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On The Road Again At Last!, Pt. 2; Lyon, France

Continuously eating well in an incredibly beautiful, old city

In my last post we spent months meticulously planning this adventure and spent Christmas and Boxing Day in Baden, Switzerland, before going to Basel for our final night of the first Swiss leg of our holiday. Now it was time to head over to France.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021
The plan for today was to catch a train over to Lyon, France. We had initially considered Marseille, birthplace of one of my childhood heroes, Andre the Giant, but we had heard that the place can be a bit sketchy, plus we knew that we would eat better in Lyon so that decision made itself. We weren’t sure how smoothly this ride into France would go so Anna in her obsessively thorough planning had prepared an entire dossier of hard copies of our COVID-19 vaccine history and related QR codes, as well as scans of our passports and Singapore forms of identification among other information in order to avoid any unforeseen problems. Once aboard our train for our 3.5-hour journey we really had no idea what to expect, but we needn’t have worried, because in fact it was such a hassle free ride, we didn’t even need to show our passports, neither at the only stop on the first part of our ride at Saint-Louis, just barely over the French border, nor even when we had to change trains a little further down the line at Mulhouse. We just grabbed our suitcases, found the platform for our connecting train, and three hours later we were in Lyon:

Lyon or Lyons is the third-largest city and second-largest urban area of France. It is located at the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône, about 470 km (292 mi) southeast of Paris, 320 km (199 mi) north of Marseille and 56 km (35 mi) northeast of Saint-Étienne.

The city of Lyon proper had a population of 516,092 in 2017 within its small municipal territory of 48 km2 (19 sq mi), but together with its suburbs and exurbs the Lyon metropolitan area had a population of 2,323,221 that same year, the second-most populated in France. Lyon is the prefecture of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region and seat of the Departmental Council of Rhône (whose jurisdiction, however, no longer extends over the Metropolis of Lyon since 2015).

Former capital of the Gauls at the time of the Roman Empire, Lyon is the seat of an archbishopric whose holder bears the title of Primate of the Gauls. Lyon became a major economic hub during the Renaissance. The city is recognised for its cuisine and gastronomy, as well as historical and architectural landmarks; as such, the districts of Old Lyon, the Fourvière hill, the Presqu’île and the slopes of the Croix-Rousse are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Lyon was historically an important area for the production and weaving of silk. Lyon played a significant role in the history of cinema: it is where Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the cinematograph. It is also known for its light festival, the Fête des Lumières, which begins every 8 December and lasts for four days, earning Lyon the title of “Capital of Lights”.

We were a little hungry when we arrived so we had a coffee and a dried sausage at a place near the station before catching a cab to our hotel, located in the Old City. We got in our taxi, crossed the river, and immediately felt bad for our driver, because this part of town consisted of extremely narrow, cobbled streets that didn’t particularly follow any grid or pattern, there were just random streets veering off at any given angle, making navigation borderline impossible and trying to weave a sedan around some of the corners require multiple attempts. There weren’t a lot of cars on these roads, but there was a lot of foot traffic and not much room for people to get out of the way when one came along, regardless of how slow it was going. Delivering goods to the shops here must be a nightmare! Anyway, before too long our driver had us out the front of the beautiful MiHotel Tour Rose, our home for the next three nights. We loved the hotel, it even just had one giant blanket on the bed instead of two single ones, but there was one problem that would become a recurring theme in this area; I couldn’t fit under parts of the bedroom ceiling, but over the coming days I would find that I couldn’t stand even close to upright in some shops in this part of Lyon. Europe certainly wasn’t designed with people like me in mind during the Middle Ages, I’d just hate to see how a guy the size of Andre got by living in Marseille! Still, we definitely didn’t mind spending the next few days here:

I keep mentioning the “Old City” here in Lyon, but there are some really interesting reasons for that:

The Vieux Lyon (English: Old Lyon) is the largest Renaissance district of Lyon. Covering an area of 424 hectares between the Fourvière hill and the river Saône, it is one of Europe’s most extensive Renaissance neighbourhoods. There are three distinct sections: Saint Jean, Saint Paul and Saint Georges. In 1998, Vieux Lyon was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List along with other districts in Lyon because of its historical importance and architecture.

The Saint Jean quarter: in the Middle Ages, this was the focus of political and religious power. The Cathedral of St Jean, seat of the Primate of Gaul, a title still conferred upon the archbishop of Lyon, is a good example of Gothic architecture. The Manecanterie adjoining the cathedral is one of Lyon’s few extant Romanesque buildings. Formerly a choir school, it now houses the museum of the cathedral’s treasures. Saint Jean is also home to the Museum of Miniatures and Film Sets, located in a building that was the Golden Cross Inn in the 15th century.

