‘The weather in Lyon is good,’ says the pilot, though curiously he tells us that it is quinze (15) in French but sixteen degrees in English. I’m English, so will at least feel a little warmer.
In 80 minutes I’m whisked from Gatwick to France’s second city, and straight onto the airport bus into town. The driver’s radio lets us know that Edith Piaf has no regrets, and quite frankly, neither do I. I am back in one of France’s great secrets, although how a city of Lyon’s size remains relatively undiscovered by tourists is one of life’s mysteries.
I walk in the sunshine to the Old Town, the largest and best-preserved Renaissance district in France. Gerard, the Concierge at my hotel, the Cour des Loges, looks like he’s from that era too, being small and dapper and with a moustache like the Laughing Cavalier’s. I ask him for a lunch recommendation, and am impressed by the way he writes ‘Le Soleil’ upside-down on a map, so I can read it. ‘Just one of the skills of the Concierge,’ he explains.
Food is one of the joys of Lyon, and the Old Town is said to have more restaurants per metre than anywhere else in the world. Le Soleil is the kind of unpretentious place that offers great food at affordable prices – a three-course lunch for a few euros, or just the dish of the day. It’s exactly the kind of place I want, and that a good Concierge knows about.
I have to have a Salad Lyonnaise from the nine starters on offer, followed by pepper steak and a banana mousse, though not of course on the same plate. While I wait and savour my Côtes du Rhône, the local wine, I read a guidebook and discover that Gerard has sent me to the oldest bouchon in Lyon. The bouchons, or inns, are a Lyon tradition, having served hearty well-priced food for the last few centuries. A genuine bouchon must have a bar/counter and a sight of the kitchen for the customers.
It’s hard to be out of the sight of a kitchen in Lyon, but it’s not just for greedy gourmets as there are over a dozen museums to visit too, including the largest and most important art collection outside the Louvre, in the city’s Musée des Beaux Arts. It has not one but two Roman theatres, not one but two rivers running through it (the Rhône and the Saône) and contains the shop of the best chocolate-maker in France.
As if that’s not enough, as a female friend pointed out to me on a postcard from Lyon one time after I’d encouraged her to visit: ‘You didn’t tell me it was shopping heaven!’ Well, there are some things men notice, and some things women notice.
Back at the hotel my bath is so big it could cope with two people doing synchronised swimming, and is so comfortable I actually fall asleep in it. Or just possibly it was the Côtes du Rhône. Whichever, by the time I wake up and dry off it is, what do you know, time for another meal. Oh dear, more Côtes du Rhône, poached salmon in basil and a crême brulée.
The Lyon Silk Weavers
Next morning I take the Métro up to Croix-Rousse, the old hilltop silk weavers’ district. Lyon has been a textile centre for centuries, and this made it one of the wealthiest cities in Europe in the 15th century. From Croix-Rousse I use a local booklet to help me pick my way back down to the city centre following the traboules.
Traboules, like bouchons, are another Lyon feature, covered passageways that the workers used to rush their silks through the streets, keeping them dry in the rain or out of the sun. These are hard to find without a guide, many being merely doors in buildings that lead into courtyards and out the other side. Pick the wrong one and you could find yourself in someone’s hallway, but I avoid this embarrassment and end up safely back down in town.
The Best Chocolate in France
As I’m right across the river from Bernachon, the shop that makes the best chocolate in France according to a friend of mine in Paris, what else can I do but see if she’s right? I step through the door into this chocolate paradise and take a sniff. She’s right. I examine the counters of orangettes, palets d’or, of cherries soaked in kirsch and covered in dark chocolate, of chocolates filled with rum, with Grand-Marnier, with armagnac. Oh dear. I’ve just found another way to put on weight in Lyon.