I went to Lyon once, a few years ago. But to be honest, I was only there for a night or two so that I could rent a car and drive up to Lake Annecy, a beautiful lake close to the Alps. No, I never really took the time to explore Lyon, or to appreciate what it really is. It sounded like just another French city, and Paris is the French city to me, so why bother? But like that cute awkward guy standing at the corner who wants to talk you but needs encouragement, Lyon needs your time to charm you, so this time around Lyon and I have a second chance to bond.
There are a few basic things you should know about Lyon. First, like Paris, it is centered around a river. Paris has the Seine, and Lyon has the Rhone and Saone rivers. But unlike Paris, no herd of tour groups will hog your pictures by the river and bridges. Lyon just isn’t as touristy, and this is a good thing.
Secondly, Lyon is mainly divided into two – the New City and the Old City. The Old City is called Veux Lyon, consisting of cobbled, narrow passageways around old medieval and Renaissance buildings. You can walk through the small lanes and enjoy passing by chocolatiers, pastry shops, glace (ice cream) stands, and all sorts of small businesses inside the tall, wooden-windowed buildings. Okay, don’t just pass by them. Eat them, okay? If you’re not making yourself borderline diabetic, then you’re not really in France, are you?
If you’re hungry, step into one of the many restaurants there serving local Lyonnaise cuisine. For God’s sakes, don’t be tempted to go for a hamburger. You can get those at the mall back home in Malaysia. Try some local specialties, of which you can read a review of a restaurant I tried in Lyon here. A Lyonnaise dessert specialty is the tarte de praline, a buttery crust with a red sweet, sticky praline filling (picture below). It’s hard to get this outside of Lyon, so you should try it here.
If you want a taste of what the local living is like, you should visit the morning farmer’s markets around Lyon. The one I particularly like is the Marche St-Antoine Celestins, a fresh food market by the river close to Veux Lyon. You get to see (read: more eating) the local produce, from cheeses to vegetables to fruits to even rabbit meat.
Then after that you could take a walk at Parc Tete D’or, Lyon’s beautiful park that houses an open, FREE zoo. Yes! With lions and zebras and stuff! It’s also beautiful and scenic, with the perfect morning lighting that will make your selfies look like you just swallowed ten sachets of collagen drinks.
When you’re tired of the city, it’s time to rent a car and drive out to the villages surrounding Lyon. By the way, did you know that Lyon’s countryside has some of the most beautiful French villages in the country? It’s the kind of small towns and villages that would make you feel like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, but maybe without the singing villagers. Some notable spots are Beujolais and Theize, pretty, quaint villages surrounded by hillsides, vineyards and farms. If you pack a picnic basket, you can find a scenic spot and enjoy your food with a view. Otherwise, the local cafes serve decent food, and even better chocolat au chaud (hot chocolate), café au lait (coffee) or hot tea.
Be warned that almost all of the corners of the villages are picture-worthy, so you can unleash the Asian tourist inside of you and click away to your heart’s content. Otherwise, make an effort to take long walks around these villages. Check out the local veg patch, go inside the pretty churches, breathe in the chilly, country air. Do all these while wearing sensible shoes. It’s the country, so skip the heels and impractical handbags.
The best thing about Lyon is that it is a lot quieter and a lot cheaper than Paris, but with the similar modernisation of a city. Shopping is definitely cheaper, especially clothes and branded footwear. However, the locals don’t speak English as widely as Parisians, and I find this endearing – it gives the feeling of adventure in a beautiful city where people speak a language you don’t understand.
Lyon is easily accessible by a direct train from Paris, so go on. Your French medieval city slash fairytale countryside awaits!
In the corner of a cobbled, tiny street in Sathonay, past a couple of wine bars and small shops selling all sorts of antiquities, you’ll come across a small restaurant, glass windows with grey/brown lining and dim-looking from the outside. This is Le Bouchon des Filles restaurant, listed in the Michelin guide 2017, if you care about those kinds of stuff. It promises traditional Lyonnaise cuisine with staggering reviews and a moderate bill, and that’s why we are there.