The Saint-Paul section: in the 15th and 16th centuries predominately Italian banker-merchants moved into sumptuous urban residences here called hôtels particuliers. The Hôtel Bullioud and the Hôtel de Gadagne are two magnificent examples and the latter now houses the Lyon Historical Museum and the International Puppet Museum. The Loge du Change stands as testimony to the period when trade fairs made the city wealthy. The Saint Paul church with its Romanesque lantern tower and its spectacular spire mark the section’s northern extremity.

The Saint Georges section: silk weavers settled here beginning in the 16th century before moving to the Croix Rousse hill in the 19th century. In 1844, the architect Pierre Bossan rebuilt the St George’s Church on the banks of the Saône in a neo-Gothic style. In the Middle Ages, when there were only a few parallel streets between the hill and the Saône, the first traboules were built. Derived from the Latin trans-ambulare, meaning to pass through, traboules are corridors through buildings and their courtyards, connecting one street directly with another. Visitors can discover an architectural heritage of galleries and spiral staircases in these secret passageways, as unexpected as they are unique.

We’ve been to France enough times to realise that it, particularly Paris, isn’t what you’d expect, but this was going to be some fun to check out! Although we had missed the Fête des Lumières, or The Festival of Lights, we discovered as we were roaming around that this grand old city was still very well-lit. The plan for the evening was to have a relatively late dinner due to that deceptively large sausage we had eaten earlier when we got off the train so we headed out into the near-constant drizzle and found a bar near our hotel for a couple of pre-dinner libations before crossing the bridge over the Saône river into the main part of Lyon, taking in the illuminated sights along the way including the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière with blue light streaming out of it on a hill overlooking the Lyon Cathedral. We ended up at L’Instant Gramme for dinner although I can’t recall what we ate that night, but as would be the case over our time in Lyon, it was unbelievably good. After dinner we stopped off for one last drink, but it was a Tuesday night so we decided to have an early one and have a proper look around the next day. A bit of what we saw, as well as some shots of what we ate:

Wednesday, December 29, 2021
Today was going to be another drizzly, yet packed day with a ton of eating involved, but it didn’t matter, we’d wear it off. Our plan of attack was to visit Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse for lunch, but first we stopped off for a coffee as usual and Anna picked up a regional specialty that she wanted to try, a brioche with a pink almond praline that is native to the south of France, and then we were on our way.
Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse is a huge food hall with over 50 stalls named after famed Lyon chef Paul Bocuse, of whom you will read more about later. Once inside we were spoiled for options and we wanted to try a bit of everything, but we just decided to scope out the entire place first, our mouths watering the entire time, and eventually when we saw it we knew immediately what our lunch was going to be. What are the first things that generally come to mind when people think of French cuisine? Frogs and snails of course, and we had hit pay dirt when it came to the former in a stall called Baba La Grenouuille, or ‘Baba the Frog’. In South-East Asia it’s quite common to find stalls in hawker centres where for several generations they have only ever served one dish and perfected it, and that’s the vibe we got about this place; the guy cooking looked like he had worked day in, day out, just perpetually frying up frog legs in the exact same manor for a few decades, simply crumbing and pan-frying them so how could we resist that? We ordered a serving, they came with a slice of lemon and they were absolutely delicious! Once we had finished the frog legs, it was on to the snails and we found another stall selling the largest escargot either of us had ever seen and we eat them any chance we get so we ordered half a dozen. When we first entered the building we had noticed there were a lot of stalls selling seafood, despite Lyon being inland, so we got a dozen large oysters from the same stall as well, just to fill in any potential abdominal gaps, yet another option we wouldn’t regret. Decide for yourself, first with a look around Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse and then what we had for lunch:

Once we were done at Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse it was still only early in the afternoon and there was a whole lot of this city we hadn’t explored. We navigated our way through the streets of both the Old City and the main part of Lyon, taking in the Gothic architecture, cathedrals, fountains, sculptures, and what we found out to be called traboules, a kind of thoroughfare almost solely unique to Lyon:

Traboules (from Latin transambulare via vulgar Latin trabulare meaning “to cross”) are a type of secret covered passageways primarily associated with the city of Lyon, France, but also located in the French cities of Villefranche-sur-Saône, Mâcon, Saint-Étienne, along with a few in Chambéry. In Lyon, they were originally used by silk manufacturers and other merchants to transport their products.

The first examples of traboules are thought to have been built in Lyon in the 4th century. Lacking water, the inhabitants moved to the banks of the Saône (in the ‘lower town’, at the foot of the Fourvière hill). The traboules thus allowed them to get from their homes to the river quickly and allowed the canuts on the La Croix-Rousse hill to get quickly from their workshops to the textile merchants at the foot of the hill. Thus the traboules of Lyon are located primarily in the ‘old city’ (5th arrondissement) and the Croix Rousse (1st and 4th arrondissements) and are often credited with helping prevent the occupying Germans from taking complete control of these areas during World War II. The “Traboule de la cour des Voraces” (“Traboule of the Voracious Court”) is the most famous, located in the Croix-Rousse quarter. It is one of the landmarks of the Canut Revolts (canut is a local term for silk workers) and it is also the oldest reinforced concrete stairwell in Lyon.

