Travel in France — thoughts on Lyon
Lyon has always been the entry city to Provence for me. Driving down from Paris on the Autoroute de Soleil, past vast tracts of agricultural land, slate-roofed farmhouses and churches in the distance, until somewhere around Maçon, the road begins to drop toward the Rhone River Valley. The rooftops change to red tile and the texture of the light begins to shift to the soft light of the south.
Lyon is famous for its food, and its bouchons, small, often women-run bistros, so-called because in the old days they were taverns where a thirsty horseman could stop for Beaujolais and some local food were marked with a bundle of straw over the door – a bouchon de paille. In addition to its bouchons, where traditional Lyonnais foods such as Andouillete, Saucisson en Brioche, Sweetbreads, and other hearty dishes can be found, Lyon is considered the gastronomic center of France, garlanded with Michelin stars, fine patisseries, chocolatiers, and perhaps the grandest food hall in all France, Les Halles Paul Bocuse.
However, in all the years of traveling between Paris and Provence, my only memory of actually stopping in Lyon was late on a bitter cold night in November, with the wind rattling the trees and blowing scraps of paper through the parks and across the road where we had parked by the river. Everything was closed except a starkly lit café, where we had a double espresso, and a lonely kiosk, where we bought a candy bar to see us through until morning. Not a gastronomic experience, just survival.
Finally, in June 2013, I had an opportunity to stay in Lyon for several days, exploring, and eating in more than one of its bouchons. I regret that it took me so long to spend time in this extraordinary city, rich not only with food and wine, but with Roman ruins, medieval traces, renaissance buildings, and contemporary architecture.
A Good Beginning
The Les Halles Paul Bocuse market is a fully realized food dream in every way. Inside the building there are more than 60 different purveyors of all things gastronomic. Everything is pristine and beautifully presented from cheeses to calves liver and tripe. I wanted to try it all, including the mysterious-sounding confit of Espelette peppers. I contented myself with a thick slice of Saucisson de Lyon en Brioche, the haute version of my childhood pig in a blanket, and a small sack of fried pork fat niblets, called gratons, that I had been served with my aperitif the night before at Notre Maison.
Lunch at Daniel et Denise
One of the best known chefs in Lyon, Joseph Viola, has two famous bouchons, Daniel et Denise and Daniel & Denise Saint Jean. The former, where I ate lunch is brightly lit, warm and cozy in shades of yellow and red, even rustic, which translates as settling back and savoring elegantly prepared food in a casual setting, starting with a Champagne cocktail made with Crème de Violettes (a first for me) served with foie gras pâté en croute. I was already in heaven. My hosts told me if I was going to have the dish that is synonymous with Lyon, quenelles, Daniel et Denise was the place to have it. And so I did. The light, airy, mousse of poached pike, napped in Nantua sauce appeared before me. It was ethereal and I lapped up every bit.
Quenelles with Nantua Sauce
However, I still lusted after my companion’s mushroom loaded Daube with its thick-cut rounds of fried potatoes. Cheese course? My choice, St. Marcellin, a popular cheese in Lyon, came in its own box, along with a sparkling salad of wildish greens. For dessert, I found the idea of the venerable Ile Flottante the ideal conclusion to my meal.
Where to Stay in Lyon
Hotel Cour des Loges – A Renaissance palace on a narrow street in the Old City, tastefully redone with modern amenities to create a luxury hotel. Very special. 6, rue de Boeuf, Lyon; www.courdesloges.com
Hotel Collège – Only a 5 minute walk from the Cour des Loges, Hotel College is far more modest, decorated in the style of school dormitory, but with very good beds and great views. 5, Parc Saint-Paul, Lyon; www.college-hotel.com
Where to Eat in Lyon
Notre Maison — Very cozy bouchon, with a menu that celebrates the lesser cuts and parts, such as pork belly, trotters, and tripe. I had the Braised Pork Belly, meltingly tender, which came in its own cocotte surrounded by a thick sauce and boiled potatoes. 2 Rue de Gadagne, 69005 Lyon
Daniel et Denise — Small and welcoming, with finely tuned dishes of Lyonnais specialties, plus the chef’s award-winning foie gras en croute. (see more above) www.daniel-et-deinise.fr
Les Salins — A contemporary brasserie-style restaurant on the banks of the Saone River in the newly developed Lyon-Confluence area, a perfect place for a relaxing lunch river-side after visiting the area. www.les-salins.fr/brasserie-restaurant/
What to See in Lyon
Les Halls Paul Bocuse – An incredible food emporium! 102 Cours Lafayette, hallespaulbocuse.lyon.fr
Fouvière Hill — This famous hill has been inhabited thousands of years. The hill is crowned by the Notre Dame de Fouvière Basica, built on a 12th century sanctuary and includes a steeple topped with a gold-plated bronze statue of the Virgin Mary. Nearby is the spectacular archaeological park that contains a still-functioning Roman amphitheater build in 15 BC. Walk through the park on the ancient steps and then on down the hill to the Renaissance district of the Old City.
Croix-Rousse – Nicknamed the ‘workers hill’ because the silk workers established themselves here in the mid-1800s, the Croix-Rousse hill, like Fouvière, has been inhabited since ancient times. Explore the narrow passageways, shops, and the daily market held on the streets of the plateau every day except Monday.
Lyon-Confluence – A newly developed area of 150 hectares in the heart of Lyon at the confluence of the Saone and Rhone Rivers that was formerly the site of a large wholesale market and Lyon’s port. Now, it is a new city within the city, with striking contemporary architecture that includes offices, apartment buildings, shops, green spaces, a vast shopping mall, and views of the rivers.