famous chickens of Burgundy.

Beaune is where serious wine connoisseurs can find the best wines of Burgundy, and serious looking shops were everywhere. We listened in as one American couple inquired about shipping wine to the US - the shop provides a per-bottle price that includes shipping, scaled to be more expensive the fewer bottles you buy. Even so, forty Euros per bottle for a case of 12 is a little rich for our blood. Our money-saving strategy is to drink the wine while we're in Burgundy!

In addition to wine, the main attraction in Beaune is the Hospices de Beaune - founded in 1443 as a charitable hospital for the poor. Nicolas Rollin, chancellor of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins can be thought of as the Bill and Melinda Gates of their day. They built the lavish hospital to serve the poor and sick, in a region ravaged by the Hundred Years War, famine and misery.

The building is magnificent, its steep and pinnacled roof and dormers tiled with the polychrome glazed tiles so characteristic of Burgundy.

The Salle de Povres
 The largest hall, the Salle de Povres, or Room of the Poor, is a lofty rectangular hall with an arched wooden ceiling decorated with painted beams carved with fanciful monsters and caricatures of Beaune inhabitants of the day. It's lined on each side by little bed-cabinets draped in red curtains, each with a small table and chair, with pewter dishes for each patient.

Detail of the carved and painted ceiling
  I assumed that these were recreations of the original furnishings, but I was surprised to learn that the Hospice, which welcomed its first patient in 1452, operated continuously until recently in the 1970s. The current bed-enclosures in the Salle de Povres were part of a remodeling effort undertaken in 1875 by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The Hospice still treats patients, although in other rooms not open to tourists, and is planning a modern expansion.

The beds in the Salle de Povres
Much of what we admire at the Hospice was part of the 1875 remodel - the painted beams, the colorful tiles, the decorative ironwork in the chapel. The old kitchen and pharmacy on view are re-created as they were in the 19th century. But treasures from the time of Nicolas and Guigone remain - best of all, an amazing altarpiece painted by the Flemish master Rogier van der Weyden.

Michael weighing souls
The Last Judgement shows the dead rising from the earth - their bodies bursting up through the ground. At the central panel, Christ is at the top, seated on the bow of a rainbow. Beneath him, the archangel Michael holds a scale, and weighs the souls of the risen dead - determining whether they will go to heaven or be banished to hell. The saved are ushered by angels into a heaven that looks like a church, while the damned fall kicking and screaming over the edge into hell. You can see better images than my photo of the piece at THIS LINK.

Whew! Thus warned, we wandered off to a local bistro for lunch, then took a stroll on the ancient medieval ramparts.

We took the slow route back to Dijon, driving through vineyards and picturesque villages of Aloxe-Corton, Vosne Romanee and other famous appellations. This being Saturday, each village church was hosting a wedding, and we encountered at least five processions of cars, bedecked in ribbons, flowers, balloons and painted congratulations - what better antidote to banish troubling visions of hellfire?


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Our money-saving strategy is to drink the wine while we're in Burgundy!

That sounds like a good strategy to me!
The hospital is incredible. I wish I had known about it and toured it back in the mid-90's!

Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen said...

I'm loving these posts. Your trip looks like a fantastic experience. Thanks for sharing and for taking the time with such great photos and details.