Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Off to Lyon (June 2005)

We began our journey early in the morning, with little traffic and taking our time as we drove through small villages as we made our way to the Autoroute. One such village that caught our eye was Sallanges, a small market center located at the base of Mont Blanc. This tiny village sports several hotels including the Hotel de Paris shown in the picture below. We thought perhaps the tiny village might be a place for spill-over guests once the ski resort centers are full. It was quaint with overflowing pots of brightly colored spring flowers. It only had only a couple narrow two-lane streets and we thought it was cute but too quiet for the two of us.

We eventually made our way to the Autoroute, figured out how to pass through the toll gates and began our drive toward Lyon. Traffic was moderate and the highway well-traveled by large trucks. We rarely if ever encountered trucks on the small country roads so they caught us by surprise. They all travel strictly in the right lane and we were told that this is the rule.

We also enjoyed another new experience: We hadn't yet had to put gasoline in our car since we picked it up with a full tank. Wanting to avoid running out of gas, we pulled into a gas station along the Autoroute and tried to figure out which gas to use, which side of the car the gas cap was on and then how to use the pump. The pump looked ordinary, however, we could not read the directions (all in French) or figure out which gas to use. I was able to figure out which gas but I didn't know how to start the darned pump because there was no slot for a credit card or euro note. As much as he dreaded it, Doug left me with the car while he went inside to use his best hand signals to get the clerk to help him. She spoke enough English to let him know that you don't pay until after you pump! Just pump your gas and then come in and pay. Now that's novel. Very French indeed, I mean why would somebody want to pay for something they have not yet received? It's this kind of logic that we so lovingly appreciate in France. Why indeed! So, he simply lifted the nozzle filled the tank, gave the young lady the credit card, said his au revoir, merci and we were on our way. We did stop off at the brasserie next to the gas station. It's so cool to be able to walk in, have a quick espresso and be on your way in short order. It's so time-efficient being French. We also marveled at the delicious looking display of fresh homemade foods they offered, cafeteria style, including yummy pastries. Very nice indeed, but we were saving ourselves for Lyonnais cuisine, so off we went again.

When we arrived in Lyon we were surprised by the urban sprawl, traffic, and difficulty in maneuvering with road signs that were too unfamiliar to us. We followed the Rhône River for a bit and took the exit for "Old Lyon." We drove for approximately an hour through neighborhoods, along the river and back and forth until we finally found the small street that would take us up to the high peak where the La Villa Florentine hotel clerk would check us in. We were hungry, hot, cranky and tired by the time we arrived but such emotions quickly left when we walked through the door of the hotel into a lobby of polished Carrara Italian marble, pastel Frescos and angelic relief sculptures. Bach was gently playing, the lobby was cool, peaceful and richly furnished. After our rustic futon in the Haute-Savoie we felt like the Beverly Hillbillies must have felt when they came to Beverly Hills! Later we learned that the hotel was once a monastery for Catholic monks and had quite a long history. It certainly had been beautifully and artfully restored and hadn't lost any of its character.

La Villa Florentine is a four-star Relais & Chateaux (chain) hotel with sophisticated, artistic grounds and gardens, a five-star restaurant atop an open terrace with a 180 degree view of Lyon. The hotel rooms were spacious with high-ceilings. We were supplied with fluffy large towels and bathrobes. The French-style Louis XV furnishings were elegant and we had a gigantic marble-tiled bathroom (floor to ceiling, including tub/shower).

We opened our windows and had the same 180 degree view of Lyon (new and old), including the St. Jean Cathedral (a UNESCO site since 1998), Notre Dame Cathedral of Lyon, the Urban Center, rivers and mountains in the distance. But the real topper was a spacious king size bed with elegant 800 count Egyptian Cotton sheets. We both let out a gasp as we walked to the bed and simultaneously flopped backward onto the surface, giggling all the while.

We washed up and unpacked the scant suitcase we brought for a two-night stay, and famished we descended the 225 steps just to the east corner of our hotel and were dumped right smack in the middle of the bustling little "Old Lyon" village. (Old Lyon rooftops are visible in the picture with apples, above.) We quickly found a small brasserie where we settled in for some lunch. We ordered a full carafe of the Beaujolais wine and they brought us a small bowl with butter and radishes as well as a small bowl of the best olives I've ever tasted. By the way, it turns out that butter and radishes is a common snack served with an aperitif, and it really is delicious. I ordered a Lyonnais salad which had lardons (crispy shards of bacon), croutons and a poached egg a top greens lightly dressed with a delicious Beaujolais vinaigrette. My salad was accompanied by a basket of artisan french bread still warm from the oven. Doug enjoyed a plate of Lyonnais pasta consisting of buttery herbed noodles and saucisson de Lyon (this sausage is popular all over France. Our table was on the sidewalk and under an umbrella and we were able to watch people walking by. We dined slowly drinking in the lively atmosphere of the area, before strolling down cobblestone pedestrian streets. We found a wonderful wine shop, met the proprietor Georges Dos Santos, a Spaniard who speaks fluent French and English. He's a character. He gave us free tastings of some wonderful wines and we bought several bottles to take along with us on our trip--what the heck, we were already loaded with luggage so what's a little extra? If you're ever in Lyon, stop and see Georges Dos Santos at "The Flying Sommelier" in Old Lyon. He knows a lot about French wines and he'll let you taste some awesome wines.

