Artelit is the awesome hotel where we are staying in Lyon and by European standards, it is very spacious. So I am sitting here in comfort, writing about yesterday, our first day in Lyon.
We woke up in Paris yesterday, our last morning in the Marias and it was dumping cats and dogs. Quickly, we scrapped the idea of going out for a last wandering around the hood. We took our time packing our stuff. The day before, we went to a health food store and got some kombucha to take along for the next handful of days. I was prepared to be away from kombucha for all this time, but not thrilled about it. So when Dan brought me a kombucha upon my arrival at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I was super thrilled. Anyway, the empty suitcase I brought, was getting filled up with kombucha and charcuterie and cheese – basically taking the contents of the fridge and putting it in my suitcase. Once we got to the train station, it was somewhat amusing carrying an extremely heavy kombucha suitcase up a few flights of steps.
But you know what I will miss about the Marais. Each morning, there was singing of Jewish songs that came through the open kitchen window. I am not sure if it was from a synagogue or simply a group of friends gathering and doing their own renditions. In any case, it was so pretty and festive and made for wonderful background music. It quickly brought me back to times of being a child and going to services. The tunes were not only familiar, but I felt them on a cellular level.
The TGV train ride from Paris was scenic and picturesque. Although I stayed pretty focused on blogging. TGV stands for Très Grande Vitesse so you can probably guess what that means. In two short hours we were in Lyon, caught the cab, and got to Artelit. While were we in the car, we were getting the lay of the land. Lyon has two rivers flowing through it, the Soane and the Rhone. The confluence is at the south end of town. Old Town, or Vieux-Lyon, is the west of the Saône. The Presqu’île and Croix Rousse-sit in the peninsula between the two rivers, and the Left Bank is more modern and has offices and some modern skyscrapers (think Radisson Hotel high rise!).
Frédéric, the photographer and owner of the three units that included ours met us at 1:30 pm to give us the room key and welcome us. He was very helpful, showed us maps and made recommendations. The room had a skeleton key – very medieval. Our suite was filled with all sorts of art and lots of it. It was not overly noisy with all the art, it actually kind of fit quite well. But everywhere you looked, you were asking, what the heck is that? Asian art on that shelf. African wooden statues on this table, a lamp created by the paper that was the old computer program for silk looms in this corner. There were a couple pieces of furniture and they too were filled with art, so the funny thing is, there was no empty drawers for clothing. Frederic even had mood lighting installed which he took the time to explain to us, although we forgot to ask how the heat worked and it took quite a bit of dinking around to get it on (Dan gets all the credit here).
The stairwell to get up to the room is enclosed in a tower built on the outside of the building. Building stairwells like this used to be the norm in the 1600’s. Only later did the stairwells move inside. Now this tower is one of the tourist attractions in Vieux-Lyon, so people wander into the square and look up at the tower all day long. We even read about our address in the Lonely Planet guide – it was a very amusing moment when I was reading aloud to Dan and he told me “that is exactly where we are staying.” Neither of us had ever stayed IN a tourist attraction before. I made a suggestion that when a tour group came and was looking up, we could stand by the windows and start posing for them.
We were hungry for lunch and Frédéric called a bouchon that he really liked, but they were closing down. So he walked us to the square around the corner and directed us to another bouchon he approved of. Bouchons are bistros that are specific to the Lyon region. They were started by women in the early 20th century who lost their jobs working for the bourgeoisie. They relied on using leftover parts of the animals. The finer cuts went to fancier places and these women were innovative to utilize the leftover parts and not let anything go to waste. While modern bouchons are more flexible with their ingredients, the style still holds to some extent. The bouchon style can be contrasted with haute cuisine, which wants only the best of everything at every moment. This makes for a magnificent dish and a lot of food waste.
The name of the bouchon where we had lunch was Le Ventres Jaune which translates into the The Yellow Stomach. Back in 17th century the wealthier people hid their gold in a pouch in their shirts that lay right on their belly, henceforth, the name. The food was simple and tasty and the service was friendly. We sat outside, so we could watch the world go by, yet a quick trip inside revealed that this was a very cozy place. Warm colors like yellow were prevalent and lots of wood and checkered table clothes laid over all the tables.
Wrapping it up, we were ready for some exploring of Lyon. Right around the corner, across from our hotel, was a local beer shop. There were no coolers displaying beer, like in the states, but simply shelves with many varieties. Dan picked out one for himself to keep in our little kitchenette. We wandered through the old town and its narrow cobblestone streets and squares – churches, museums, lots of cute shops and restaurants. Then we headed across the river as we wanted to get to the tourist office. An interesting discovery on the Presqu’île were the trompe l’oeils. It seems that back in the ‘70’s – don’t hold me to the exact date – Lyon had fallen into a sad state. As part of a campaign to spruce up the city numerous buildings were painted with trompe l’oeils. They are all over the newer parts of the city, but the ones on the Presqu’île are particularly fun. If you squint just a little and let your imagination carry you away, you can easily deceive yourself about the reality of what you are seeing. There is even an app for it, to get you to the nearest one.
The Presqu’île part of town is still old buildings, but perhaps a hipper vibe, and more activity, and more cars as well. We walked past some pretty cool fountains and churches, all in stone and all intricate and all worth a few minutes to stop and admire. Eventually, we made it to the tourist office, to find out about bike rentals. They gave us a map showing where to rent them and where the bike paths were. It is a great system – there are almost 400 bike stands (with 12 bikes at each stand) and with a credit card with a chip, you can get a bike and ride it around and lock it up to itself (it has a lock and key system as part of it) and when you are ready to return it, it can go at any of the 400 stations, provided there is an empty slot.
