Lyon: Rich in History and Gastronomy
After working up an appetite touring this historic city, it's time to get serious and eat
LYON, FRANCE — Like the Rhone and Saone rivers that wend their way through the city of Lyon, a visit here reveals new discoveries at every turn.
The heart of the city lies both on the Presque'le, a peninsula caressed by both rivers, and on Vieux Lyon, situated at the base of Fourvire, a steep hill just across the Saone.
Aside from its worldwide reputation as a festival of gastronomy, Lyon has quietly played a major role in world events for more than 2,000 years.
Once the capital of Luggdunum was chosen by Julius Caesar the city was a base camp for his conquest of Gaul. In this century it became the center of the French Resistance in its fight against the Nazis during World War II.
When French Army officer Marshal Philippe Petain allowed Nazi Germany to divide France on July 7, 1940, Lyon remained an open city for a few short years.
To see the remnants of Lyon's Roman days, ride one of two funiculars up Fourviere and visit the 10,700-seat Roman amphitheater and smaller odeum.
These ruins, buried under land once belonging to a convent, were discovered 60 years ago when a nun saw a stone head poking through the earth. The head was one of several statues the conquering Romans had left behind.
In addition, Lyon has been an important center for silk weaving. China sent silks here to be printed with designs, and today many of the world's haute couture houses do the same.
Silk admirers must be sure to visit both the Fabric Museum, which shows the history of silk including weaving and textile decor, and the Silkworkers' Museum which preserves the traditions, uses, customs, and art of silk.
If you savor things small, visit the Palace of Miniature Art located in the heart of Vieux Lyon.
To see evidence of Lyon's Renaissance days, be sure to visit St. John's Cathedral.
Begun in 1192 and finished in the 1400s, it is a fine example of medieval and Renaissance architecture. Other buildings from the Renaissance, such as La Tour Rose, are tucked inside many of Lyon's inner courtyards. If you are fortunate, a gate to one of these secret passages will be open allowing a glimpse of one of these treasures.
When visiting Lyon, toss that calorie monitor aside because this city is a celebration of the earth's bounty and culinary delights - from the street vendor selling merguez, a spicy Northern African sausage stuffed in a toasted baguette, to Les Halles, a covered market.
In this gourmand's gallery, traditional Lyonnaise fare competes for consumption. Stalls sell everything from savory sausage studded with truffles or pistachio nuts, to plump poultry, yeasty breads, and exquisite jewel-toned fruits.
Of course no visit to Lyon would be complete without eating in one of the city's more than 200 bouchons, or bistros.
Many bouchons are family-owned and afford space for no more than about 20 diners. The aptly named Rue de Boeuf in Vieux Lyon abounds with these small restaurants.
If you take lunch in one of these eateries, indulge in Salade Lyonnaise - a poached egg nested in a field of dandelion leaves strewn with homemade croutons and crisp bacon bits.
Le Comptoir du Boeuf, with its beautifully painted ceiling and heavy cloth napkins, is a romantic spot that nicely blends Lyonnaise cuisine with lighter fare.
Choose either the silk-like saffron-mussel soup or the lentil soup, a hearty affair. The half-smoked salmon, gorgeous on a bed of arugula, will easily please as will the wild boar.
If a warm, but bustling setting is what you desire, head to Les Lyonnais.
This bouchon, with its blue and yellow accents, is a jovial place. Submarine-sized quenelles de brochet, a pike sausage, and Lyonnaise sausage are served and consumed with gusto.
To experience a landmark, go to Leon de Lyon where French President Jacques Chirac invited US President Bill Clinton, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, along with other G-7 leaders for dinner.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can dine on the likes of Fried Pig's Ears; Suckling Pig-Foie Gras Terrine; or Tongue and Cheek Salad of Veal; all typical local dishes.
Leon de Lyon also offers mouth-watering wild boar chops and a superb partridge. Make sure to leave room for your dessert, not an easy task, but the Chocolate Chestnut Souffle, a variation on the theme of chocolate, and a bucket of dark chocolate truffles are well worth it.
After a meal like this a leisurely walk will help.
Some of the city's outstanding features are its many tree-lined pedestrian zones. These cobblestone streets, together with the city's grand, slate-roofed buildings, create a certain nostalgic ambience.
At the end of Rue de la Republique stands the famed opera house, a beautiful melding of past and present. The centuries-old sand colored faade has been saved and joined with a soaring steel and glass curved roof.
On Cours Franklin Roosevelt, on the other side of the Rhone, is the famous chocolate shop Bernachon. In the window, like a rare museum piece, sits a chocolate basket filled with palettes d'or and decorated with a garland of dark and white chocolate roses. Inside, ebony-robed confections line the display cases.
After an afternoon in one of Lyon's many museums or window shopping, go to La Minaudieris on Rue de Brest.
The amber-colored candied chestnuts, called marron glace, beckon from the window. Inside a menu of all varieties of tea lies on each wooden table. An oak beam ceiling adds to the cozy atmosphere.
But perhaps at night is when the magic of Lyon is most apparent.
The city becomes a breathtaking mix of light and shadow. In Place des Terreaux, a sculpture by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi is awash in golden light, and little fountains, like flickering candles, illuminate the plaza's grounds.
The bridges become liquid lines of light, and across the Saone, above Vieux Lyon, the basilique stands out like a gilded crown.