By Pamela Jacobs
I had planned a trip to the Rhone-Alps region of France, following a weekend in Paris, with a clear agenda: to see the real France, to soak up some art and culture, and to eat as much, and as well, as possible. Not that my weekend in Paris didn’t show me the real France—but I wanted to go beyond what most tourists see. I had heard that a trip throughout the Rhone-Alps was a great way to experience all that I wanted from a true French vacation, and had a feeling I’d be able to see some culture and eat some great food. I just didn’t know it would become what I consider the best trip I’ve ever taken, thus far.
I boarded a high-speed train out of the Gare de Lyon in Paris, and in less than two hours I arrived in Lyon, the first leg of my three part journey. Lyon, being the second largest city in France (when you count in the surrounding area outside of the city-center, it has a population of about 1.4 million), and the capital of the Rhone-Alps region, was the perfect place to begin.
The city of Lyon’s motto is “Only in Lyon,” and I believe that sums it up perfectly. It’s not just the second largest French city, or a mini-Paris, it’s a unique, lively, exuberant, charming, and utterly enchanting city that stands on its own as a must-see destination. Sure, there’s a mini Eiffel Tower, and there’s a cultural and gastronomic presence that’s equal to Paris—actually Lyon is known as the culinary capital of France—but it’s got a certain je ne sais quoi that makes the “Only in Lyon” saying perfectly dead-on.
Upon arriving, I checked into my hotel, the Cour des Loges (www.courdesloges.com/uk), smack dab in the middle of the Old City (Vieux Lyon), which in my opinion in the best place to be. While the entire city is charming, lovely, and oh-so-French, Old Lyon is what movies, dreams, and fairytales are made of. And if you’re into that sort of thing, Cour des Loges should be the only place you consider staying.
Charming and authentic are understatements when describing this hotel, which sits on a tiny, winding cobblestone street in town. It’s reminiscent of the Italian renaissance because that’s when it was built—those 13th century-looking structures and archways you’re seeing are from the 13th century.
The lobby is a covered courtyard surrounded by arched, stuccoed walls that are so filled with history and life, it seems they might actually be breathing. Within the courtyard one finds Les Loges, one of the hotel’s award-winning restaurants serving gastronomic cuisine in the setting of a marble-floored Florentine square. Each of the 61 rooms and suites is a work of art and a testament to the long passed centuries in which the hotel was built. Every room is different and unique—mine featured a staircase leading to a sleeping loft, with a hand-painted mural, old wood and beams, antique furniture, wrought-iron, and an inviting, raised curtained bathtub. Every single room, from standard to grand suite, is a work of art and a wonder to behold.
After checking in, I ate lunch at Café-Epicerie, Cour des Loge’s second, and equally impressive restaurant. Surrounded by stone walls, original Lyonnais silk tapestries, dark wood, and deliciously beautiful aromas, I enjoyed a truly great meal. I was beyond satiated, and ready to explore.
Lyon is a complex and interesting landscape, encompassing two rivers—the Rhône and the Saône—and the Presqu’île, a peninsula which juts in between, on which a vibrant part of the city lies. I decided to get oriented by beginning at the top of a hill overlooking the entire city, Fourvière Hill, where I could get an overview of the city and a lesson in its history and importance, of which there is more than this article can cover. To put it briefly, Lyon dates back to Roman times during the year 43 BC, when it was founded by a lieutenant of Julius Caesar. Centuries later Lyon’s silk weaving history began and flourished, and the rest is history—a history which led to Lyon being what it is today, among other things, the center of French gastronomy.
I learned this history while up on the Fourvière Hill, where I also spotted the aforementioned mini-Eiffel Tower, and visited the stunning Notre Dame de Fourvière, a breathtaking basilica. A short walk from there led to a view of the intact Roman amphitheater built in 14 BC where cultural events are held throughout the summer, and from there I strolled through the Jardin des Roses that led down a steep staircase and brought me back to the center of Old Lyon. Not bad for the first day.
I then strolled through the winding streets whose bistros, cafes, and bouchons were alive with the excitement and anticipation of the upcoming night, which, at the time I was unaware of, was to be a celebration the likes of which this American tourist had never experienced, but I’ll get back to that.
Remember the “Only in Lyon” motto? Well, there are two things in Lyon that exist only in Lyon, and try as you might, you won’t find anywhere else in France or the world. One is the bouchon, a Lyonnais bistro serving typically Lyonnais wine and fare of specialty dishes, meats, and delicacies specific to the area.
The other are the traboules, small passageways through which the public can walk, that run between buildings and houses in Vieux Lyon, linking the narrow streets, and offering a window into the 16th and 17th century architecture and history of the city. A visit to Lyon absolutely must include a tour of the traboules of the city.
After wandering around the heart of the old part of town and falling absolutely, madly in love with it, I decided to venture out of that area, so I chose to have dinner across the river on the Presqu’ile, in the “newer” part of the city.
