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Discovering Lyon’s gastronomic and historical delights
Pausing to consult my map on the pavements of France’s elegant second city, I found myself in excellent company.
Leaning from the windows of the building in front of me were movie pioneers the Lumiere brothers, Little Prince writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the Emperor Claudius and, at the door, Paul Bocuse, one of the world’s top chefs, and the only one of this group still alive.
This gathering of Lyon’s citizens was made possible by the local custom of creating elaborate murals. La Fresque des Lyonais is wrapped around a wedge-shaped building on the banks of the Saone – and is one the city’s most striking sights.
If you love Paris, Lyon is a great alternative. It compresses all the best elements of the capital in a handy, pocket-sized version, and you can get there easily on the Eurostar from London in five hours, via Paris or Lille.
The view of Vieux Lyon (the old town) is reminiscent of gazing down from Sacre Coeur, and Le Tour Metallique monument does a good impersonation of the Eiffel Tower. With the efficient Metro system you can enjoy the excellent shopping and museums, before heading to any one of the 2,000 restaurants, which hold no fewer than 22 Michelin stars between them.
My boyfriend and I decided to orientate ourselves with a walking tour of Vieux Lyon. Well, disorientate might be a better description since the city has a unique system of hidden alleys through buildings called traboules.
Traboules were created to keep silk dry as it was moved around the city. The covered alleys open into dinky, arched courtyards.
The longest traboule passes through five courtyards from Rue St-Jean to Rue du Boeuf. Re-emerging on to the latter, we were yards away from our brilliantly-located hotel, the romantic Cour des Loges, converted from an old monastery around a central glass-covered courtyard.
Our room was up a spiral stone staircase in one of the towers. The walls, with exposed bricks, were draped with rich textiles, and daylight was only visible from an internal stairwell and two tiny barred windows about 10ft above our heads.
Guests at Cour des Loges in search of more daylight can find it in the elegant, airy courtyard restaurant, which serves delicious dinners and a feast of a Sunday brunch.
Between meals, we explored the history of Lyon through its museums. A Lyon City Card, available from the tourist office in Place Bellecour or hotel concierges, gets you into museums, on guided tours and aboard public transport.
The Museum of Textiles in the 18th-century Hotel de Villeroy celebrates the city’s silk industry, on which its wealth was built. Sumptuous exhibits include exquisite fabrics and clothes from the Renaissance to the present day, as well as ancient Persian carpets and Coptic tapestries.
A darker time in Lyon’s history is reflected in the Resistance and Deportation History Centre, housed symbolically in the building where the Gestapo made its HQ. The excellent commentary was quite chilling, but also told stories of incredible bravery.
The gastronomic highlight of our trip was a magnificent dinner at the restaurant of legendary, three Michelin-starred chef Paul Bocuse, in his brightly-painted riverside mansion at Collonges-sur-Saone.
Our eight-course dinner began with the most delicious black truffle soup – created for President Giscard d’Estaing in 1975 – followed by red mullet encrusted with crispy potato slices (fashioned into fish scales) in a divine sauce with a veal jus swirl. We cleansed our palates with Beaujolais sorbet, before Bresse chicken with truffles cooked in a bladder.
Gorgeous cheeses were followed by a good old-fashioned sweet trolley laden with a dozen tempting confections.
At 220 euros – around £190 – per person, this Menu Grande Tradition Classique is a rare gastronomic experience – but probably more memorable than five dinners in ordinary Parisian restaurants at 45 euros a pop.
The following day, the Sunday food market was in full swing a short walk from the hotel and we stocked up on cheeses, salami, baguettes and a fruit tart for our picnic on the train home.
There was just time before our departure to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the 19th-century basilica. The 100-year-old funicular by the cathedral whisked us up the Fourviere Hill and we met our guide on the basilica steps.
We climbed the stairs, first to the arched stone gallery high above the congregation celebrating mass for a great view of fabulous mosaics and stone carvings from floor to ceiling. Then up and up we climbed to a small museum in a gantry between the top of the dome and the pitched roof, before stepping out on to the roof.
The 300 steps did make me gasp a little, but it was the view of the city sprawled out below which was truly breathtaking.
* Natasha Rush travelled with Eurostar, which offers London-Lyon return fares, via Lille on Eurostar and TGV, from £109. Eurostar offers connecting fares from more than 200 stations in the UK. Call 08432 186186 or visit eurostar.com.
* Short break operators to Lyon include French Travel, which offers two nights’ B&B at three-star Ibis Hotel from £252, with rail travel. Call 0844 8488843 or visit f-t-s.co.uk.
* Cour des Loges, call 0033 472774444 or visit courdesloges.com.