It’s rare I ever feel compelled to write up my holidays. If I’m honest, it feels a little like the 21st century equivalent of inviting people over to view slides. But Lyon. Wow, Lyon. Lyon was fantastic. Not just for its beauty, but also for the food. Especially for the food. Here, then, is how I attempted to walk off several three course meals over three days, and probably failed. More pictures to come when I get round to downloading them off my phone. I’m also a genuinely terrible photographer.
“You might want to avoid three courses for lunch,” says my friend Danni on our first day in Lyon. Danni has already been in Lyon for a week and had already experimented with several of the city’s eateries. The bouchon lined up for tonight, we are warned, will leave very little spare room in our stomachs so, after much deliberating we eschewed the €16 menu at the restaurant next to the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere and went for a salmon roll at the little cafe nearby instead. It was an excellent call. By the end of the night, we were struggling to make the short walk across the Rhone to our respective hotels and I’m convinced it played no small part in my inability to get up at a sensible time the next day.
Even at just under three days, Lyon offers a lot any visitor, especially if you enjoy traveling on foot for most places. Traversing the two rivers the city sits on is a daily pleasure, while Vieux Lyon (the old city) and Fourviere Hill, which we climbed on the first day, are stunning. The view from Fourviere over the city is well worth the short hike, while the Basilique Notre-Dame is impressive, although it’s easy to see why some think it overdone. Me, I’m quite a fan of slightly OTT churches, so I was perfectly content.
The amphitheatres were fun, and gave a good account of what entertainment was like in Roman days. The two in close proximity felt like their version of a multiplex. You could have the full man seven gladiator brawl in the larger of the two, while the second next door would probably be showing something like man versus toad, in whatever the Roman version of subtitles were, naturally.
Equally fun was the Museum of Miniatures and Film Design. The miniatures were impressive in the level of artistic detail (although three floors was perhaps pushing it), but the film design materials were a giddy ride through the behind-the-scenes aspects of cinema. After walking through several sets from Perfume (possibly more enjoyable than the film itself, although I recognise I’m in a minority here), the exhibits did have the feel of a slightly random collection. But then if I’d manage to acquire the spaceship from Event Horizon, a lifesize Gizmo puppet and a prosthetic head of Dana Scully, I’d probably want to show them off as well.
Even more enjoyable was the ice-cream shop a few doors down from the Museum I failed to note the name of. I enjoyed the Gingerbread ice cream so much, I returned the next day for another selection. The white chocolate and coconut sorbets were particular highlights, although tomato and basil sorbet was more than a little confusing. I probably ate them in the wrong order, as the latter was somewhat like iced Gazpacho.
But all this was just a warm up for Monday night’s bouchon, the traditional Lyonnaise hostelry. I’ve no idea if Cafe de Federations was one of the handful of properly certified bouchons, but it is up there with one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever eaten. Sitting down the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Rue du Major Martin, the bouchon is as Lyonnaise as you can imagine: gingham tablecloths and a cosy setting, with carafes of Cotes du Rhone €9 a bottle.
There is no menu at Cafe de Federations, or at least not until your third course. By which stage, you’re already halfway to slipping into a food high that you’ll agree to anything. Had you asked me to sign over the deeds to my house, I’d have signed without a thought, my mouth still salivating at the prospect of stewed pig’s cheeks. Note to those undertaking charity fun runs: this is an excellent time to ask for sponsorship.
To start, we were presented with a small bowl of poached egg in broth. This lasted a little longer than the time taken to poach the egg and any residual from the bowl was mopped up with bread. Next up was a Salad Lyonnaise, accompanied by lentils and wild boar terrine. I may have overdone this course a little, which was probably largely to blame for my stagger back to the hotel. The wild boar terrine especially.
For course three, the main, we were offered a choice. While I was tempted by the calves’ head, I took a recommendation and plumped for the aforementioned pigs’ cheeks.
That brief pause was a little more salivation. Apologies. It was delicious. Many, many hours of stewing went into those cheeks, which were so tender they fell apart in my mouth, while the stew itself packed a meaty kick. The black pudding and apple was equally stunning, with the pudding the consistency of a pate.
Cheeses were a pleasant selection, with the mild goat’s cheese proving a real winner, and the range of textures an excellent journey through Lyonnaise fromage, although the local speciality of cheese rind melted into a pate was an acquired taste that none of us had quite acquired.
To round off, the chestnut cake was light and fluffy and the perfect finish to five courses over the course of around three hours and countless bottles of wine. And the price for these five course? A mere €25. You’d be lucky to just get one cheese for that price in some Islington gastropubs. Content, we waddled into the night.
Tuesday got off to an inauspicious start. After a day, our iPhones finally worked out they were in France, so we assumed we’d slept in until 10.30am, and panicked, rushed out of the hotel sans breakfast to fit in some sightseeing, not realising we had an hour more that we realised. I’ve had more productive tourist mornings.
