Monday, July 25, 2011

La Vie en Lyon

Considered by many to be the gastronomic center of France, Lyon did not fail to impress with the Halles of Lyon food market, the authentic Lyonaisse Bouchon restaurants, the fragrant and eye-watering patisseries filled with “coussins” and pink pralines, and of course the indelible imprint of a Chef of the Century winner, Paul Bocuse. Second in size to Paris, Lyon’s lure stretches beyond the culinary to entice with, among other things, beautiful architecture, an old town that evokes memories of some far-off Italian village, and a striking Basilica overlooking the expansive city.

From Beaune to Lyon on the country road
Departing Beaune, we chose the scenic route to Lyon, which wound through the countryside and along the canals of the Burgundy region and then into the Beaujolais before eventually winding up to the autoroute and into Vieux Lyon (old Lyon.) But before we got there, we made a pit stop for lunch in Cluny, a town about 30 miles outside of Lyon. The town is legendary for its medieval abbey, once the center of the Christian empire, built between the 10th and 12th centuries. Now, only a fraction of the original vast abbey is still standing, but you can tour the footprint of the site and there are fascinating video recreations you can see as well as tour the still standing transept and bell tower area of the abbey. These remnants impressively represent only ten percent of the overall size of the original abbey, which was the largest church of Christendom until the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Quite a fascinating visit if you are in the area.
En route to Cluny
Arriving into any city in Europe with only a travel guide and your sense of a direction is always an adventure. Searching out signs for “Vieux Lyon”, as I maneuvered the perpetual rotaries, was my only direction aside from somehow winding through the old streets up to the top of the hill to our hotel overlooking the vast city. Somehow I steered our huge van (so much for hopes of a sleek SUV) up the steep streets and arrived at Villa Florentine. The few moments of stress and close corners was rewarded with the most spectacular hotel I’ve been to in a long time. And that IS saying something. I basically had my own floor in this hotel and it obviously surmounted the size of my New York apartment by leaps and bounds (both in size, features, and windows,) and it afforded a 180-degree view of Lyon. Absolutely stunning! What wasn’t so stunning were the prices of the beverages – heading down for a pre-dinner glass of wine, our mouths were agape when they quoted an eighteen euro burgundy. We passed.

View of vieux Lyon (below) and new Lyon (in the distance)
Our tour around Lyon led us to the top of the hill to visit the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourviere, which housed stunning frescoes on the walls and ceilings, then descending down on the funicular to vieux Lyon where we walked along the famed Rue du Boeuf and then crossing the river Saone to the newer part of Lyon. Our destination was the Halles of Lyon, an indoor market with hundreds of stalls selling much of the ingredients used by Lyonnaise chefs. From oysters to cheese, frog legs to macarons, it was unending….and mouthwatering. The prices weren’t quite so palatable but it’s worth the visit for the visual enjoyment alone.

Lyon is also well known for its shopping and several pedestrian only stores in the newer part of Lyon offer everything from LVMH brands to Facconable, H&M to BCBG, and everything in between. Including several Goth stores. I was struck by a wide variety of youngsters donning goth apparel, hair styles, and make up. I’d thought that fad had run its course, but I guess not. These youngsters (am I aging myself?) surely haven’t visited Lyon’s Textile Museum, Musee de Tissus, where the history of silk and evolution of garments from the Far East to the French’s lavish silk garments are displayed in all their corseted glory (i.e. torture) and stunningly colorful and intricate patterns.

Le Sud - this was half of an appetizer we shared
On our last evening in Lyon we dined at one of the Paul Bocuse Brasseries, Le Sud. Accustomed to the smaller plates of typical French restaurants, the American style portions a bit under whelmed us and, while the food was good, it wasn’t worth writing home about. The piece de resistance of the meal was actually our wine selection, a Gigondas – Pierre Aiguille by Paul Jaboulet Aine. One of their other wines, Parallel 45, is a regular selection for us back in NYC - and quite affordable at $15.

View from my room on Lake Annecy
We found it hard to leave Lyon, but we still had three more days of countryside and lake villages to explore. Our next stop was Lake Annecy in the foothills of the Alps in France (see my view above) followed by two days in Switzerland. But those anecdotes will have to wait as my picnic dinner on my deck overlooking Lake Murten awaits.   

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