The layout of Vieux Lyon is such that there are very few connecting streets running perpendicular to the river. The traboules allowed workmen and craftsmen to transport clothes and other textiles through the city while remaining sheltered from inclement weather. For many inhabitants, being a “true Lyonnais” requires being knowledgeable about the city’s traboules.

After several hours of roaming the streets and laneways it was time for a drink and then some more eating, this time at Le Bœuf d’Argent. As for what we ate, I’m not sure about the desserts, but you may be able to come to a conclusion from the photo of the seasonal menu from which we ordered, if those were the desserts we were actually served. However, although a large portion of the day was spent eating, not all of the day’s best sights were strictly limited to the surface of our plates:

Definitely a great meal to end the day, but now we’ve got to find a way to burn off all of those calories tomorrow!

Thursday, December 30, 2021
It was our last full day in Lyon and one thing we love doing when we’re overseas is visiting flea markets, something we had yet to get around to on this, our first venture out of Singapore in almost two years. After a little bit of research over our morning coffee we discovered that if we took a short drive out to the nearby city of Villeurbanne, we’d find an enormous flea market called Les Puces, consisting of over 200 private shops in a enclosed complex and another 400 outdoor sites so that’s exactly what we did. We booked a ride online and before long we were there. Maybe it was the weather or more than likely due to being the day before New Year’s Eve, but once we had arrived at Les Puces we discovered that a lot of the stalls weren’t open and there definitely weren’t 400 people selling stuff off the ground outside, however, there were definitely plenty of cool pieces still to be found. There were a lot of great antiques and vintage items that we would’ve loved to have checked out in the stalls that were closed, but even the ones that were open had so many things I would love to buy, it’s just a shame that shipping them back to Singapore would cost so much. Sure, shipping from Europe for parcels isn’t that expensive, but it certainly wasn’t just small items that we were looking at. I’ve always loved pinball machines and have wanted one for a long time, plus we both would love an old jukebox for our living room that I could fill up with a ton of 7″ singles that I have and there were quite a few of both, as well as old gramophones, vintage radios, and some other just truly bizarre items. No, we couldn’t get what we would’ve purchased if we had lived nearby and had a friend with a trailer, but we did manage to pick up something that we could just slip into our luggage — A framed replica of the original patent for toilet paper, which now takes pride of place on the back of the door of our spare bathroom.
Take a look around Les Puces:

Because we were still waking up relatively early due to jet lag, it wasn’t that long after midday when we were done with the market. We don’t usually eat lunch except for when we’re on holiday and we happened to find another place we’d need to try — I’ve written before about how my surname, Abel, isn’t all that common, yet we sometimes encounter it in different countries and this would be one of those occasions when found the restaurant, Café Comptoir Abel. This place claims that it “Follows the traditional and famous recipes of Lyonnaise Mothers” and it needs to be said that women here are a lot more adventurous when it comes to cooking than my own mother. We ordered ourselves the Chef’s Terrine, which consisted of pork, veal, and chicken liver, as well as the Calf’s head, and one of the specials which I can’t recall, but looks like beef and potatoes. A calf’s head is a lot fattier than I expected and I was a little disappointed when it came braised, rather than just letting me rip the meat off the skull with my teeth, but it was all great yet again. We bought some Abel goodies for my family after we had finished and then it was time to walk off one incredibly heavy lunch.
That afternoon was the only sunny occasion we had experienced since we boarded that flight to Europe five days prior so we decided to make the most of it by walking around some different areas of Lyon in the sun and through the few traboules that remain open to the public for the last time before we would have to leave for Nice the following day. After a few hours we were back to the area in which we were staying, which happened to back onto Fourvière:

Fourvière is a district of Lyon, France, a hill immediately west of the old part of the town, rising from the river Saône. It is the site of the original Roman settlement of Lugdunum in 43 BC. The district contains many religious buildings including convents, monasteries and chapels. It is known in Lyon as “the hill that prays”.

Fourvière is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site designated for the city of Lyon in 1998 for its testimony to Lyon’s long history as an important European settlement and its extraordinary architecture.

The hill is very fragile in places due to springs, underground streams, ancient tunnels and aqueducts, which have caused several subsidences in the past.

We weren’t all that interested in convents, monasteries, or chapels, so we decided to have a look at the Miniature Museum which looked really cool, but there were a ton of children without masks in the queue, which would more than likely make it an enormous covid farm. In the end we made the long trek up the hill, taking in the sprawling view of the city as we went higher and higher until we eventually reached an ancient Roman theatre at the top of the hill:

The Ancient Theatre of Fourvière is a Roman theatre in Lyon, France. It was built on the hill of Fourvière, which is located in the center of the Roman city. The theatre is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site protecting the historic center of Lyon.

