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In Love With Lyon

In the undisputed gastronomic capital of the world, I eat as much and as slowly as possible, savouring every second…

By Doug Wallace

A Sylvester the Cat mask lends a bit of quirk to this hotel room, to be sure. I put it on immediately, wondering if anyone washes it.

I’m in Lyon, France, at the beyond-hip Mama Shelter boutique hotel, one of 15 in a growing international chain of chic hospitality, and I can’t stop looking at my cartoon self in the mirror. Such a clever selfie-promo ploy.

France’s third-largest city (after Paris and Marseille) is the starting point of my week-long river cruise down the Rhone on the Scenic Sapphire. I’ve arrived a bit early in order to (a) beat the jet lag before I embark, and (b) eat until I explode or develop the gout, whichever comes first.

There are more restaurants per head in this city of half a million than anywhere else in France – around 4,000. Its advanced culinary reputation is anchored to the 20 Michelin-star restaurants and to the traditional bouchons (bistros serving Lyonnaise specialties like sausages, duck pâté, roast pork and the famous fish dumplings or quenelles).

The biggest reason for all this gastro-adventure boils down to geography: Lyon is simply in just the right spot, at the confluence of the Rhone and Saône rivers, so it has been a hub for travellers for centuries, extending its gracious hospitality long before train travel became commonplace. Add to that the abundance of agricultural ingredients nearby: fresh fish, Bresse chicken and Charolais beef from the north, fresh vegetables and olive oil from the south, and pork from the mountains to the west. For wine, they’ve got the Beaujolais region to the north and the Côtes du Rhône to the south. Perfect culinary storm, really – and despite the fact that I slept on a plane, I’m going out for lunch ASAP.

I planned this all in advance, of course
My first stop is walking distance from Mama Shelter, just over the river to the historic Brasserie Georges. I’m there right when the doors open at 11:30 so I can have my choice of the red leather banquettes amid the glamorous art deco interior. The restaurant has been filling diners with traditional French fare since 1836, with chair plaques commemorating some of the more famous faces: Jules Verne, the Lumière brothers, Auguste Rodin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Piaf, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Collette, and so on.

I always select the prix-fixe in places like this, both for value and because it’s always a good bet. This is a busy lunch crowd, so the pace is swift, but the waiter senses I’m a lingering tourist and doesn’t rush me through a simple but succulent green salad, perfectly spiced steak tartare and pommes frites with mayonnaise – a trifecta I swear will be my death-row last meal. I wash it all down with a half bottle of grenache.

After a steak at lunch comes the lie-down, of course, but I use the jet lag as the excuse for kicking the maid out of my room so I can nap. She looks down at my distended stomach and quickly back up to my eyes with a little half-smile. She knows. No translations necessary; my belly is the language of lunch.

Two hours later, the alarm wakes me from a deep coma, one I force myself out of in order to better reset my inner clock. If I stay up until at least 10, I should be all right. I spend the rest of the afternoon thinking about dinner, but also exploring the neighbourhood of the 7th arrondissement, combing the socially diverse La Guillotière and the up-and-coming Jean-Macé, a district now luring students and young adults to its sprouting shops and restaurants, parks and pools.

As dinner hour approaches (even though it’s only been six hours since my steak-fest), I take my time staking out an outdoor table on Rue Pléney in front of Léon de Lyon and ready myself for another helping of traditional comfort fare. This place is also an icon, open since 1904, and it’s a hit with both tourists and locals (including French President Macron, apparently). I sink into a bowl of vichyssoise, remembering Edith Bunker telling Archie that if you heat it up, it cries. I then go with the Bresse chicken, poultry so famous it has its own appellation. After dozing off in a food daydream twirling my wine, trying to pinpoint the accents of the other diners, I cram a chocolate éclair filled with strawberries into my pie hole. Thenceforward, I am toast. The gay bars will have to wait for another day.

Time for a little sightseeing
The next day, I’m off to breathe in the past. Lyon was founded by the Romans 2,000 years ago, evolving into a market town in the Middle Ages and eventually a leader in the silk industry in the mid-1500s. The medieval and Renaissance auras of Old Lyon – one of the largest Renaissance-era areas in Europe after Venice – deliver narrow laneways, serene courtyards, artisanal ateliers and ample cafés in which to sit and watch the world go by.

I opt for a guided walking tour, which takes me through the neighbourhoods of Saint-Jean and Saint-Georges, and treats me to a traditional puppet show. We check out the traboules, secret corridors through buildings linking the cross streets in the Old City, built because there were few connecting streets running perpendicular to the river. They provide interesting tales for the tourists, being famously credited with helping to foil the Germans in their bid to take over Lyon during the Second World War.

I pop into the Lyon Cathedral for a whiff of Gothic goodness before finding a seat at Daniel & Denise Saint-Jean, a small bouchon, where my napkin has a button hole so I can pin it to my shirt. I love it here, I whisper to myself. I have a Salade Lyonnaise and vow to make it myself at home: frisée, giant lardons each the size of my thumb, crispy croutons, a poached egg and a warm mustard vinaigrette. I follow this with the classic Quenelle Lyonnaise au brochet: souffléd pike dumplings baked in a crayfish cream sauce.

I try to hike it off with a trek up Fourvière hill, for the incredible views and for the basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière, both gorgeous in the extreme. I also make my way through the canvases and antiquities at Musée des Beaux Arts, which is housed in a former convent, and is considered the best museum in France next to the Louvre. More hills follow, up the slopes of the boho La Croix-Rousse neighbourhood, where all the silk weaving used to take place. I wander in and out of the cool shops and make mental notes of the bars I’d like to visit another time.

Saving the best for last
Joining up with travel companions for my upcoming cruise, one being a food writer, we surrender to a Michelin-star treat: La Mère Brazier. It’s named after Eugénie Brazier, who became the first person to get six stars, three each at two restaurants, including the one I am now sitting in. Bought by Mathieu Viannay in 2007, the restaurant still features Brazier’s classic dishes on the menu.

What seems like an army of waiters kills us with kindness in the form of extra courses that aren’t on the menu. This is what keeps people coming back: yes, it’s expensive, but the value is over the top. This is also why I can’t have normal pants.

Delicate artichokes and lighter-than-air foie gras are followed by even more pike mousse ringed with lobster and vegetables. A soothing pause is supplanted by perfect veal sweetbreads done Grenobloise style – butter, capers, parsley and lemon. I had spotted the cheese cart on my way in, hoping it would be part of the lineup…and it is, hosted by the cheese cart guy, cute as a pin. The Grand Marnier soufflé is a fine finish, but the cheese guy takes my cake.

DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource and podcast TravelRight.Today.

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