Just the tonic
An unusual museum in Beaune captivates junior travellers
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.