After a very late night arriving into Lyon, from Switzerland, the kids managed to sleep until 7.30am which wasn’t awful but still not enough sleep for everyone given the late night. The consolation was a breakfast of fresh croissants from the nearby boulangerie. One of the benefits of France, delicious, freshly baked, carbohydrates are usually metres from your door.
Our food tour was scheduled to start at 10am so we had some time to wander Lyon on the way to the tour meeting point. Despite spending a large period time in France on our last trip, we did not make it as far South as Lyon. We were looking forward to exploring (and eating) what the city had to offer during our 3 days and 4 nights there.
Lyon, is in France’s Rhône-Alpes region, and sits at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. Lyon sits geographically between France’s 2 largest cities – 470km from Paris and 420km from Marseille. It is also only 160km from Geneva, Switzerland and 280km from Turin in Italy! The rivers and hills throughout the city make it quite easy to navigate. Our apartment was on the banks of the Saône, looking towards Vieux Lyon and Fourvière hill. The views at night were pretty impressive and we were excited to get out and see what Lyon looked like in daylight.
As we wandered along the banks of the Saône it looked entirely different from what we had seen the previous night, but still extremely picturesque. It was a beautiful morning with clear skies and a lot warmer than it had been in Switzerland. With a belly full of pastry and wonderful views like this, it wasn’t going to be a tough day…….
It was a quite mild morning compared to the previous week or two so it wasn’t too cold walking down the river to our tour starting point. We’d booked the food tour before leaving Australia and had been looking forward to it for the whole trip. originally we had planned to do a well-reviewed food tour in Avignon, but the tour guide was on her honeymoon during our planned visit so we had opted instead for this Lyon tour. It also had good reviews, but was twice the price of the Avignon tour so we had high expectations.
The meeting point for the tour was La Place Bellacour. We met our tour guide, Aurelie, and she quickly informed us that La Place Bellacour was the place that the Lyonnais like to meet, usually under the equestrian statue of King Louis XIV which is in the centre of the square. The kids thought the statue was pretty impressive. At the bottom of the statue are 2 allegorical statues of the Rhône and Saône. The square, is one of the largest open squares in Europe, and is dominated by a large Ferris wheel. It is also the zero point of Lyon and all distances are measured from the square.
During the Winter months the food tours are offered as private tours, so it was only the 6 of us. Lyon has a reputation as the food capital of France and a leader in gastronomy internationally. The Lyonnais are very proud of their unique food and food history and we were hoping to learn more about it during the tour. We were also promised plenty of taste tests!
After Aurelie gave us the history of La Place Bellacour and the stautes, and a lots of information about the role of gastronomy in Lyon, we moved to our first stop, chocolatier Voisin. Voisin is famous for the Coussin de Lyon, a sweet specialty of Lyon composed of chocolate and marzipan. This tidbit is a piece of pale green marzipan, with dark green netting, filled with a chocolate ganache flavored with curacao liqueur. Voisin was originally a coffee roaster but is now more famous for its production of chocolates and other sweets. The Coussin, or pillow chocolates came about as during the plague epidemic in 1643, the aldermen of Lyon made the vow to organize a procession at Fourvière to implore the Virgin Mary to save the city. They carried a seven-pound candle of wax and a gold crown on a silk cushion. This gave the chocolatier Voisin, the idea of using the shape of the cushion to create this confection in 1960. It has become the most popular French specialty confection.
Despite none of us particularly liking marzipan we all agreed they were very nice! The kids were excited to be getting chocolate for breakfast. Next on the tasting list were the white chocolate praline quenelles. Praline features in a lot of Lyon specialties.
When your entire morning consists of eating chocolates it isn’t too hard. It was about to get better though. Next we headed back over the Saône River to a patisserie for some more sweet treats. The Eric Kayser patisserie was one we had visited frequently during our last trip to Paris (as it was one of favourites on our street), so we knew what we were going to taste was likely to be good.
Pralines are made of almonds wrapped with cooked sugar and pink food colouring. This hard sweet is said to have been created by Clément Jaluzot, who was the chef of a 17th century French Marshall called Plessis-Pralin, giving his name to pralines! In the Lyon area they are well-known and appreciated. You can eat them by themselves or use them to decorate cakes and tarts such as the famous “tarte aux pralines” (pralines tart) or “brioche aux pralines” (pralines brioche). We were tasting both. Even though they were quite sweet, both were delicious. I think we were heading for a bit of a sugar high though, not that the kids were complaining!
We were thankfully going to walk off a little of the sugar as we wandered through Vieux Lyon (Lyon Old Town). First stop was Lyon Cathedral (or Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon). A Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist. Interestingly most of the statues were beheaded during the French revolution and the heads were never replaced. There are also a huge number of interesting gargoyles on the building, all hand carved. Soren obviously didn’t find it that interesting and some how fell asleep, despite his sugar high!
