You won't find any wicked witches or end up in Kansas, but following the Dijon Owl Trail is the best way to get to know the city.
Still, following owl signs to get around is a bit peculiar, isn't it?
Not at all! Let's call it a sort of organized self-guided walking tour. By following the signs, you can see the top sights in Dijon in under two hours if you zap through, or spend most of the day if you take your time and visit everything along the way. The walk's duration is up to you.
You don't have to do this – you can of course visit Dijon by walking around on your own. The Dijon Owl's Trail just makes it easier... and to me, more fun.
Owl trail, you say? Or, as it's known in French, the Parcours de la Chouette.
The owl is the symbol of Dijon, and the Dijon Owl Trail is the city's way of combining symbolism with practicality: just follow the (1600!) little owls set in the sidewalks of the Old Town and you'll eventually be guided past 22 of the main sights of Old Dijon.
Oh, and one more thing... There is an owl sculpture nearby and you're supposed to pet it with your left hand because it has magical powers, but more on that in a moment.
Despite the owl's popularity, no one seems to know how this symbolism came to be. That it is so closely identified with Dijon is a mystery many have tried to pierce. Investigations have been launched, historical research undertaken, books written, but the owl's origins remains elusive.
Still, everyone has an interpretation, and, who knows, one of them may correct.
A simple explanation would be that the owl, in Antiquity, was synonymous with wisdom, although the presence of such a pagan symbol on a Catholic church is questionable. Or, the little owl might be a protection totem, designed to warn citizens of impending fire – many who could not afford stone houses did live in highly flammable wooden buildings, after all.
The owl could simply be the signature of an artist (one did exist with a similarly sounding name, Chouet...) or of the architect who designed Notre-Dame, against whose wall the owl sits. This theory, however, has been debunked by those who point out that the Rue de la Chouette, or Owl Street, is actually older than the church, which would mean the owl came before the church.
According to another legend dating back tothe Middle Ages, an architect found a wounded owl on his path. After nursing it back to health, the owl helped the architect reconnoiter the church façade, to which some gargoyles were to be added. As the owl grew old and died, the architect sculpted this small facsimile in its honour.
Not only can we not pinpoint the owl's origins, but we are equally in the dark when it comes to the tradition of touching it (with your left hand, while placing your right hand on your heart) and making a wish.
Rumour has it that in the late 17th century, a ghost appeared in the church and even a priest saw it, creating quite a stir. While church officials did what churches do to get rid of evil spirits, the good people of Dijon, just to be on the safe side, developed an additional tradition to chase away those evil spirits: they stroked the owl when they walked by it.
Wherever the truth may lie, this little owl carries Dijon's banner high, especially since the city almost lost it. In 2001, the owl was vandalized, nearly destroyed, and the city was in shock. Thankfully, a mould of the statuette existed and it was restored, although you can still see the damage.
At other times, it has been splashed with paint but again, the Dijonnais won't stand for it, and it was quickly cleaned.
They may not know where it comes from, but the owl occupies an increasingly large place in their heart and is the defacto symbol of the city.
As you can see, there is a main route, with numbers from 1-22. You also have an additional three routes called Rousseau, Zola and Moïse. They're contiguous so it's easy to do all of them in one go.
I'm not going to walk you through every single stop along the trail (although I will mention them).
Instead, I'll point you towards some of those that struck me particularly, or whose backstories are offbeat or in some way unique.
Now, most people start at Jardin Darcy. It's convenient, the tram stops here, and it happens to be #1 on the map. However, the trail is circular, so you can join at any point and simply follow the pointers.
Be aware that the construction of new sidewalks may have covered up a few of the owl signs. This is now being fixed and all signs should be back where they belong shortly. If a few are missing, you'll quickly pick up the trail again if you glance at your map.
We know this is where the Owl's Trail starts, and it is a welcome pearl of greenery in which to cool off on hot summer days.
But who was Darcy?
Henry Philibert Gaspard Darcy was a hydraulic engineer, a native of Dijon, who solved the city's freshwater problem and gained worldwide fame by developing an equation related to the flow of fluids.
And while the garden looks welcoming and filled with graceful fountains, what you may not know is that Darcy built the city's water supply right under the park in 1840. You can visit the reservoir once a year, when maintenance takes place and the water is drained (in normal times you'd would be under five meters of water).
