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Lyon — Worth the Visit if Traveling to France

We ventured over the border, deep into France, for a few days. Lyon is less-visited by Americans, but I can't think of a good reason why!

I don’t think I’d ever have gone to Lyon on purpose, but my Dear Husband was drawn there by a shared research interest in a fine point in Materials Science with some physicists there, and so I went too.  It’s a trip I will never regret.  After months of dusting off my German, I had to dig deep for my inadequate French.   The kindly people of Lyon patiently heard me out, and then replied in charmingly accented English.  We got along just fine.

Lyon is either the second or the third largest city in France, depending on whom you ask.  Clearly, however, it is a sister city to Paris, and has been so for a very long time.  The pre-Christian Celts, according to archeological finds, settled at the useful conjunction of two strong rivers, the Saone and the Rhone, long before the Common Era.  Then the Roman empire came upon this site, and founded the city of Lugdunum in the first century B.C.  It soon became the principal city of Gaul (which students of Latin will remember was divided in three parts), and the Emperor Claudius promoted the distinction of full Roman citizenship for its wealthy male inhabitants.  As everywhere else, the Romans succeeded in holding this location for centuries because they brought civic organization and infrastructure in the form of roads that still survive, and aquaducts that brought water into the city.

But nothing lasts forever, and the Roman Empire fell apart.  Lugdunum forgot its Roman past, and built on top of the ruins of the amphitheater, residences, and civic buildings.  By the late Middle Ages, the inhabitants of what was now called Lyon were still occupying this great location and had achieved status with the Christian church of Rome.  Lyon was located on the road north from Italy’s silk producing towns that brought this rich textile industry to Lyon.  Banking, which developed in Europe during the Renaissance, also became a principal industry in Lyon, which during this period became the banking center of France, and had France’s first Stock Exchange.

These high points in the history of Lyon can still be enjoyed.  The Roman settlement was largely on the hillside above the Saone, just before it joins the Rhone.  Lyon’s Gallo-Roman Museum is filled with artifacts illustrating the life of that period in Lugdunum.  It’s located next door to the excavated amphitheater, which has been partially rebuilt so that it can be used for performances today.   (It was also poorly marked and very difficult to find!)  We took a funicular train up the incredibly steep hill to view the city and visit the 19th-century Notre Dame de Fourvieres.  From there we walked downhill to the museum and the amphitheater.  At the bottom of the hill is the old quarter where many Renaissance buildings have been saved and restored.

In Vieux Lyon, where the silk trade thrived in the 15th century, covered passageways called “traboules” allowed the delicate fabrics to be carried around town with minimal damage from bad weather.  These traboules are open to the public during daylight, and evoke the past powerfully.  Some are painted in soft, warm pastels; others are white.  Some pass through courtyards from which you can look up and see the arched porches of the houses above.  It was easy to imagine the silk workers and the inhabitants of the past bustling through here on their daily chores.

The traboules also proved useful during World War II.  Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon”, ran a ruthless and barbaric Nazi administration, and the daring French Resistance members centered in Lyon used the traboules to evade capture whenever possible.  Unfortunately for me, the Museum of the Resistance in Lyon was closed for renovation during my visit.  However, I’ve watched Casablanca enough times to imagine the danger and the exploits of the Resistance for myself.

Lyon has continued its economic strength long past the Renaissance.  During the 19th century, the Lumiere family’s factory was the largest producer of photographic glass plates.  The sons of the founder pioneered the first moving picture which could be projected for viewing by more than one person (Edison’s kinetoscope could only be used by one person at a time), but more to record their family life than with any understanding of the artistic or business potential of this technology.  The family still made so much money that they built themselves large and beautiful homes around France, one of which is now the Lumiere Museum in Lyon.

But even if none of this very interesting history were there, the food alone is worth a visit to Lyon.  In the old quarter, the restaurants known as bouchons (“plugs”) are a great place to stuff your face, especially with hearty, savory meat dishes.  The “whole animal” notion of eating every part of an animal can be explored here, where I tasted a salad called “Head to Tail” involving braised, chopped and dressed pig parts with a few salad greens.  There are also plenty of more ordinary menus to choose from!

The French themselves consider Lyon as its gastronomic capital, perhaps because it is located near the wine regions of Beaujolais and Cote du Rhone.  The location may have drawn a number of France’s premier chefs, such as Paul Bocuse.  He has four brassieries in Lyon, and we dined almost by accident in one on our last night in Lyon.  L’Est is situated in an elegant former train station that influenced the travel-oriented décor.  We chose it partially because the prices were no more exorbitant than other restaurants in the area.  But the food!  Simple, delectable, and perfect.

Paul Bocuse’s Apple Tart

  • 1 ¾ cups flour
  • 1 stick softened butter, broken into pieces
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • Butter and flour for the pan
  • 1 ¾ pounds apples, peeled, cored, halved, and sliced
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • Black currant jelly, or raspberry or apricot jam (optional)

Make the dough by placing the flour, butter and salt in a large mixing bowl.  Pinch the mixture with your fingers until a crumbly texture forms.  Add water and knead lightly to make a smooth dough.  Form it into a ball, wrap in a clean, lightly floured towel and leave for one hour before baking.  Preheat oven to 400 F.  Roll out the dough onto a thing sheet on a lightly floured table.  Butter and flour a 10-inch pie pan, then line it with the dough.  Or, you can roll out the dough and place it on a buttered and floured baking sheet, crimping edges a bit with your fingers to make a slight border.  Prick the bottom in several places with a fork.  Lay in the slices of apples so that they slightly overlap each other, perhaps in concentric circles to make a flower pattern.  Sprinkle apples with sugar and back 35-40 minutes.  Spread jelly over apples when the tart is done, if you like.

Adapted from Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking, 1987.

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