On a scorching summer’s day we drove through the Cote d’Or vineyards to the medieval village of Beaune. Grapevines carpeted the rolling hills in all directions, reminding us that we were in the heart of the Burgundy wine-making region. There was certainly no shortage of opportunity to sample the local produce. Every second shopfront offered wine-tasting. However today we had come to discover the medieval history of Beaune.
Exploring medieval Beaune
Wandering the cobblestone streets we found an eclectic mix of limestone buildings. We discovered ancient half wooden structures bowing under the weight of centuries. Modern tourist outlets offered everything from local wines and mustard to tacky souvenirs. Rustic wooden shutters were closed against the heat of the afternoon. The town seemed deserted as locals took in the traditional lunchtime break. We’d chosen Beaune because the museums in Dijon were closed on that day and initially enjoyed strolling the streets and alleyways of the old town.
Near the middle of the old town, we found the crowds of tourists. Visitors not only sought out Beaune’s main historical tourist attractions, but also the restaurants and cafes flanking the squares. We joined them to shelter from the heat under umbrellas to relax over lunch and a quiet wine and beer.
Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame
Sitting in one of the many town squares we found the Basilique Collegiale de Notre Dame. You can certainly see the Roman origins of the 12th century church. This was also first and only time we were scammed in France. A woman stood at the door of the church holding a wooden box. Assuming she was a parishioner collecting entry fee, I obligingly provided a few euro. Once inside we found out that a gypsy had just duped us. They frequent free attractions in the hope of gaining a few euros out of gullible tourists such as ourselves. A reminder to be more wary.
Wandering the cobblestone laneways and squares, past fountains and through archways we found many structures with centuries of stories to tell. Around the town ramparts you will find the early 16th century Gross Tour (large tower) and the Tour Blondeau dating back to 1465.
History of L’Hotel Dieu Beaune
The most imposing building in town L’Hotel-Dieu de Beaune,. Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy and his wife Guigone de Salins, established “a palace for the poor” in 1443.
Decades of war had left many of Burgundy’s citizens in desperate poverty. Famine, malnutrition and general ill health were rife and the hospice was opened in response to this crisis. An order of nuns ran the hospice for many centuries. L’Hotel Dieu provided shelter, food and medical care to those most in need, as well as employment in the vineyards whose produce funded the hospice’s activities.
Until 1971 it continued its original principles of charity and care and today is open as a museum. An annual wine auction assists with not only the upkeep of this historic building, but also upgrades of the more modern hospice.
Tour of L’ Hotel Dieu
We took advantage of the recorded self-guided tour, starting in the stone courtyard. Flanked on all sides by the double story hospice buildings, the steep gabled roofs were tiled in Burgundy’s signature red, green and yellow patterned tiles.
Our tour took us through wards lined with red curtained bed cubicles, which must have been freezing in the winter months.
Further on we found displays of antique medical utensils, the pharmacy where medicinal draughts would be concocted and the magnificent chapel.
One wing contains an exhibit artworks which have been donated to the hospice over the centuries. Here we viewed “The Last Judgement” altarpiece by Vander Weyden. A building that had looked a little uninspiring from the outside certainly provided us with an amazing insight into the past history of the citizens of Beaune.