Just the tonic

An un­usual mu­seum in Beaune cap­ti­vates ju­nior trav­ellers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PENNY HUNTER

Our chil­dren have dragged their feet re­luc­tantly through some of Paris’s finest cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions be­fore we reach Beaune, in the heart of Bur­gundy’s wine re­gion. We have driven south from the French cap­i­tal, through count­less vil­lages of gob-smack­ing beauty, to reach this his­toric town. Now, the prospect of yet an­other mu­seum visit threat­ens to spark a fresh revo­lu­tion.

But it is in Beaune that we find the cure for the kids’ aver­sion to mu­se­ums. At Ho­tel-Dieu, a hospice founded in 1443 to care for the poor and ail­ing, we dis­cover our own tonic: jars of mys­te­ri­ous medicines and elixirs, dark tales of death and dis­ease, and tools used to drill through skulls and de­liver en­e­mas. It’s Hor­ri­ble His­to­ries wrapped up in a mu­seum and, at ages 10 and 11, the chil­dren love it.

Ho­tel-Dieu is the jewel in the crown of Beaune, a town where lovers of me­dieval ar­chi­tec­ture and his­tory rub shoul­ders with well-heeled wine con­nois­seurs. It is an im­por­tant hub on Route des Grand Crus, which con­nects the best of Bur­gundy’s vine­yards, from Di­jon in the north to San­te­nay in the south. The Cote de Beaune re­gion pro­duces some of the world’s most ex­pen­sive white wines, with chardon­nay the dom­i­nant grape va­ri­ety.

To­mor­row we will cy­cle for 30km through the vine­yards, from vil­lage to vil­lage, all the way to Chagny, from where a train re­turns weary ped­allers to Beaune. The vines, some still tended by horse and plough, are just start­ing to show green flashes of spring. But to­day it’s all about his­tory; the wine will have to wait.

From the out­set, Ho­tel-Dieu makes an im­pres­sion; the main build­ing is a tow­er­ing struc­ture of sheer slate steeples and del­i­cate iron lace-work. Three wings ex­tend, adorned with the colour­ful glazed tiles typ­i­cal of fine Bur­gundy build­ings. In the Great Hall of the Poor, we are greeted by a won­drous sight. Two rows of 14 four-poster beds line the walls, each sur­rounded by heavy red drapes and topped with red blan­kets and crisp white pil­lows. The 16m-high ceil­ing is like the keel of an up­turned boat in­ter­sected by beams painted with in­tri­cate de­signs. There is cen­tral heat­ing run­ning through the floor and be­side each bed is a ta­ble bear­ing a pewter jug and cup, for each pa­tient was given a ra­tion of wine (a much safer tip­ple than the lo­cal wa­ter sup­ply). What a haven the hos­pi­tal must have been for Beaune’s des­ti­tute.

Ho­tel-Dieu was es­tab­lished when mis­ery and famine abounded. The re­gion was still suf­fer­ing the ef­fects of the Hun­dred Years War and a re­cent out­break of plague. Ni­co­las Rolin, a lawyer of ig­no­ble birth who be­came the pow­er­ful chan­cel­lor to the duke of Bur­gundy, along with his wife, Guigone de Salins, de­cided Beaune needed to care for its many im­pov­er­ished. With the bless­ing of the pope, the Ho­tel-Dieu was es­tab­lished. (Not that Rolin’s re­mark­able act of char­ity was mo­ti­vated purely by al­tru­ism; his ac­tions would earn him great public recog­ni­tion and ul­ti­mately, he hoped, a ticket to heaven.)

We learn, via the mu­seum’s ex­cel­lent au­dio guide, how pa­tients were tended by nuns, some of whom fell vic­tim when plague broke out. We walk through a hall known as the “death room”, where pa­tients un­likely to re­cover were taken. Through a glass panel in the floor, we see the stream over which the hos­pi­tal was built, to make for easy dis­posal of waste. The kitchen had all mod-cons, such as a dou­ble sink with brass, goose-neck taps and an au­to­mated spit dat­ing from 1698 – the mi­crowave oven of its time. We learn that fruit was ban­ished from menus be­cause it was con­sid­ered a “cold” food and harm­ful to re­cov­ery. Poached pears (in wine, per­haps?) were per­mis­si­ble.

Though founded in me­dieval times, the hos­pi­tal con­tin­ued to treat the sick right up un­til 1971. As a re­sult, its ex­hibits span the ages, from a time when a lit­tle blood­let­ting by leeches was stan­dard prac­tice to the dis­till­ing of more mod­ern medicines in the rudi­men­tary lab­o­ra­tory. Shelves in the apothe­cary hold dozens of bot­tles still con­tain­ing their 18th-cen­tury in­gre­di­ents, while older ce­ramic jars dis­play their con­tents in Latin. Then there are the sur­gi­cal in­stru­ments – enor­mous sy­ringes, drills and saws and the cu­ri­ously shaped ob­jects that spark an ex­pla­na­tion of the word “en­ema”.

As a coun­ter­point to the med­i­cal ghast­li­ness, the mu­seum is also home to a master­piece of Flem­ish art, a mid-15th-cen­tury polyp­tych of the Last Judg­ment by Ro­gier van der Wey­den, ex­quis­ite ta­pes­tries and a col­lec­tion of sil­ver­ware and heavy tim­ber chests, some of which be­longed to Rolin and his wife. It’s at this point, af­ter a good two hours of solid mu­seum im­mer­sion, that the chil­dren reach sat­u­ra­tion point so we head back out into the sunny cob­bled streets for a pic­nic be­side a statue of Beaune’s fa­mous 18th-cen­tury math­e­ma­ti­cian, Gas­pard Monge, the fa­ther of tech­ni­cal drawing.

We are due to visit the Dali Mu­seum when it reopens at 2pm but it seems its ec­cen­tric owner has been dis­tracted by a long lunch. We kill time by wan­der­ing the ram­parts of the old town, stum­bling upon the statue of an­other Beaune no­table, EJ Marey, whose photography helped make cin­e­matog­ra­phy the art form it is to­day. Our Dali afi­cionado even­tu­ally turns up and takes us on a per­sonal tour of his col­lec­tion, rais­ing the chil­dren’s eye­brows with tales of the artist’s un­re­quited love for his cousin.

Fi­nally, hav­ing ex­hausted all cul­tural pur­suits for the day, we bribe the kids with a ride on the his­toric carousel in the town square. Sit­ting in the sun at a cave (wine bar), sip­ping one of Bur­gundy’s famed white wines, it seems this is just what the doc­tor or­dered.

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