Dijon & Mulhouse

My favourite answers to problems are the combinative kind, when two independent problems can be act as each other’s resolution. Somehow more elegant and satisfying, it’s indecently pleasant when the tetrominos settle together and disappear, with an electronic buzz, into the hellish aether from whence they came. All of this, of course, is my long-winded way of saying that I’ve started writing in my journal when I eat lunch alone at restaurants. Since I had begun to resent the obligation to do this in the evenings, this allowed me to kill two birds with one stone. Or make two birds kill each other with the same stone. Actually, I think I’m going to stick with my tetris analogy.

This and other revelations were the valuable product of a long, long weekend where I wasn’t expected at work for five days in a row. This allowed me to plan a short trip north-east, through Dijon and into Alsace, with the ultimate goal of visiting Mulhouse, near the German border.

Place François Rude, Dijon.

My first stop, Dijon, is a city known mostly for the type of mustard (and derivatives thereof) which carry its name, and which I love. I learnt during my visit that the city is also famous for gingerbread – which I also love – and that a great deal of “Dijon Mustard” is actually made in the nearby town of Beaune. Hmm. This didn’t stop me leaving with an assortment of little glass pots of mustard, of course. An absolutely gorgeous place with regards to art and architecture, Dijon is one of those cities that immediately made a good impression and put me in good spirits. To sweeten the deal still further, all of Dijon’s museums are free. Oh stop, now you’re just spoiling me.

The first of these, I visited entirely by accident while checking out a local church. Those fond of stereotypes could be forgiven for thinking that the Rude museum was an exhibition on French culture, but actually it’s dedicated to the notable French sculptor François Rude, who was born in Dijon. He is perhaps most well known for his sculpture “La Marseillaise” which adorns the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and a version of which can be found in the museum.

Nearby is the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, located in the former Palais des Ducs de Bourgogne, the residence of the dukes of Burgundy and home to the tomb of Phillipe II. I entered through the newly renovated part of the museum and I must admit that this didn’t interest me all that much – being a gallery that mainly houses various depictions of Christ in a state of undress, or occasionally his mother. As I have complained in the past, one can only regard so many such depictions before getting a bit bored. That said, I like to imagine a coterie of nuns coming here and having to be escorted out in hysterics, like a teenaged girl visiting the Museum of One Direction.

The older part of the museum did a much better job of holding my interest. Not only is the palace itself a spectacle worth visiting, but the art was more to my tastes, being a collection of shipwrecks, nobles, nudity and death. François Rude also makes several appearances there, most notably in the gallery of sculpture.

Sculpture Hall, Palais des Ducs.

Unfortunately, I had ill-timed my visit and the Modern Art section was closed for lunch by the time I arrived there. Although I had every intention of returning to see it, my own lunch took me a little ways out of town and perilously close to the Natural History museum. The pernicious, corrupting influence of the Theory of Evolution on my young mind was too great to overcome; Modern Art will have to wait for another day.

This museum is split into several parts which are distributed across the Botanic Gardens in Dijon. The main section is a detailed narrative of evolution, from the beginnings of life up until the present day, as well as the significance of humankind’s role in the various extinction events in history. It was obviously recently renovated and was quite well done, with one interesting section showing what the museum resembled in the distant past, complete with signs reminding military personal to leave their swords at the front desk.

The other main part is concerned with the Solar System and the mineral composition of planets, as well as related material such as natural disasters. These themes may help to explain why I was so very confused when I went to the planetarium show there and it turned out to be about dinosaurs. Now, I love dinosaurs, and I enjoyed the show, but this strange subject matter wasn’t advertised anywhere at all. I kept expecting the human narrators to hop into a shuttle and show me some galaxies, but alas they travelled only in time, not space.

From the front desk staff at the museum, I also learnt of a local Dijonnais legend pertaining to a certain carved owl which adorns the cathedral. Depending on who you ask, it may or may not grant wishes, bring good luck, or absolve you from paying taxes for one calendar year. Consider:

This is a very worn little owl which enjoys an immense popularity. Many Dijonnais, young and old, caress it with their left hands while making a wish. It is a touchstone that brings good luck, and one for which we have lost the original explanation.

Dijoon [My translation]

Since I had planned to visit the cathedral anyway, I made the pilgrimage to the owl and caressed it vigorously. While I am not a superstitious man, it can’t hurt. I also made a private wish while the owl was in my hand, not desiring to offend the stone idol if that was indeed the proper thing to do.

The next leg of my trip would take me 200 kilometres to the north-east, to the French-German frontier town of Mulhouse. Known as France’s capital of Technical Museums, this city is home to the Cité de l’Automobile, Electropolis and the Cité du Train. The latter is the National Railway Museum, and is the largest of its kind – in terms of exhibition space – in the world. It covers 15,000 square metres and contains over 100 displays. Guess where I was going first.

I must admit that my first impression of Mulhouse was not nearly so positive as that of Dijon. The buildings are mostly modern and lack much uniting style and the whole place feels quite decentralised and businesslike. Although I actually liked it very much, Berlin had a similar feel in places, and this is probably due to the fact that both cities were the location of extensive battles during the armed conflicts that have torn through Europe. The museums are a redeeming point, of course, although I only had time to visit one, since they’re a little outside of town.

Those that know me well will be regrettably well-informed about my childhood obsession with trains, railways and everything related to them. The Cité du Train, for my ten-year-old self would therefore have been a hitherto undreamt of slice of perfect ecstasy. I assure you that I am guilty of no hyperbole when I say this place is enormous, and wonderful.

The first of the two main halls – huge, aircraft-hanger sized arenas packed with trains – is grouped thematically. There are trains designed for extreme weather and tough inclines, such as a monstrous, fan-equipped snow-destroyer, as well as war trains, and those designed for different types of travel. One example of the latter is a beautifully preserved second class Parisian Métro car from the early 1900s, complete with its original metro maps and advertising.

Snow plow train

The second hall hosts an exhibition named Les Quais de l’Histoire, and is a narrative journey from the very beginnings of rail travel in the early 1800s all the way to the ultra-fast, record-breaking Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV). This area is much larger than the first, and although it is absolutely glacial inside during the winter, I easily spent hours inside, glassy eyed with pleasure and muttering to myself like Gollum about how precious were these wonderful, beautiful machines.

My perfect love in life has always been steam engines, of which the museum has a very great number in beautifully restored condition. However, they also have exhibits about diesel and early electric trains, which segues into the exhibition about the TGV which broke the world speed record for conventional trains at a blistering 574.8 km/h. Seeing this display certainly made me appreciate my ride home on the TGV Lyria a little more.

Originally, I used the audioguide in English, but when I put it down to take a rest, one of the stealthy museum gnomes whisked it away while I wasn’t looking. I replaced it with a French one for the second half of the hall and I found the French version was slightly better, with a bit more background information. That said, the English version was probably already a bit long winded for anyone who wasn’t staring with rapt adoration like I was.

Mistral steam engine

Despite not being especially won over by the city of Mulhouse – which I found a little dull – I left feeling like it was a successful trip. My time in Dijon was a delight, and the Cité du Train was well worth travelling for. I mostly find myself unconvinced I’d visit Mulhouse again, but then I remember the sound of the steam whistle, that siren song, and I change my mind.

To see a gallery of photos linked to this post – my goodness it was hard to choose just a few trains – click here. If instead you would like to learn more about the predatory patterns of unenchanted, non-mineral barn owls, investigate further here.

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