The whimsical Hôtel-Dieu Hospice in the town of Beaune is an icon of the Burgundy region. Stepping into its courtyard is like tiptoeing into a Gothic fairytale, with its half-timbered buildings, elaborate tiled roofs and spired dormer windows. However, first impressions can be deceiving – this beautiful medieval building served a very practical purpose uninterrupted for over 500 years.
A Hospital for the Poor
Although it may look like a medieval stately home, the occupants of the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune were far from wealthy. ‘Hôtel-Dieu’ translates as ‘hostel of God’ – and since the Middle Ages these hospitals were set up in France by the Catholic Church to provide care for the sick and destitute.
The hospice at Beaune was founded in 1443 after the Hundred Years War, when the area had been devastated by pestilence. Amazingly, this charitable institution cared for the sick on-site for over half a millennium, continuing as a working hospital right up until the 1970s! The building is incredibly well preserved; the Grand Salle still has its original wooden beds with red hangings lining the walls, while priceless tapestries and artwork – in particular a unique polyptych of The Last Judgement from the fifteenth century – still adorn the walls.
What About the Wine?
In 1457 a parcel of land containing vineyards was gifted to the Hospices de Beaune by Guillemette Levernier. This wine estate grew as the years went by and the wine was sold off to raise funds for hospital equipment and maintenance of the Hôtel-Dieu. Today the estate comprises about 60 hectares of donated land and still produces premiers crus and grands crus Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
In modern times, a charity wine auction at the Hospices de Beaune, now a museum, takes place on the third Sunday in November every year (since 1859!) during the three-day Burgundian food and wine festival, Les Trois Glorieuses. It is one of the top events of the social calendar.
Cruises through the beautiful Burgundian countryside on either of our hotel barges L’Impressionniste and Finesse feature a visit to the Hôtel-Dieu Hospice, when you can explore both the enchanting exterior and the fascinating interior of this unique building.