While the old city is very old and charming, the area on the Presqu’ile is just as filled with European charm and character, and also quite easy to fall in love with. I passed countless restaurants that were all inviting, and finally decided on one of the many restaurants—the amount of restaurants almost puts New York to shame—a gorgeous place called Bistrot de Lyon (64 Rue Mercière, www.bistrotsdecuisiniers.com/uk/index.php#le-bistrot-de-lyon.php) whose charm and beauty, including red velvet banquettes, large mirrors, and mosaics, were matched equally by the excellent food.
While I ate dinner, outside the festivities were taking off, as part of the surprise portion of the trip. What I hadn’t realized earlier was that night, being the first of summer, was a country-wide festival known as “La Fête de la Musique,” or Festival of Music, which the entire nation collectively celebrates each year on the summer solstice. As I left the restaurant, I was greeted by a large crowd of people dancing in the streets and singing along to the various bands who were playing throughout the city. I, of course, joined the merriment, and spent the rest of the night partying in the streets of Lyon, celebrating summer.
While I spent that first night partying like a local, the next day I had a job to do: as I had mentioned, I had quite a bit of culture and food to take in, and I took that job seriously. In France, people don’t just go to the local supermarket to get their food—they go to colorful, vibrant markets known as Les Halles. In Lyon, “Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse” (103 Cours Lafayette) is an amazing covered market offering the most overwhelmingly beautiful selection of the freshest cheeses, including the local St. Marcellin, pastries, meats, seafood, delicacies, wine, and produce one could possibly imagine. It’s an extravaganza, a feast of flavors, smells, and colors that can bring tears to the eyes of any serious foodie. I wanted to move in.
After buying many gifts for myself (and some for other people), the only thing that was able to tear me away from the market was knowing I was to have lunch at Daniel et Denise, a traditional bouchon whose reputation had me more than a little excited. Daniel et Denise (156 Rue de Créqui) is what we Americans might refer to as haute comfort food. The chef/owner, Joseph Viola, who has won numerous awards, including the revered Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2004, alongside his wife, presents traditional bouchon cuisine that does not stray from the classics, yet is at the level of any top gastronomic restaurant. Dishes such as quenelles—sensational dumplings in a rich sauce consisting of various seafoods— pâté-en-croûte, foie gras several ways, pan- fried potatoes, and the heavenly Daniel et Denise version of macaroni and cheese are all the best of this type of cuisine, and must be tried.
Following lunch I headed to the Musée Lumière (25 Rue du Premier Film, www.institut-lumiere.org), a museum dedicated to the Lumière family who invented cinema. Housed in the handsome family home, the museum is a fascinating look at how these innovative men created moving pictures, and where and how it all began.
Following a late-afternoon stroll around Vieux Lyon for a final rendezvous with what was my new favorite city in France, I was finally digested from the lunch, so it was time to have dinner.
La Mère Brazier (12 Rue Royale, www.lamerebrazier.fr), is a gastronomic restaurant of the highest possible quality, and it was here that I chose to spend my final night in Lyon. It’s a famous restaurant whose name at once implies class, distinction, and culinary perfection. Chef-owner Mathieu Viannay, winner of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France award, took over the famed institution and brought it to new heights, while keeping its devoted patrons extremely happy. The restaurant is a two Michelin star winner. My spectacular feast included oysters with caviar, a decadent, slowly poached chicken, a cheese course that was mind-boggling in its inclusion and quality, and a very traditional, very exceptional dessert, the Paris-brest. It was simply one of the best dining experiences I’ve had.
Early the next morning I departed Lyon and headed to the next stop on my Rhone-Alps journey, the cultural and design-rich city of Saint-Etienne. While most American tourists haven’t heard of this city, and probably wouldn’t know to go there, it’s worth putting on the list, as there is a lot of rich culture to see, and French flavor to take in.
My first destination in Saint-Etienne was the Corbusier site (www.sitelecorbusier.com), a must-see for any architecture lover. Here one finds the famed Swiss-French architect, le Corbusier’s modern and fascinating design of an entire community, complete with housing, recreation, a cultural center, and an awe-inspiring, ultra-modern church, all set against a sprawling green background. Those interested in the life and work of this architect, urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, and modern furniture designer will find this site rich in information and aesthetics.
Hungry for more culture, I then headed to the Musée D’Art Moderne Saint-Etienne Metropole, or Modern Art Museum (www.mam-st-etienne.fr), another must-see for art lovers traveling to St. Etienne. The open, modern building is home to more than 15,000 works of important, highly respected modern artists, sculptors, designers, and photographers. It owns the second most significant art collection of the 20th and 21st centuries in the country.
