When In Lyon, Mind Your French

25 October 2015
Read Time: 2.9 mins

The pig-shaped confection was pink and as I bit into its soft, thick icing, the marzipan filling coated my palate with a blanket of sugar.

"Enjoying that?" asked my wife as we left the patisserie and I continued to pick fragments of pink icing off my shirt.

"Immensely," I said. It remains a fond memory of Lyon, the self-anointed culinary capital of France.

Lyon is a river city, standing at the confluence of the Rhone and the Soane rivers, a happy meeting which caused it to become the main city in Gaul under the Romans. Today, with its suburbs and adjacent towns, it is the second largest metropolitan area in France.

 Lyon's narrow streets tell of another, earlier, time

Its Roman heritage can be seen in the ruins of an amphitheatre on Fourviere Hill from which the Basilicia of Notre-Dame Fourviere looks out across the city.

It dominates Lyon, is accessible by funicular from the old city or Vieux Ville and provides a panoramic view of its significant sprawl.

The Presqu’ile district, between the two rivers, is the place to stay. The grandeur of our hotel, the Grand Hotel de la Paix, had been lost in Lyon’s rich past but its location at Place Francisque Regaud compensated for its modest comforts.

This district contains what is claimed to be the greatest collection of Renaissance architecture in the country, the beautifully preserved five-storey buildings which were once the apartments of the aristocracy now belonging to wealthy Lyonnais.

 Lyon's fountains complement the architecture

Sausages and silk may seem an odd mating but they are both symbolic of this engaging city.

Lyon was famous for its silk, the silk workers living and working on Croix Rousse, a hill best accessed by train from Vieux Ville.

The silk workers carried their wares down to the city from Croix Rousse through a labyrinth of alleys and laneways, the traboules, that wind and twist down the hill to the Presqu’ile.

During World War II, they were used by The Resistance to elude the German Gestapo, chief among whom was Klaus Barbie, known as The Butcher of Lyon for his torture of Lyonnais resistance fighters.

The traboules are now a tourist attraction, albeit one requiring a guide to assist you in discovering their secret passages.

It was on Croix Rousse that we met an engaging local guide who led us down through the maze. In the course of this journey the conversation turned naturally to food.

 The Le Carnet chef may well have shopped here

Le Carnet, he proclaimed, served the best traditional Lyonnais food in the city and so to Le Carnet that evening we went which  brings us to sausage, or saucisson, which is a local speciality.

The restaurant was packed with locals and I ordered andouillette, a type of sausage, and my wife terrine.

I speak a little French which is a dangerous thing for I failed to appreciate that terrine translates as earthenware pot, which when it arrived contained a calf’s head.

My wife quickly appropriated my andouillette, a sausage made from tripe, which she declared was like attempting to eat a rope. I struggled with the calf’s head and surrendered when I got to the tongue. If you are adventurous then you must dine at Le Carnet.

If not, do as we did the next night and seek out Paul Bocuse’s brasserie Le Sud, not to be confused with his much more expensive Le Nord. I had calf’s liver with mashed potatoes and still sigh at the memory.

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We headed north and spent a pleasant day in our hire car following the well signposted wine trail which takes you past countless vineyards, some with cellar door operations, others without and through post card villages such as Denice.

It was early autumn, the harvest had just been completed and the still-green rows of vines and the terracotta roofs of distant, dun-coloured houses stretched to the horizon like a Cezanne landscape.

We made the return trip via Perouges, a walled medieval village which lives up to its official label of being one of the most beautiful villages in France.

Lyon is defined by its rivers. There are fresh food markets and restaurants along its banks, broad embankments lined with barges converted into floating bars, one of which bore the improbable name of Ayers Rock.

 The bridge to a dun-coloured  rooftop vista

The traffic is maddening and as with most French cities, parking non-existent which makes a hire car a mixed blessing. Be prepared to park several blocks from your hotel and pay 35 to 50 dollars a day for the privilege.

Lyon is an energetic, multi-faceted metropolis, an intriguing blend of Roman, medieval, Renaissance and 21st century influences and the food, of course, is outstanding.

Just remember that when ordering regional cuisine, a little French can be a dangerous thing and don’t pass a patisserie without buying a pink pig.

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Lyon.

Mike O'Connor

Mike O’Connor is a Brisbane-based travel writer and columnist. He’s travelled widely, mingled with famous people who don’t remember meeting him and loves a free lunch.