At a time when Europe was plagued by illnesses caused by unclean water, Dijon's sanitation system made it the world's second best-supplied city in drinking water, after Rome.
With your back to Darcy Garden, you can't miss the Hôtel de la Cloche, the Hotel of the Bells.
Dijon has had a Hôtel de la Cloche since the 15th century, but the earlier one was closer to the center. The hotel moved to its present site once Darcy Square was built in the late 1880s.
Like many spectacular buildings, this one came close to being razed in the 1970s, in that crazy wave of destruction and so-called modernization that afflicted so many cities, not only in France but worldwide. Furniture was auctioned off, cutlery sold, and the bulldozers marched in – but the people rallied, the destruction became a national cause célèbre, and the engines were stopped in time to save the façade.
It was declared a national monument, pretty much guaranteeing it would survive (politicians have, on occasion, been able to override this status and destroy buildings protected by law... but it doesn't happen often).
It is now the city's only five-star hotel and has hosted celebrities of all eras – Napoleon III, Grace of Monaco, Joan Baez, Maurice Chevalier, MC Solaar...
And the windows are all decorated with bells which, after the owls, are probably Dijon's next most popular symbol.
Still within easy sight of the Jardin Darcy, this stand-alone arch, the Porte Guillaume, bears a slight resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, don't you think?
During the Middle Ages, a gateway was built here to protect the city, with a tower on each side and a drawbridge. The gate was part of the city's ramparts. These eventually stopped being essential and during the 18th century, it was decided to raze the old gate and build this triumphal arch instead.
Its mission: to give visitors a sense of Dijon's grandeur and to honour the Prince of Condé, who governed Burgundy at the time. The archway was named after him, until the next revolution, when it was rebaptized Gate of Freedom. It was finally renamed after Guillaume de Volpiano, abbot of Saint-Bénigne.
It may stand alone today, but if you stretch your imagination, you might be able to visualize an older, less ornate entryway, bordered by high walls destined to keep out invaders.
If you're an Art Nouveau lover, you'll want to admire the top of this corner building...
Like the Grand Hôtel de la Cloche, Les Halles barely escaped the bulldozer. In 1975, it was slated for destruction and would have been dismantled – and replaced with a parking lot! – had it not been added to the national list of historical monuments. Greed, for once, did not win out.
The iron structure is often attributed to Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), possibly because he was born in Dijon and is identified with the city. Much as one might wish to claim the indoor market as his, credit for it goes instead to several city architects and engineers.
Before Les Halles? The site was occupied by an old Jacobean convent.
If you can time your arrival here for lunch, please do. The market is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and you'll find every possible product under the sun in here.
Grab a French baguette, some cheese and charcuterie, a bit of wine... and have your lunch on a bench or in the Jardin Darcy. Failing that, try one of the nearby restaurants around Les Halles but go early, they fill up quickly.
Sundays used to host brunches in the alleys of the market, but with Covid, this has shifted to takeaway but may be reinstated in future.
This square's namesake was a Dijon-born sculptor, responsible for one of the major carvings on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It's a relatively recent space, cleared just over a century ago. Just remember him and look for his panel on the Parisian Arch: it's called La Marseillaise.
Wander down this street to admire some of the sumptuous residences built from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
What on earth is a jacquemart??
I had to look it up: it's an automatic bell-ringer (made of metal or wood) which hits the bell every hour with a hammer. One of the most famous sits on top of the Church of Notre-Dame, and you can see it in the photograph below.
The two adults are called Jacquemart and Jacqueline, and they hammer the big bell every hour.
The two smaller ones, Jacquelinet and Jacquelinette, do it on the quarter hour, on smaller bells.
What is so unusual about these is the date: Jacquemart (initially he was alone) came to Dijon in... 1383. And yes, automation is not as recent as we think.
Jacquemart, along with the clock and big bell, was brought from Cambrai in Belgium by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and offered as a gift to Dijon for having provided him with 1000 armed men to fight in Flanders. (The bell broke on the way and had to be recast...)
Jacqueline was added in 1651 and would strike alternate hours (wouldn't want to tire out Old Jacquemart). In 1714, Jacquelinet was added for the quarter-hours and finally, in 1884, Jacquelinette rounded out the family.
In France, one in five families is what is called "nombreuse", or numerous, meaning it has four children or more. Who knows, perhaps we'll be seeing the addition of another little brother or sister...