Following the visit to the Modern Art museum, my next stop was the Art and Industry Museum, or Musée d’Art et d’Industrie (2 Place Louis Comte), housing arms collections, textiles, and historic artifacts from the city. This interesting and informative museum tells the fascinating tale of Saint-Etienne as a textile hub and the birthplace of many common products, including bicycles.
I then wanted to explore the city, and found it to be a beautiful, interesting, lively, and vivacious place whose people were charming and friendly, whose cafes were bustling and warm, and whose architecture was absolutely beautiful. Be sure to go to the village square, complete with fountain, carousel, courtyard, vendors, and happy residents sitting and enjoying their beautiful city. Also be sure to stop by the Weiss Chocolate boutique for a selection of fine, handcrafted confections made right there (www.chocolat-weiss.fr/boutiques-saint-etienne.html).
I ate a lovely meal at L’Epicurien Atelier Gourmand (13 rue Praire), dining on delicious, authentic cuisine, marveling at the masterful way the small staff put together such a fine production, and finishing my coffee and dessert in their charming courtyard out back. I then slept quite well at the Hotel Mercure (Rue de Wuppertal, www.mercure.com), where my room was beyond comfortable, the location was ideal, and the breakfast buffet that awaited me the next morning was delightful.
I decided to spend my final morning in Saint-Etienne at the famous Cite du Design (Design Center—3 Rue Javelin Pagnon, www.citedudesign.com), which I’d heard was fascinating, and one of the things that really put Saint-Etienne on the map. This impressive center is extremely important in the world of design, and is home to a university (where a number of American students study, including those from Parsons School of Design) and an exhibit, and is an ambitious place celebrating the world of design. It is also the home of the Biennale internationale Design 2010, whereupon the most celebrated and talented designers from around the world will visit and display their works. Even those who are not familiar with the world of design will find the Cite du Design extremely interesting. Everything about it, from the glass structure in which the design objects are housed, to the historical site on which it all lies, and the passionate people who bring it all to life, is something not to be missed in Saint-Etienne.
As with every stop along the way thus far, I was a little sad to leave Saint-Etienne, and wished to be able to spend more time there; I was also grateful to have gotten to see a French city where many American tourists don’t go (but should). On my way out of town, I had lunch at Les Vielles Pierres (Rue Ampère, www.restaurant-lesvieillespierres.fr), which overlooks mountainous farmland on the outskirts of town, the restaurant itself being a sophisticated gem situated in an old farmhouse. I was disappointed to leave, having been told that this luscious outdoor setting becomes a hot nightclub/lounge once the sun goes down.
I left town knowing that, from what I’d heard about where I was headed, I was in for a treat, the likes of which I couldn’t have imagined…
Annecy, and the French Alps
My final destination, and my home for the next three nights, was Annecy, an old, historical city located in the Alps, situated next to Lake Annecy, the purest lake in all of Europe. Forgive me if I get a little corny, but this is the best way I know how to describe Annecy: if everyone’s heaven is exactly what they want it to be, mine would be Annecy. It’s simply the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and its beauty defies description or explanation. Arriving in Annecy, I truly experienced love at first sight.
The first thing I did upon arriving in Annecy was check in to my hotel, Le Pré Carré (27 Rue Sommeiller, www.hotel-annecy.net), which is a contemporary, chic hotel with spacious rooms, many with balconies. What I would soon find out was that the hotel could not be more centrally located—it’s about a two minute walk to the old part of the city, which is the heart of it all, as well as an equally short walk to the stunning alpine lake.
When I emerged from the hotel, walked the two minutes and crossed into the old section, it literally took my breath away. Charming is an understatement here—this town is exceptional. Picture small, cobblestone streets, crystal clear canals that wind through the streets and along the center of town, old, storybook buildings covered in flowers, outdoor cafes, antiques shops, street performers, and an indescribable, magical ambiance that has to be seen to be believed. It’s got a very alpine feel, with the snow-capped mountains in the background, fairytale-like architecture, and proximity to Geneva, but this town is purely French. The food and wine, the sophisticated people, the savoir-faire; Annecy is where French fairytales were born.
Do yourself a favor, and go to Annecy prepared to wander aimlessly, because you won’t want to stop looking. My first night there, in between wanderings and musings, I had dinner at L’Etage (13 Rue du Paquier, www.letageannecy.fr), and sat outside on the cobblestone street, drinking local wine, eating fish caught in the lake and one of the regional favorites, fondue, and basking in the beauty.
The next morning I was delighted to find the farmer’s market that was set up throughout the town. Several times a week local vendors sell produce, cheese, wine, bread, meat, fish, flowers, and more, all along the canals, the bridges, and the narrow streets. It’s a visual feast. After this, I boarded the restaurant boat, the Libellule (www.annecy-croisieres.com) for a lunch cruise on Lake Annecy. The food was delicious, but what truly stole the show was the lake itself. It’s as clear as the Caribbean, surrounded by the Alps on every side, with views that are simply to-die-for. In fact, Annecy, combined with Lake Annecy, should go one everyone’s “things to see before you die list.” I’m putting it on my “things to see again before you die list.”
