Our apartment is on the street so we’re woken by the noise and bustle of a city waking up. It feels almost Italian rather than French – although the accents tell us otherwise.
In fact, the whole area feels Italian – the restaurants, the architecture, the colours, the sounds. I suppose that it makes sense seeing as though the heritage of this city is a Roman one, and the architecture and food culture comes largely from the Italian workers in the silk trade.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Were finally in the city I’d most been looking forward to visiting – Lyon.
If you were to look at a satellite image of Lyon – which you’re probably not inclined to do but please, go with me on this – you’d see a few streets running parallel to the river but not many side streets connecting them that actually run down to the river.
This isn’t a problem if you’re a tourist – so you have to walk an extra 200m, what of it? But it is a problem if you’re a 15th-century silk trader and you’re carrying heavy bolts of fabulously precious silk and you need to get to the river quickly. What do you do? You start to take shortcuts through houses and courtyards and private passageways to get your precious cargo between the river and the city and vice versa. That’s what you do.
These passageways are known as traboules – a word that comes from the Latin trans ambulare which means “to cross” – and Lyon has hundreds of them.
Although these alleys were associated with the silk traders in that the traboules kept the fabric dry as well as provided a convenient shortcut, they’ve actually been in Lyon at least since the 4th century.
You see, back in the day, Lyon was a bit of a poster child for the Roman Empire. Signs of this are still around – with the structures still quite impressive. It makes you wonder what the Romans knew about building back then? I’ll show you around Roman Lyon another time.
But I digress. Lyon was important – or Lugdunum as they called it, which doesn’t have quite the same ring as Lyon – partly because it was a handy stop-over point, but mostly because it has two rivers. The Rhone curves through the centre of Lyon as does the Saone.
Anyways, once the Romans reluctantly left town, the aqueducts bringing water to the city started to fail – a little like an iPhone at the end of its warranty. People started building closer to the river and the first traboules were built around this time to allow people to get from their homes to the water quicker – which isn’t nearly as interesting a story as 15th-century silk traders lugging their precious cargo down to waiting ships.
These silk workers, known as canuts had to eat… so let’s move forward a couple of hundred years to the 17th and 18th century to talk about another thing that Lyon is famous for – Les Bouchons.
The Bouchon is a restaurant serving Lyonnaise cuisine – which is heavily meat-based and does, shall we say, use the whole of the animal.
These were originally places where silk merchants stopped to have a meal, clean their horses and maybe stay the night. The term Bouchon was used then to describe the twisted straw brushes used to clean the horses. Don’t say you don’t learn anything from this blog.
Most of these Bouchons were run by women – Mère Lyonnaises (the Mothers of Lyon) who left their positions as cooks in middle-class households to start their own businesses.
Then there’s the tradition of machon (the a has a little upside down triangle over it). This is pretty much charcuterie and all bits porky served with pots of Beaujolais in the early morning. The silk weavers – or canuts – of La Croix-Rousse would all get together to share these meals at dawn after they finished work. My kind of breakfast.
We will, however, talk some more about these when we do our foodie walking tour through the old town of Lyon.
Where we stayed
le XVI de la Rose, 16 Rue du Boeuf
Our apartment was in the Rose Tower and had it all – a steep spiral staircase to reach it, super stylish fittings, the fluffiest of fluffy rugs, and recessed lighting in the toilet – because that’s what you really need in a toilet. It was, on the whole, drop dead gorgeous.
Sharing the ground floor was a UNESCO listed courtyard, art gallery and one of the oldest silk works in Lyon.
In the sought after Saint-Jean part of the old town, we had our choice of museums and bouchons just outside the front door.
The reference to rose in the apartment’s title wasn’t just the name of the building – it was also in the interior. This apartment was pink – from the mural on the wall to the figures in the foosball game to the toilet paper. Yes, the toilet paper matched the rest of the apartment. There was even a tree in the bathroom. I didn’t attempt to hang a towel on it.
There was nothing in this apartment that wasn’t styled to within an inch of its life – except perhaps for us. Although, my toenails did match the rug – as did my kir royale.
Like most apartments in this part of town, there was no parking in or around the premises so we had to park in the parking station down the road and wheel our bags over the cobbles and then carry them up the stairs. It’s seriously no wonder that everyone in this town is in amazing shape.
Where we ate
Le Nord, by Paul Bocuse
One thing on our list while we were in Lyon was to eat at one of Paul Bocuse’s brasseries – at around 300 euros ($500 AUD) per person before we had anything to drink, we certainly couldn’t afford to eat at his flagship restaurant, but could stretch to a brasserie. The menu of Le Nord was heavily Lyonnaise in style, so off we went.
I was so looking forward to this and although the food was good, the service was disappointing. The waiter delivering our food didn’t know who had ordered what and it was the first restaurant we’d been in at night where we weren’t offered an amuse bouche. It was all less than we’d been expecting from a Bocuse restaurant. Perhaps it was a tourist thing, although it was something we hadn’t encountered elsewhere.
While Grant and Fiona were disappointed with their choices, I really enjoyed mine. Sticking to Lyonnaise classics I had chaud saucisson – essentially sausage within a brioche – and Bresse Chicken in a tarragon sauce. Bresse Chicken had been on my list to try and it didn’t disappoint. It was like no other chicken I’d had before – a dark, firm meat, almost gamey in flavour.
The total bill for the three of us came to 180E.
Afterwards we walked back through the streets to our little apartment in the tower.
The Bouchon downstairs
The second night we were so footsore that we ate in a Bouchon downstairs. We each had a bowl of onion soup and shared a serve of cervelles de canuts with steamed potatoes and salad, and a charcuterie plate, with plenty of red wine. Not terribly photogenic, it was simple food cooked well – and we loved it. It’s food like this – and that amazing poulet de Bresse that has me yearning to go back to Lyon.