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.
Lake Annecy is located about two hours’ drive from Lyon, near the France-Geneva border. It is dubbed as ‘the cleanest lake in Europe’, and rightfully so. The large lake is a crystal clear blue, so clear that you could see the bottom and would have the urge to jump in despite the cold weather. It is surrounded by tall, magnificent spikes of mountains, the beginning of the Alps, where people come to ski in winter. The fact that David Beckham, George Washington and the Queen of Geneva came here for their vacation also adds a whole other level of excitement to it.
I went on a gastronomic affair at Lake Annecy and Lyon. Here are some things I stuck in my gob, which I personally think you shouldn’t miss when you’re here.
1. Potato Gratin – there are many small local cafes around town, and most of them serves potato gratin. The one I had was particularly delicious, baked with four types of regional cheeses from the area. It is really rich and if you finish the whole bowl, you will feel sick. Which is a good thing.
2. Tiny fried fish – I don’t know what it’s called in French. We passed a small café and saw a lady eating a plate of tiny fishes, pointed to it at the waiter and said we wanted exactly that. The fish has a wonderful crunch, with enough texture to capture the freshness of the fish. I wanted to take a picture of the plate, but I think I was temporarily unconscious somewhere between eating that a fat bowl dish of potato gratin.
3. Ice cream – or called glaces in French. There are a number of ice cream parlours, so much so that you would see one in every hundred meters. The trick is to buy a single scoop each time, so you get to enjoy different flavours in a relaxed pace. Chocolate is a failproof choice, as is fruit sorbets. If you feel yourself dreading eating too much ice cream, consider it a payback after all those childhood years when Mom said "no more ice cream".
4. Eggplant Parmiginia – granted, it’s Italian. But I had one of the best eggplant parmigiana in Lyon. It is eggplants sliced and baked with fresh tomato sauce, layered with stringy cheese. The next time I'm having a breakup, I'll be eating this again to recover.
5. Éclairs – Buttery, elongated pastry stuffed with chocolate cream, then dipped in rich, dark chocolate. Try one at Le Peche Mignon Patissier. The bakery has an impressive showcase of pastries, cookies and cakes. Chances are you'll be having more than just one eclair. Sometimes the sugar rush can lead to terrible decisions your hips will regret.
6. Crepe – Find a crepe stop, which is popular around France, and get one. You can have the basic crepe with a sprinkle of sugar, or if you want to reward yourself for being such a good citizen of the world, get a Nutella crepe. I had so many of those during my France travel that my sister worried I was becoming diabetic.
7. Cheese Platter - Make a point to try them in at least every other restaurant. For a reasonable price, you will usually get at least four different kinds of regional cheeses, with fresh bread and French butter. A good way to try cheeses without having to buy a whole block of them.
6. Smoked Salmon Toast - I had this for breakfast in Lyon. I've always liked savoury breakfasts, so this one is perfect (unless Nasi Lemak comes into the picture). Toasted, sturdy bread topped with salty, smoked salmon, olives, fresh tomatoes and cheese. This with a cup of tea? Tres bien.
6. Feast your eyes – pay €20 for a two-hour cruise around the lake. You will not regret this. The view is utterly beautiful, and the chilly wind only adds to the rush. Imagine David Beckham also looking at the same view as you are. Now don’t you feel special?
So there it is. If you have more time, there are so many other delicacies to try around Lake Annecy. Good food, great scenery. That for me is the ultimate vacation.
There is a little town called Carcassonne, in South France. You can get there via domestic plane or a train. The nearest city is Toulouse. Carcassonne’s main star is its old medieval castle, unmissable as it is located on high ground with strong brown walls, and a whole medieval city built within it. Here is a simple itinerary of things you should not miss even if you only have a day in this gorgeous little French town.
9 am – 11 am:
Go to the Ville Basse, North West of the castle. It is the center of the town, with small intersecting lanes lined with shops selling various things. Have breakfast at La Rotonde, where you pay €8 for a breakfast of a basket of bread, croissants, FRENCH BUTTER, orange juice and a hot beverage of your choice (your choice should be café au lait, if you know what’s good for ya). Then take a walk around the shops. Things worth checking out would be the morning market, the pharmacies selling French beauty products and local perfumeries. There are also small, old churches in between the streets that are beautiful to behold.
11 am – 3 pm:
Slowly head towards the Medieval Cite, the large castle on top of the hill. You will pass a beautiful French village on your way to the large fort. Within it you will find a whole other world of medieval city, with crooked paved lanes going in circles, small shops selling fresh baked goods, souvenirs and chocolates, L’occitane (it was born in the South of France), and cafes selling decent lunches. You can easily spend hours in here, and when you’re done, get a good view of the whole town from the walls of the castle. It will not get more French than this, I shit you not.
3 pm – 6 pm:
Go to the Canal du Midi, at the edge of the Ville Basse. Rent a bike and cycle along the beautiful, quiet canal, and savour the lush greenery, passing vineyards, bridges and the beautiful French countryside. On a more ghastly side, be prepared to cycle for 25 km back and forth. You will probably displace your pelvic joints and come back sweaty and on the verge of passing out if you’re not fit, but it will be an unforgettable experience. If you wear boots while doing this like I did, you’re an idiot.
Have dinner at La Pergola, a restaurant next to the main park. After the accidental workout, you will probably devour a whole pizza or a fat bowl of pasta, which is a good idea since this restaurant serves some wonderful selections. Have a go at the cheese platter, found in almost every decent French restaurant. Don’t rush it. Enjoy your meal and your company. Watch the town slowly emit lights and the dinner crowd start swarming in.
7.30 pm – till whenever you’re done.
Go back to the Medieval Cite. The palace is not the same at night. The lights somehow makes it even more magical. As the shops are starting to close, you can now enjoy the quiet scene of the small alleys. The brick buildings will remind you of period movies, and true enough, movies have been shot here. In fact, did you know that there is board game created based on this place? Yep, you guessed it. It is called Carcassonne.