Next we were off to see the famous Lyon Traboules. Traboules (or secret passages) are thought to have been built in Lyon during the 4th century. Lacking water, the inhabitants moved to the banks of the Saône. The traboules thus allowed them to get from their homes to the river quickly and allowed the Lyonnais silk merchants 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’ and the Croix Rousse, and are often credited with helping prevent the occupying Germans from taking complete control of these areas during World War II when the traboules through houses enabled the local people to escape Gestapo raids.
There are approximately 300 traboules in Lyon but only 10 are open to the public. Most traboules are on private property, serving as entrances to local apartments. The city has a covenant with the owners of apartments with traboules to allow free access to the public in exchange for reduced rates, but as most residents find it inconvenient due to the number of tourists (especially during Summer) those open to the public are generally in complexes primarily with rented out apartments.
All traboules that are open are marked by a sign, but even so they are hard to see, and you either need a guide or marked map (or some luck) to locate them. We visited 4 different traboules and learnt about the different architecture, the types of arches and balconies and where the water wells used to be. Most had gates up to stop people going into private areas.
After our visit to the traboules we walked back across the river and through an open air market, full of delicious cheeses and other produce. It was definitely reminding us our last visit to Paris where we shopped at similar markets.
Next on the agenda was a visit to Lyon’s most famous market, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Les Halles de Lyon (Lyon’s covered markets) have been in existence since 1970. They were previously located in the district of Les Cordeliers. They were later moved to the sixth district. Many of the over 60 shops are star-rated by the Michelin guide. The Halles is named after Paul Bocuse, a legendary figure on both the French and international cooking scene.
The markets are known for show-casing the finest of the local cuisine and the freshest of ingredients. We started with a quick wander around the markets and checked out the macarons. Apparently the foie gras macarons are famous, but I wasn’t going to be giving that a go. We then walked past numerous delicious patisseries.
There ended the interesting stuff for me as we headed to butchers and learnt about the famous Bresse chickens, and quenelles (that look vegetarian until you hear what is in them). Quenelles are dumplings made of wheat (either wheat flour or semolina), butter, eggs, milk, water and, usually, fish. The most famous quenelles are pike quenelles (“quenelles de brochet”) and are often served with Nantua sauce. This sauce is composed of crayfish, celery, carrots and Cognac and is also sometimes served with whitefish and rice. We also checked out the snails, frog legs and a butcher that produced aged meats that were ordered months in advance.
We then learnt about the different types of sausage and cheese than Lyon is famous for. Rosette might be one of the most famous pork products from Lyon. Rosette is a large cured sausage, which has been dried for two or three months. Its name comes from its rose-coloured appearance. As for cheese, Saint-Marcellin is a very famous small cheese from Dauphiné, to Lyon’s south-east. It has a very special history, becoming popular in the 15th century thanks to Louis XI, before he actually became King. During a game hunting trip in the Drôme department, he was saved by two woodcutters who killed a bear that was attacking the Dauphin. To help him recover, the two woodcutters fed him a typical cheese from their area, which is known today as Saint-Marcellin. The woodcutters were then ennobled by Louis XI and their cheese became famous throughout the kingdom.
With our gastronomy lessons up to date it was time for wine and cheese tasting. We went to a restaurant above one the well-renowned cheese stores. We had a tasting of cheeses, some bread, wine (white or red depending on our preference) and a plate of meats. The wines were very nice and the cheeses that were selected for us were a blue cheese from England, a camembert with truffles, sheep cheese, goat cheese, and the mystery hard strong cheese that no-one remembers the name of. The meats were donkey sausage (which is a mix of meats not actually donkey), rosette sausage, and a meaty terrine. I’m not a fan of smelly French cheese but enjoyed the camembert and sheep and goat cheese. The kids went crazy for all of the cheeses and meats and kept demanding more blue cheese. Their palates or obviously more refined than mine!
Our food tour ended here and we bid farewell to our guide, Aurelie and were left to explore the market on our own. The information in the tour was great and the tastings were really fun. I think we all enjoyed the food but agreed it was a little over-priced for 3 hours and the amount of food we got. Nonetheless it was something different that we hadn’t done elsewhere on this trip and we did learn a lot about Lyon and it’s food culture.
We had a little wander around the market on our own but many of the retailers were closed for their lunch break. We decided to head back to the apartment before deciding on the afternoons activities. The walk back took us past the Rhône and many delicious patisseries. We picked up some treats and a baguette. While we had a quick sit down in the apartment we snacked on the raspberry and chocolate tarts and baguettes with butter. It had been a good eating day thus far.