Try to step back from the church – the angle is not ideal for a photograph, unless you have a proper DSLR camera with a good lens. Using an iPhone will give you the same result as it did me, above.
And here it is, what you've been waiting for: the Owl!
Touching the owl with your left hand is supposed to bring you luck, but be careful.
To the left of the owl, on another wall, is a tiny dragon, (some say it's a salamander), so small it's easy to miss. If you walk past the owl and make a wish and then walk past the dragon, that evil little dragon will steal your wish. So if you want it to come true, walk past the dragon first, and then the owl, and all will be fine.
Known as the Doyenne of Dijon, this is one of the city's oldest half-timbered houses and can be dated back to 1483. It became the property of a certain Guillaume Millière and his wife, Guillemette, both drapers from nearby Beaune.
At the time, an even older house stood on these premises but being undoubtedly modern, they razed it to build bigger and better – and applied for a tax rebate, which may not have been granted. Had Millière waited a few years, his great-grandson would have been Mayor of Dijon and those taxes might well have been erased from the chalkboard.
As houses do, this one passed through other hands but somehow survived centuries, despite laws forbidding the renovation of wooden houses (fire hazards, right?). At some point it did heave a bit and was closed down, only to reopen as a hardware store in 1927. More restorations took place in the late 1990s and turned it into the best possible use: a restaurant (and traditional on-site boutique).
Up on the roof sits a black bronze cat, which of course has a superstition attached to it: once you've touched the Dijon owl, don't look at the cat, because, like the dragon/salamander, it could upend your wish. Next to the cat is a ceramic owl, whose job it is to make sure your wish speeds skyward. So make it a really good wish, because it seems a lot of acrobatics are involved!
It's not a hotel in the real sense but an hôtel particulier, or townhouse, for wealthy Dijonnais. We have here some classic Burgundian architecture with those glazed tiles on the roof, and some definite Renaissance touches. Just go see for yourself.
I'll let you discover these on your own － wonderful historical buildings that find new life as cutting-edge cultural venues.
This is a pleasant spot of greenery, right behind the dukes' palace (see below) and an alternative to Darcy Park for that picnic with all those goodies you picked up at Les Halles. This is the square through which you enter the Tower of Philippe Le Bon, about which you'll hear shortly.
Now part City Hall and part Fine Arts Museum (Musée des Beaux Arts), this building had been, in turn, a ducal residence, a seat of government, and a home for the Senate.
And this isn't even the original; as is the case with many castles in France, this one burned down, and was then rebuilt. Twice.
The Fine Arts Museum is known as one of the best in France, and in addition to all the art, you'll be spellbound by the tombs of two (of the four) Dukes of Burgundy.
I hesitated long and hard before climbing the tower: 316 steps is nothing to sneer at, but it was worth every heart-pumping step. Here's the view.
It is absolutely worth your while, but make sure you reserve, because you can't go up without a guide.
The square once boasted a statue of Louis XIV but, like many kingly statues, it was melted into cannonballs during the French Revolution. Today the square is lined with cafés and restaurants, with a central fountain, dancing with lights after sunset, focuses the eye as we gaze at the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy straight ahead.
By all accounts, this is a stunning building – except that when I walked by, it was covered in scaffolding and being renovated. It should end up looking even better...
I've mentioned these hotels particuliers earlier and can count about 75 – there are probably many more. Several are along the Owl Trail, like the Hôtel Vogüé, but you can spot many others thanks to the plaques the city uses to identify them.
These three church buildings are each unique: Saint-Jean has been converted into a theater, Saint-Philibert dates back to the 12th century (during the revolution, it became a stable and then a salt warehouse) and Saint-Bénigne is typical of the local gothic style and has a magnificent glazed tile roof.
Remember I mentioned Dijon was called the city of 100 bell towers? Sainte-Bénigne has the tallest of them all.
Each of these "offshoot" trails starts from a different point along the Owl's Trail and are all as clearly marked as the main trail. Each is worth a detour. For example, the Zola Trail takes you to the Couvent des Bernardines, a former convent which now houses the delightful Museum of Burgundian Life.
The beauty of Dijon is that it is easily visited on foot. And if you get tired, you can always hop on the free electric City Shuttle, which comes by every ten minutes and stops at most of the major sights.
Once you've finished with Dijon, explore the countryside: here's a fun day trip from Dijon – it's a lot to pack into a day but you'll have a strong sense of Burgundy and of the Côte d'Or département once you're done.