So you are a film buff and think Paris is the genesis of nouvelle French cinema? Or you are a foodie, gourmand or gourmet regardless, and believe Paris is the centre of all things gastronomic? I got corrected on both counts by old friend Barbara Breheret who has lived and thrived in that part of France which excels in proving clichés are redundant or better not expressed. Take cinema, she says. “We all know that the Lumière brothers pioneered cinema in 1895, right? That was here,” pointing to The Musée Lumière (Lumiere Museum) built at Auguste Lumiere’s house in Lyon.
A city in France which everyone has heard of, not many Indians have visited is Lyon. So I went. After 25 years of buzzing around annually like a besotted fly in Paris and Nice I finally visited that city in eastern France, reputed to have the best food in a country whose national pastime is to sell the world its version of what we should be eating with what we are drinking. And what we drink in Lyon is zillions of Pinot Noirs, Gamays and Chardonnays. Why? Because Lyon lies just south of the other great wine producing region called Burgundy. The famed wines Beaujolais and Cotes du Rhone are from the wine regions to the north and south of Lyon.
Lyon literally sings. It is one of the few world cities I know that has not one but two rivers running through it. During spring, summer and fall, the gentle susurrating murmurs of waters soothe the frayed nerves of those who must work. The Rhône and Saône rivers converge to the south of the historic city centre forming a peninsula or Presqu’île. There are two large hills, one to the west and one to the north of the city centre. West of the Presqu’île, the original medieval city (Vieux Lyon) was built on the west bank of the Saône river at the foot of the Fourvière Hill. This area, along with portions of the Presqu’île and the Croix-Rousse, was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
I stayed in Vieux Lyons in a unique hotel called Cours des Loges (6, rue du Boeuf, Vieux Lyon, 69005 Lyon). Composed of four edifices built during Renaissance times and joined together and restored into a hotel with corridors facing inwards, it is topped by a glass roof that allows light in all day. Apart from its big plus point of being centrally located, the hotel is blessed with the presence of Gerard Ravet, concierge par excellence who proudly wears the badge of Clefs d’Or, indicative of his membership of Les Clefs d’Or, the highly regarded worldwide organisation of concierges, and a symbol of guaranteed quality of service. Ravet has been instrumental in arranging all kinds of things (which in normal conditions can’t be arranged) for the world’s top celebrities including Brangelina, David Bowie, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, et al.
It is from this hotel that I sauntered out daily for my discovery of France’s third largest city, so very different from both Paris and Nice. I walked through the traboules, narrow passageways that pass through buildings and link streets on either side. The first examples of traboules are thought to have been built in Lyon in the 4th century. The traboules allowed the inhabitants to get from their homes to the Saône river quickly and allowed the silk-weavers living on top of the Croix-Rousse hill to get quickly from their workshops to the textile merchants at the foot of the hill.
Your reward for working your hamstrings and calf muscles to the top of the Fourviere Hill is the amazing view over the city. Dominating the hill is the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière, an impressive white church, and a golden statue of Mary. Both monuments can be seen from everywhere in Lyon below. And while you’re up there, the Roman ruins are nearby.
Lyon is also famous for its trompe-l’oeils, or painted walls. My favorite is the Fresque des Lyonnais, a whole building where the most famous Lyonnais (region) are represented. Close by, near the Place des Terreaux (with a fountain by Bartoldi) is the famous garden of the Musée des Beaux Arts, an old cloisters transformed in a little patch of peace and quiet in the city. Among the sculptures on display in the garden is a beautiful Rodin.
But Lyon is most famous around the globe for its food and restaurants. It is the city where the novella cuisine movement was born, and many of the other major food trends since then, all the under the watchful eye of the legendary Paul Bocuse. At 20, it still has more Michelin star restaurants per capita than any other city in the world, with eponymous Restaurant Paul Bocuse still retaining its three stars.
But breakfast for the average Lyonnais (resident) is still what was eaten formerly by the silk workers, made up of local charcuterie (pork based products) and usually accompanied by Beaujolais red wine. Traditional local dishes include Rosette Lyonnaise and Saucisson de Lyon (sausage); sausage of coarsely cut tripe; pistachio sausage; coq au vin; esox (pike) quenelle; gras double (tripe cooked with onions); saladelyonnaise (lettuce with bacon, croûtons and poached egg); marronsglacés; coussin de Lyon; sabodet and cardoon au gratin. Not such good news if you are a vegetarian but heaven for charcuterie connoisseurs.
No visit to France’s gastronomic capital is complete without dining out at a bouchon. These small eateries serve traditional Lyonnaise offal dishes such as tripe, bone marrow, donkey snout and pork offal sausage, to name a few. Only 20 bouchons are officially certified and deemed `authentic’. Barbara took me to the famous Le Poêlon d’Or restaurant (29 rue des Rempartsd’Ainay). I feasted on chicken liver cake (quenelle), ground fish dumplings and a sausage roasted in a brioche.
With the Beaujolais and the Côte du Rhône vineyards practically on its doorstep, it’s hardly surprising that Lyonnais wine merchants are so well stocked. La Cave Valmy crops up on everybody’s list of favourites, and owner Marie-Jo provides expert guidance to the arcana of her trade. Both Beaujolais and the Côte du Rhône make for great trips out of the city; try Château de la Chaizechateaudelachaize.com) in Beaujolais, which produces the elegant Brouilly).
Chocoholics must visit Chokola, Sébastien Bouillet’s shop-cum-laboratory, dedicated to, and even made up of chocolate in places. A wall of liquid chocolate greets you as you enter, and a truly encyclopaedic range of chocolate bars are stacked like books in a library. For gourmands of other persuasions, Bouillet’s famous pâtisserie is only a short distance away on the Croix-Rousse plateau. Both are sweet if somewhat hugely calorific notes to end your visit on.