Lyon is the second largest city in France (Paris is, of course, first) and is sometimes referred to as the "second Paris." It is about 160 kilometers from Geneva and 125 kms from Megève, located in the south-east of France and still part of the dèpartement de Rhône Alps. It is known for the Beaujolais wine region abutting from the north and the Côtes du Rhône wine abutting from the south. It is also famous for silk and you can visit shops with artisans creating silk scarves and other beautiful garments. The other positives for this city of some 4.4 million people is their soccer team (soccer is called "football" in France). The Olympique Lyonnais soccer team is part of the European Football Championship and is the reason Lyon has enjoyed international fame. There are two huge rivers (Rhône, which yields into and becomes the Soâne) where barges and cruise ships take passengers through the respective wine countries via a series of locks and into Lyon. Interior riverboat treks are very popular with the English. We quickly realized that to see all the monuments, sculptures, museums, fountains, restaurants and so on, we'd need to come back and spend at least a week or more. The Lyonnais also consider Lyon to be the center of gastronomy. They take pride in their cooking, using a lot of butter, herbs, sausage, potatoes, eggs and cream; opposite of other regions in France where only olive oil is used in cooking. The food is delicious.

We decided we'd had enough for one day and began walking back toward our hotel. Suddenly it dawned upon us that we now had to climb up 225 steps! It was hot and we slowly took the steps very grudgingly, but we made it. We'd had started our day very early as we had decided to watch the U.S. basketball championship game with the San Antonio Spurs taking on (and winning) the Detroit Pistons. So we stayed in for the night. We took care of some e-mail and posted to our journals, then sat up in bed supported by a million down pillows and dined on sandwiches we bought from below while enjoying some local television. Doug opened a bottle of that good Beaune region wine Georges sold to us, and generously filled two glasses. Georges has excellent taste! We slept like babies, caressed by elegant bed covers. Ah, paradise!

The next day we took a long stroll and encountered a large-scale flea market at the base of our hill along the Soâne. We saw many interesting people and it seemed like many of them were Muslims. We assumed, therefore, that Lyon must have a high Muslim population. We also saw (see photos below) an odd woman who was literally draped in silk scarves from the top of her head to her feet. She was colorful, artistic and well-hidden from view, including her face. Interesting.

The market sold only brick-a-brack, used items and what looked like a lot of junk, but people were buying it up and bargaining like crazy. It was a thrilling cultural high for us. We stopped at a small café for a petit dejeuner (breakfast of bread, jam, juice and coffee), bought some water and continued on foot through the modern section of Lyon. We didn't eat until about 10:30 a.m. (most French don't eat early, eat light, then have a snack later in the day) and it stayed with us all afternoon. We made a reservation at our hotel to try the late dining on the terrace, since we knew there would be a full moon, so we had a little fruit and some snacks in our room during the late afternoon rest period.

We had been intently watching the French during meal time and think it appropriate to talk for a second about dining and cultural differences. We learned that the French keep their hands and forearms on the table--no laps please. Also, when someone orders an apero everyone else does the same and when it arrives everyone lifts their glass and says "sante" or "ching ching" (meaning to your health) and (you MUST look people in the eye when you toast) then everyone drinks. In this regard we also (read) learned that to not drink after the toast can lead to seven years of bad luck. Oh no! Finally, nobody eats until everyone is served and then (probably whoever set up the dinner engagement) someone says "bon appetite" and everyone begins eating--albeit slowly.

We were the second of two couples dining on the terrace under the moonlight. It was a balmy floral-scented evening and we could see all the lights of Lyon beneath the moon as they cast their likeness upon the glassy waters of the river below. We dined for two hours, tasting, sipping, enjoying before we sleepily pushed the button to the elevator that would take us back to our beautiful bed and handsomely decorated room. It was truly a wonderful respite from our rustic cabin in the mountains.

We took our time going back to Megève. After enjoying the fast-paced life of Lyon, we were happy to take back roads, stopping in small villages for a coffee every now and again, and just enjoying the beauty of the countryside that skirts the alpine region. We were now aware that the electrified city of Lyon was the second Paris, so we could hardly wait to finish out our last night in Megève so that we could leave Monday morning for Geneva where we were reserved on the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), a "fast train," for our 200 mph trip to Paris. We left ourselves just enough time to do some laundry, pack and finish off the last of the left over paté, fruit, cheese, bread and pastry in our apartment.

At this point we had toured remote areas of France in the Haute-Savoie followed by a brief tour of enormous and densely populated Lyon. Each day we became recharged with new discoveries. We were at a loss to explain this cultivation of a new and strange affinity for a country where neither of us could speak the language but felt very much in touch with the culture that exists there. Strange indeed, but wonderful!

The following photographs depict our observations as we toured. Enjoy!

Strange Woman Draped in Scarves from Head to Food

A Flea Market Along the Soâne River

Moonlit View From Open Terrace Five Star Restaurant La Villa Florentine

Lively Tourist Area in Modern Lyon along the Soâne River

225 Steps from our Hotel Lead Us to Old Lyon. The Tall Building in the Backdrop Marks the Urban Center and a Real Contrast to Old Lyon (The Building is the Credit Lyonnais Building and It Looks Like a Silo

View of Hotel Gardens Below Our Window, Old Lyon Beyond

Fresh Fruit AND a Panoramic View of Lyon

The Lobby of La Villa Florentine

The Fabulous Four-Star La Villa Florentine Hotel (plus our car rental)

Four Lane Autoroute Toward Lyon

Small Market Village of Sallanges, Showing the Hotel de Paris

Next post: The "French Laundry Caper."

No comments:

Post a Comment