The theatre was built in two steps: around 15 BC, a theatre with a 90 m diameter was built next to the hill. At the beginning of the 2nd century, the final construction added a last place for the audience. The diameter is 108 m, and there were seats for 10,000 people.

The theatre was a pleasant surprise and, besides the multitudes of screaming children up there, it was a great way to spend the afternoon. A look back at our stupendously filling lunch at Café Comptoir Abel, a few more new spots around the city, and the Roman Theatre:

We were still quite full from lunch so we only had a light dinner, an entertaining highlight of which was when a pescatarian woman from the US on another table asked rather loudly if the restaurant’s ‘Surprise Menu’ could only contain fish. Not really a surprise menu then, is it? After dinner we settled into a bar for a bit, but we couldn’t have a late night, because, due to some rather amusing reasons, we had an early start the following morning

Friday, December 31, 2021
It was New Years Eve, the horrendously awful year that was 2021 was almost at a close and we would be traveling to Nice that afternoon to celebrate there, but we were up early because we had a chaotic lunch to tend to. The reason it was going to be stressful is before we go to a new place overseas, Anna likes to watch episodes of Anthony Bourdain‘s TV series’ for tips and on this occasion a couple of nights before we left we had been watching his Parts Unknown episode on Lyon at 2:00am after a night out and had made an impulse decision for our upcoming stay. At the beginning of our Lyon stint we were in Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, but in this particular Parts Unknown episode, Bourdain went to Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges and Anna decided that this may be the best meal we would ever get to eat so she immediately tried to make a booking, the only one available for two being at midday on December 31. She let out a small shriek as soon as it was confirmed, I ran into our room and threw a suit into my already packed suitcase, and then we realised how late it was and went to bed that night. A little more about this particular restaurant:

Bocuse’s main restaurant, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, is a luxury establishment near Lyon, which has been serving a traditional menu for decades. It was one of only 27 restaurants in France to receive a three-star rating in 2017 by the Michelin Guide. However, it lost its record-breaking 55-year long 3-star rating in the 2020 Michelin Guide, sparking controversy in the French culinary world.

Bocuse died of Parkinson’s disease on 20 January 2018 in Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or, in the same room above his restaurant, L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, in which he was born in 1926. He was 91.

Even if it has lost a Michelin star, I still agree that a midday booking for lunch in a two-star restaurant in France will still probably be the greatest thing we’ll ever get to eat, but now that we were actually in Lyon, there was a small problem; we had a train to catch to Nice at 2:00pm and if we cancelled it, the next one was later that evening and it wasn’t a direct train like the one had already booked.

We got dressed, packed our luggage, and got a ride to the restaurant, arriving about half an hour before it even opened under the mistaken belief that we might get served earlier. We sat around in a courtyard with a statue of Paul Bocuse and once the restaurant finally opened we sheepishly asked the waiter if he could stash our luggage for us. Not off to a great start and it only gets cringier. We pulled up a seat at our table and it soon became clear that the man might have been somewhat of an egomaniac, because his name or initials were on every possible surface, even engraved into the cutlery. We ordered three starters and a main to share, two of the dishes solely because we had seen them on that episode of Parts Unknown — Truffle soup Elysée, a dish created for the French president in 1975, and a whole truffled chicken cooked inside a bladder. That’s right, cooked inside an animal’s bladder, we just didn’t know exactly from what type of animal it was and as much as I wanted to try it, they didn’t serve us the actual bladder.
We were almost immediately served some canapés, and not long after our first starter came; poultry and lobster boudin with truffle and yellow wine sauce. Service had been quite fast at the beginning, but it took another 20 minutes for the next two starters, the truffle soup and a sturgeon mosaic with creamy potatoes and Osetra caviar, to come so we started to get worried as we were now waiting on an entire chicken, plus we also needed the time required to consume one, then the cheeses and desserts and we had to leave in about an hour. It was 1:00pm when our chicken arrived, looking like a veiny volleyball. The first portion was carved and served to us, followed by the second and by the time we had finished both, it was also time for us to get back into town and to the station. We couldn’t have dessert or the cheese, but they were nice enough to give us some chocolates in a doggy bag:

So to recap, in a poorly planned attempt to have one of the best, albeit most expensive meals of our lives in one of the most famous restaurants in France, we shamelessly:

  1. Asked them to find a place to store our luggage, and
  2. Had to take food home in a doggy bag.

This lunch was probably even better than we had expected, but one question still remains; did we make that train? Absolutely!

Stay tuned for the next instalment of our journey when we spend time in Nice and Aix-en-Provence.

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