After the cruise, I headed to a tiny, adorable mountain town called Faverges, where the people could not have been nicer, and where they too were having a small farmer’s market. I bought excellent wine for $5 and ate the tastiest strawberries I’ve ever had.
After Faverges, I was headed to Talloires, another tiny and beautiful town, where I was invited to meet with the famous glass artist, Yan Zoritchak, at his home/studio. Inside his spectacular hillside house I was shown the brilliant artist’s incredible glass sculptures, and outside I was shown the magnificent natural art—his gardens, his mountain views, his idyllic setting. Leaving Talloires—another picture-perfect town straight out of a movie—I thought how much I’d like to settle there for a little while and be inspired to create some art.
My phenomenal day ended in the best way possible: at a restaurant that had the most incredible view I’ve ever seen. Atop a mountain overlooking Lake Annecy sits the organic restaurant, Chalet de la Pricaz (www.chalet-lepricaz.com) in Montmin, where one will have a hard time deciding which is better, the food or the atmosphere. Both are divine. Everything on the menu is organic, and the presentation on large wooden planks is as fun as it is tasty. While sipping rosé champagne on the terrace, watching the sun set over the lake, I thought I might never be able to leave. This, I thought, is what life is all about. It was one of the most memorable meals in all of my travels, and in all of my life. (Note: do yourself a favor and order the plank of desserts; it’s heavenly).
While being in the Alps, and having just come from three big cities, I wanted to spend time surrounded by nature, so the next morning I headed to the Aravis mountains within the Alps. A short drive from Annecy to the town of Le Grand Bornand and up into the mountains led to a breathtaking setting of green rolling hills, wild flowers, streams, and peace and quiet; the only sound was that of the bells on the cows that dotted the landscape. I arranged a tour of the area with Laure Chappaz (tel: +33 450 32 18 38), who does demonstrations and lessons utilizing local plants and herbs. We made liqueur using wild thyme and spruce, and I was able to take them home as souvenirs. Laure is extremely knowledgeable about the area, and can also give cooking lessons.
I ate a lovely lunch in Le Grand Bornand at Confins des Sens (74450 Le Grand Bornand), and then went to the ski resort in La Clusaz, where I took the telecabine up, and had an amazing view of the Alps and the surrounding countryside. A short hike led to La Ferme de Corbassiers, an absolutely adorable and delightful farm where they make the local cheese, Reblochon. On a picnic table in front of the farmhouse, in the company of the farm’s owners, some calves, and a friendly goat, I ate fresh Reblochon cheese, spread homemade butter and blueberry jam on fresh baked bread, and drank coffee that had milk that came from cows that morning. After that, I literally watched as the cows came home. It was almost incomprehensible in its simplicity and magnificence.
My final evening in the area, and in France, was spent in Thônes, yet another tiny mountain town which was straight out of a movie. The town of Thônes was celebrating La Fete de la Musique (better late than never), so before dinner I was treated to an outdoor concert in the center of town, which I enjoyed as I sipped a glass of rosé. For dinner, I ate in the lovely garden at La Pisciculture in town, where I feasted on a selection of charcuterie and the regional dish, tartiflette, which is a creamy casserole of potatoes, bacon, and reblochon cheese, and a perfect last meal.
Leaving Annecy, and the Rhone-Alps, and France in general, was not easy. In this one region I experienced amazing cities, phenomenal food, culture, sophistication, art, nature, and country, The residents of every city and town I met were all friendly, welcoming, genuinely nice, happy people. The sights I saw were among the best I’ve ever experienced, as well as the most unique. When planning my next trip to France, I just might decide to do everything all over again, and relive that week of bliss. Except next time, I might have to stay longer.
Air France offers the most non-stops to Paris, comfortable seating, and top-notch services in all classes. Fly non-stop to Paris with a short transfer flight to Lyon. You can then drive to Saint Etienne and Annecy. To go directly to Annecy, fly Air France to Paris, with a short transfer to Geneva. www.airfrance.com/us
In Lyon—Cour des Loges, tel +33 472 77 44 44,
In Saint-Etienne—Mercure, tel +33 477 42 81 81,
In Annecy—Le Pré Carré, tel +33 450 52 14 14,
Lyon, St. Etienne, and Annecy are walking cities, but you’ll need a car to get from one to the other, as well as to explore the small towns in the Alps. You can rent one, or if you prefer, hire a driver. I recommend Bruno Le Chalier, who is reliable, trustworthy, and knows the area well.
Tel +33 (0)6 07 32 64 56; email@example.com
For more information on travel to the Rhone-Alps, visit www.rhonealpes-tourisme.com. For information on travel to France,