When you step inside you’ll immediately notice that it’s really tiny. The walls are lined with magenta wallpaper of flowery design, and the tables are long, suggesting a social environment. We make a reservation prior, and our table is at the back, next to the bar where the food comes out of the kitchen, so we have a really good view of the plates that emerge – fluffy mashed pomme de terre (literally translated into ‘apple of the earth’, or potatoes), steak in saucy reductions, clear glasses showcasing snowy-white sorbet, and small casserole dishes with something steaming inside.
The waiters are accommodating and friendly, and they all speak enough Anglais (English) to assist you in ordering what you’d like. The menu comes in sets, you pay a fixed amount to get appetizers, starters, any main course of your preference and dessert. I get excited just looking at the menu. I have no idea what they mean in detail, but why is it that when it’s in French, everything sounds delicious anyway? For all I know they actually wrote “deep fried rubber gloves”.
The appetizers come, three different types of salad and a basket of warm, soft, carb-o-licious baguette de campagne – lentil salad in creamy rich dressing, a bowl of light, fragrant crunchy salad made of julienned carrots and radishes with coriander and dill, and a plate of shredded purple cabbage tossed with raw slices of tuna. I am hungry because it is late, so I wolf them down in large amounts, not at all unlike the French lady who sits across the room eating from her plate delicately with each bite-sized portions into her mouth.
Eventually the plates are cleared and in comes the pumpkin puree infused with lemongrass, served in shot glasses, and I wonder if the waiter just wants me to look en classe based on what he’d seen before. It was light and delicious. By this time, I’m already a little concerned that I no longer have enough room for the main course.
Beef kidneys! Who would've thought.
This is about the time when the main course appears, of which we ordered fish and beef kidney. Yes, you read that right. I don’t even eat beef kidney in Malaysian cooking because I don’t like the texture, but hey, we’re in France. Maybe rein de beouf would change my mind here (spoiler alert: it didn’t. Not really). The fish though, oh my Lord. It’s a traditional Lyonnaise dish, fish in some kind of flour/bread mixture, in a yellow, creamy sauce, with a piece of coiled fried herby crunchy thing that was just the perfect complement to this hearty dish.
Quinelle, a fish dish.
Eventually, when the main dish is done, a little small plate of fromage (cheese) lands right in front of us. The great thing about this little platter is that the waiter explains where the cheese comes from – the slice of goat’s cheese comes from the mountains near Lyon, and the dollop of cream cheese infused with garlic and herbs is made within Lyon itself. The portion is perfect, small enough to not make you feel stuffy and big enough so that you can taste everything. And darling, trust me, you would want to taste everything.
Last, and my most favourite part, is the dessert. The restaurant has a list of seven options – from the praline cake, homemade vanilla ice cream with Chantilly, to the decadent molten chocolate cake with meringue and even a simple serving of sliced l’orange with herby syrup. The ones most worthy of mention would of course be the chocolate cake and the citrus sorbet. After all, is it really French cuisine without a dose of dark, bittersweet, superior-quality chocolate in a form of soft, gooey cake? No. The answer is no. The citrus sorbet is a perfect counter to the otherwise rich main course and cheese platter – sharp, sour, and oh so Goddamn refreshing.
Clockwise from Top Right: Citrus sorbet, creme caramel, oranges in fragrant herby syrup, praline cake, vanilla ice cream with meringue, molten chocolate cake.
Molten dark chocolate cake with salted butter and caramel sauce.
When you’re done, you realise that the rest of the tables are being cleared, and like a comforting meal at home no one seems to be rushing you out or giving you the eye. The waiters would consistently come by and ask you if they food is okay, and you will gleefully say tres bien because a.) that’s the only French you know and b.) it really is tres bien (very good).
Eventually, as you put on your jacket again and step outside into the cold, walking down the old, quiet cobbled street back home, you’ll realise you’ll probably have to eat just a crepe for lunch tomorrow but you would want to do this again very, very soon.