Soren looked unlikely to succumb to another nap (even though the first was annoyingly short) so we decided to check out Fourvière before finding somewhere for dinner. Fourvière is a district of Lyon and also a hill immediately west of the old part of the town, rising abruptly from the river Saône and then gently sloping down to the north-west. It is the site of the original Roman settlement of Lugdunum (43 BC). Though it supports the world’s two oldest and active funicular lines, it is primarily known for the Catholic Basilica of Fourvière. The Basilica was where we were headed, so over the Saône (for about the umpteenth time that day)…… it was still damn pretty, and then onto the funicular.
Despite taking many funiculars over the prior few weeks, we didn’t realise there were 2 different funicular lines up to Fourvière and managed to take the wrong one. This meant we had a rather long walk over the hill to find the Basilica, but did get a really good look at just how big Fourvière district is, with apartments spread out as far as we could see.
Once we were over the top of the hill, the Basilica was pretty hard to miss. It is enormous! The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière (Basilique de Fourvière) was built with private funds between 1872 and 1884 in a dominating position in the city. The site it occupies was once the Roman forum of Trajan, the forum vetus (old forum), thus its name (as an inverted corruption of the French Vieux-Forum). Fourvière is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whom is attributed the salvation of the city of Lyon from the bubonic plague, that was sweeping Europe in 1643.
Perched on top of the Fourvière hill, the basilica looms impressively over the city of Lyon, from where it can be seen from many vantage points. The basilica of Fourvière has become a symbol of the city. You can see it from many places within the city and from the basilica you can see Lyon spread out magnificently below. It is definitely a spot you want to visit if you are in Lyon.
We also checked out the Lyon ‘Eiffel Tower’ . The Tour métallique de Fourvière (“Metallic tower of Fourvière”)is a steel framework tower which bears a striking resemblance to the Eiffel Tower, which predates it by three years. With a height of 85.9 metres and weight of 210 tons, the “metallic tower” was built between 1892 and 1894. It used to have it a restaurant and an elevator capable of taking 22 people up to the summit. Although used as an observation tower until November 1, 1953, nowadays it serves as a television tower and is not accessible to the public. At 372m, it is the highest point in Lyon, and is visible from pretty much anywhere in the city.
Even though the walk down through the gardens looked nice, it also looked steep, so we caught the funicular down, hoping to stop off at the Roman ruins, but again caught the wrong funicular line (we should have caught the same one we went up on back down). Since it was now almost 5pm we decided to head through Old Town and find somewhere for dinner.
There are no shortage of restaurants in Lyon, over 2000 of them! The challenge though was finding somewhere open at 5pm, as most don’t open until 7 or 8pm as the French like to eat late. Luckily there were a few bouchons offering ‘continuous service’ so we had a few options. A bouchon is a type of restaurant found in Lyon, that serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, such as sausages, duck pâté or roast pork. Compared to other forms of French cooking such as nouvelle cuisine, the dishes are quite fatty and heavily oriented around meat. There are approximately twenty officially certified traditional bouchons, but a larger number of establishments describe themselves using the term. We had learnt during the food tour that the officially certified bouchons are now not always better than the restaurants just using the term.
Once we selected our bouchon, and yes we were the only ones there, we had to narrow down our dinner options. Bouchons typically offer set menus of various courses, and compared to Swiss prices we could eat like kings. For dinner I had the only vegie options from the 3 course menu. I didn’t really want 3 courses after eating all day, but was cheaper by far to order off the set course menus, so I figured when in France…..
I had a salad with fried, breaded cheese, followed by a main of cheese and cream pasta (a baked ravioli that was really nice). Dessert was pannacotta with praline. Anto had lyonnaise salad with bacon (which is similar to Caesar salad), a quenelle with lobster sauce, and chocolate mousse for dessert. Alan had French onion soup with crumbed chicken and potato for main, and creme caramel for dessert. Mikl had not been with us for the afternoon so did not get to polish off the leftovers. There was so much food that the kids wisely shared with us, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
With very full tummies, we walked back through the old town and along the, river towards our apartment. Everyone was just starting to come out for their dinners as we were heading in for the night. The city was all lit up as were all the buildings.
We got the kids off to bed, not too late for once. It gave us a chance to check out the views of Lyon at night from our apartment. We had a birdseye view of the boats going up and down the Saône river and all the colourful lights. We also had a chance to do some long exposure shots which captured the lights of the river boats, and the Saône did look magnificent.
Statistics for Wednesday the 20th of January 2016 in Lyon, France – the minimum temperature for the day was 4 degrees and the maximum was 6 degrees, with a mean of 5 degrees. It felt rather warm to us after a pretty cold few weeks through Austria and Switzerland. The locals kept remarking on how lightly dressed we were for the time of year! The total walking for the day was over 17km and Astrid walked pretty much all of it. Lyon was an easy city to wander on foot.