To rectify, there was only one solution: lunch. L’Aile ou la Cuisse in the city centre close to the Chamber of Commerce wasn’t quite a Cafe de Federations but at €16 for a main and a dessert, you can’t really complain. Especially when that gets you a giant pork chop with roast potatoes. When I say giant, I mean covering the whole plate giant. That was one serious piece of meat, and tasty too. The chicken, at a euro cheaper, was smaller but the skin was deliciously garlicky.
Where this restaurant really excelled, though, was the puddings. Pineapple tart was lovely and sharp, but couldn’t hold a torch to an orgasmically light and fluffy dark chocolate mousse and a perfect creme brulee, with a top that cracked open, satisfyingly, like an egg when tapped.
As lunches go, this set us up nicely for the afternoon’s walking tour of Lyon. €10 for an audio guide may seem a tad pricey, especially given the recent price of the lunch, but is easily one of the best things you can do, preferably on the first day you arrive. The audio guide is very detailed and gives you a mixture of history and practical tips. Without this, we would never have discovered the series of traboules in Lyon’s old city – passes between houses that include some pretty impressive architecture.
The whole tour of the old city took around 90 minutes, although we were pretty quick (allowing time for a sorbet stop en route). You could easily spent an hour or so more and then move onto the Croix Rousse tour, which we skipped due to a lack of time. Foot was by far the best way to explore Lyon over our three day visit and these walking tours are probably the perfect way to start getting yourself orientated.
The evening meal was less a meal and more of a picnic, albeit one that wouldn’t have been out of place accompanied by a glass of fizz. Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse is a food paradise in the Part Dieu district. Originally a market, this is now a series of stalls, shops and small restaurants serving seriously high quality food. It’s not necessarily cheap, but there are some seriously good value nibbles to be had. Assuming you can tear yourself away from the mouth watering selections of jamon, fromage and patisserie, that is.
We went for a selection of salads, some potato cakes and a tomato tart, plus an incredible macaroon cake for dessert. Altogether, this bounty for dinner came in at just €20 for two of us. The only shame is there’s no park in the immediate vicinity to sit and eat. C’est la vie.
Evening was a short walk to Lyon Auditorium to hear the National Orchestra of Lyon and three choirs from Washington, Lyon and London (the latter containing our friend Danni – our main purpose for traveling to France) perform Berlioz’s Requiem. Berlioz isn’t a composer I’m overly familiar with, but the performance was fantastic, and the three choirs produced some truly spine-tingling moments. Afterwards Danni informed us she’d never experienced such a standing ovation, which gives you an idea of just how good the concert was.
With plenty of time to pack in food and sightseeing before our mid-afternoon flight, the morning was taken up with a trip to Parc de la Tete d’Or and Lyon’s free zoo. I’m still blown away that this is free and anybody can wander into this very public area. Apart from a couple of enclosures that seemed a bit small, this is an excellent attraction, especially if you’re traveling on a budget with children, and a perfect way to spend a sunny day. The park the zoo sits is is quite beautiful and I could have happily spent the day walking around the botanic gardens and snoozing by the very peaceful lake.
But with a flight to catch, it seemed logical to stop by Les Halles, given its proximity to Part Dieu station, and test out one of the sit down restaurants – and the one we chose I utterly forgot to note down the name of. What I can tell you is that it was a toss up between this and Cafe de Federations for my best meal, although to try and compare them is somewhat like comparing oranges and clementines. One is a traditional bouchon, the other some seriously impressive technical cooking.
Escargots were near-drowned at the back of their shells in herby garlic butter and were absolutely delicious. Every last piece of bread was used to mop up any drops of the butter. Gazpacho soup was fresh and danced on the tongue. This was a mere warm up for the mains.
Shark fillet was cooked to perfection and fell apart in the mouth. Duck on a bed of potato and carrots with a creamy sauce was mind-blowing. Tender and pink in the middle and just the right level of crispiness on the skin. All three simple elements combined together produced something quite special that wouldn’t have been out of place in some of London’s more exclusive gastronomic experience. Yeah, I’m still fantasizing about the duck now and it’s been three days.
At €17 for lunch with a carafe at €9, this was fantastic value and the food and service was so good you could ignore you were at the far end of a hall in what could be a slightly soulless venue. Although no restaurant opposite the macaroon cake patisserie would ever suffer from that problem – one glance and you’re transported to a magical world of cake and fruit. With a giant version of the macaroon cake on display, it would have been remiss not to check if it was up to the standard of its smaller cousin. I’m happy to report it there were no problems and I could have easily eaten a second. Or a third.
Three days in Lyon then, with some of the best food I’ve eaten that doesn’t break the bank. Make sure you bring some good walking shoes and clothes with plenty of room for expansion as, no matter how hard you plan to try to go “food neutral” and walk off your meals, you’ll do well to avoid a food baby. My diet for the rest of the month is essentially salad. Possibly Lyonnaise.