Friday, February 19, 2010

Palace of the Poor (Beaune, France)

This is the second in a series of three European travel wonders (first is Bologna), focussing on less popular travel cities. The series is written by Travel Wonders and kindly sponsored by

Wander through the travel wonder of Burgundy and you will be immediately drawn to the wonderful wines and delectable rich cuisine. Beaune is a typical town in Burgundy offering a variety of wine tastings with its long subterranean caverns and tunnels weaving under the central town holding millions of dusty bottles of the valued nectar (a tour of one of the wineries recommended). However, the highlight is an exquisite and fascinating medieval building topped by a glittering geometrically glazed tile roof in red, brown, yellow and green.

For over 500 years, the Hôtel-Dieu was a charitable hospital accepting people, rich and poor, nursing them through their illnesses or providing solace in their final days. Moved in the 1970s to a more modern hospital, the building is now a remarkable museum highlighting the extraordinary work of the Sisters for the Hospice of Beaune for over five centuries.

The Hôtel-Dieu contains two huge wards built around a central courtyard, one for the poor (top photo) with small curtained beds running down the flanks, each made for two people (the body heat thought to provide better warmth), and the other ward for rich patients with larger single beds. A small chapel sits at the end of The Pauper’s Ward for patients to pray and prepare for their death. Ironically, the rich ward had no such chapel in the belief that their survival was more likely. Paintings of the time show families camped around the beds of their convalescing loved ones making what must have been a quite noisy and busy hall.

In the centre of each ward is a communal area for dining and meeting. A common kitchen and pharmacy, the latter stocked from a nearby herb garden, served both wards. Today, both are set to past times with model nuns working in a pharmacy lined with ancient bottles of frightening concoctions and the ghoulish medical instruments of the day while others work the evening dinner in the kitchen. Note the ornate gold taps with snake heads as spouts.

The superbly vaulted ceilings are decorated with superb artworks naturally lit by skylights above the draped beds. The opulence of the building and fine medieval reputation as a charitable hospital earned it the moniker of Palace of the Poor.

Started in 1443 by the chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy to counter the effects of poverty, famine and injury from the Hundred Years’ War, the hospital came with a valuable estate of vineyards and salt works to fund the fine work of the hospital and hospice. Every year in November, an auction is conducted for the barrels of wine produced from the vineyards is conducted, the bidding for each barrel remaining open until a candle burns through. To this very day, the hospital continues with the original charter to be received there, fed and cared for, at the expense of the hospital, until they regain their health or are convalescent. As a further mission, white bread must be given to the poor asking for alms before the doors of the hospital.

One highlight is an exceptional masterpiece titled Polyptych of the Last Judgement highlighting heaven and hell. The right panels depict those going to hell, tumbling into a dark abyss while those on the left are ascending towards a glorious golden cathedral. The detail in the painting is incredible, exposed by a clever magnifying glass that travels smoothly over horizontal and vertical rails to the area of interest.

Open every day of the year, the Hospice de Beaune is a treasure highlighting exceptional and visionary charity work (cleverly self-funded through the centuries) in a glorious building of artworks but set up as a medieval hospital. Coupled with a tour of the underground cellars of one of the wineries and set in the rolling hills of Burgundy, Beaune is a hidden gem of France not to be missed.

This series of hidden European gems (written by Travel Wonders) is sponsored by - the hotel search engine offering accommodation in over 10,000 cities worldwide including hotels in Beaune among thousands of hotels in France, available at the best market prices.


Lifecruiser Travel Blog said...

Fabulous findings! Love that old building, what a fantastic roof! *whistles*

...and that painting is not that bad either!!! Impressive.

Serbam said...

Wonderful post, which kind of reminded me of one of my trips through Burgundy, with my parents (who are great people of culture and have induced my own passion for travel - a mention which makes this story even funnier). I was playing the role of the guide and one of my stops in Burgundy was at Dijon, where I kept telling them we would be seeing the funeral monuments of the Dukes of Burgundy (I used to have an interest in medieval funeral art at that point). They would forget this and ask, usually after an hour, "so why are we stopping in Dijon, to get some local mustard"?! :)

With Beaune, what fascinates me from what I read in your article is how the most represenative site here, the hospice, was built in what is usually deemed as the twilight of Burgundy's power: it's the middle of the 15th century, there influence at the French court is declining as Charles VII and, later, Louis XI are reconquering France and only 20 years later, there is no longer a Burgundy state to talk about. I also liked the painting very much, very brightly colored from what I have seen.
Thank you, once more, for your inspiring posts.

Mark H said...

@lifecruiser: It's a stunning building and with such a good story inside.

@serban: Wow-what detail. I didn't realise that Burgundy was nearing the end of its run when one of what must be the longest continuous running examples of charity got going.

Bourgogne Live said...

I'm lucky to live in the beautiful town of Beaune. Do you know the difference between Dijon and Beaune: Dijon is the capital of Burgundy, Beaune is the capital of Burgundian Wines ;-)Cheers!Francois

Sherry Ott said...

Love this series of hidden gems Mark! Great finds I've never heard about!

Anil said...

I wonder if the close double beds wasn't such a good idea in terms of germ transmission. Great concept though for the hospital.

Mark H said...

@bourgogne live: I hope I treated your town well. I thought the Hotel Dieu very special indeed.

@sherry: Thank you

@anil: I guess that the passage of illnesses by germs wasn't very well understood back then. It surprised me too that they'd have ill folks so close to one another as well, with the chance of disease spreading and the issues with infection and the like.

location espagne said...

I like the place so much.Awesome picture and nice write up of Beaune.Hope to visit this place some day.Thanks for sharing post.

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