Walking back, we passed by a handful of chocolatiers. Most of them, I could tell, even from looking, were nothing to write home about (chocolate snob here talking). For as much as the French is known for chocolate, they have their fair share of subpar chocolate. We were not intentionally looking, but we happened to pass by a store by the chocolatier François Pralus. We had discovered him in Portland, Oregon, and when I had researched him and noted he had two shops in Lyon, I made a note to stop one of his shops. I had assumed he would have a much broader selection than what I had seen in the states and I was right. I got a box with many tiny squares of chocolate, where the beans originate from a dozen countries, but it is all processed in France. It will remain unopened and will make for nice gifts back home.
When we got home, we had a bit of time to unwind before dinner. Dinner was going to be at Cour de Loges, which is a hotel less than a block away from Artelit, with a reputable restaurant in it – as in a one-star Michelin restaurant. No cabs to run after and subway terminals to navigate – phew! We got dressed for the occasion and in a few minutes, we were seated in a beautiful room that looked up at the stone arches leading to the hotel rooms three stories high. The back of the menu described the history of this building. It used to be the adjoining homes of three Italian merchants. It had passed through several incarnations and owners through the years and had fallen into a state of disrepair. In the 1970’s, it became Cour de Loges and was returned to its natural splendor. There was a candelabra on each table, very nice touch.
The first waitress to interact with us brought out a rolling tray of butter. It was made from raw cows’ milk and mixed with bergamot and elderflower and some sea salt (fleur de sel). The herbs were mixed in and then the butter was re-hardened on a center wooden pole. Have you ever seen the way lamb is served for gyros? It has the structure because of the center pole and then it is shaved off. Well this is what she did with the butter.
The amuse bouche was not explained to us before we ate it and it kept us guessing. It was served in a tea cup, which was smaller than a shot glass. Dan guessed apple and cardamom. I had no guess. It turned out, we were eating pear, sprinkled with green cardamom and topped with a bite of fennel mousse (Dan was pretty darned close). A wonderful way to whet our appetite.
Next arrived veal and foie gras crute. Liken a crute to a meat pie. To provide balance and cut through the richness, there was a quince vinegar. And it was accompanied by a perfectly cooked (and looking) cèpe, otherwise known as boletes in the states.
Next arrived a veloté made from cèpe and oyster mushroom. If I hadn’t been told it was veloté, I would describe it as a creamy soup. The cèpe mushrooms that were served a top of it were out of this world.
All the food here was perfectly prepared. It was served in ann attractive manner as well, but perhaps I would say that the presentation was not exactly at the standard of haute cuisine. If the chef wants to climb the Michelin starred ladder, this would be the main area that needs more attending. But just based on taste, the food was an absolute delight, and I would have it any day of the week (if I am not already eating sushi or ethnic food). Later in the night, Dan mentioned to me that he was not having as perfect of an experience as I was. The floor in the main dining area was marble and we were in a little cove with large wooden planks for flooring. The one he was sitting on, perhaps was not screwed in tight enough, and every time a waiter or waitress walked by (which was a lot, since they had to pass us to get to the main dining floor), it acted like a see saw. Their foot would step down, his seat would jerk up and then fall down. So he was bouncing up and down repeatedly, while trying to enjoy a tranquil meal.
Back to the food. Since Dan and I had ordered different menus, some of our courses were different. These arrived next. Dan had a crayfish dish that came from the Camargue (where we would be going in a week) enveloped by a puff pastry, covered in brown sauce. There was a flower made from shavings of black truffles. I had shrimp from Sicily, marinated in pepper oil with a wide variety of tomato confits, and a tomato juice and shrimp head broth (loved how they utilize the shrimp heads cut for this dish). BEST SHRIMP EVER. And I have eaten seafood in a lot of places. Not sure what or how the marinade was done, but they were on to something incredible. If you are in Lyon, it’s worth going to Cour de Loges, just for the shrimp.
My next dish was blue lobster stewed in its own juices on a bed of cooked greens with a green gelée and mushrooms. How can you not love lobster? I love it, always have, do now, and always will.
Then our dishes were cleared and they gave Dan a plate and myself, silverware. We were baffled and were thinking they were disorganized. Then I got another plate of food much to my surprise. Lobster tail with olive tapenade, drizzled with a lobster bisque. They had noticed our unusual habit of sharing plates (we’d each eat half our dish and switch plates) and they adapted their serving to this. They were very observant, and we ended up very impressed.
Then came squab stuffed liver. Got to love the French. They have turned a bird most people think is a rat with wings (pigeon) into a delicacy, with stuffed mushrooms and mashed potatoes (the creamiest ones you ever tasted) on the side. As tends to happen in these meals, our hunger level was low at this point. I tasted it all, it was incredible, but I didn’t have the stomach capacity to finish it.
We were feeling complete, yet we did not stuff ourselves. Through the evening, we were observing the other tables, as it’s fun to try to put together stories of what they are doing there and how they got there. We saw them wheel out another cart full of cheeses and they offered it to our neighbors. The French eat cheese after the meal. I am not sure why, but I am sure they have a reason and it’s god given law. They think Americans are strange for eating it before the meal as an appetizer. We were not hungry by this point, so we politely declined when they rolled up the cart and asked if we would like some cheese. Funny thing is, I ended up not sampling what I knew I would enjoy tremendously, if it were served at the beginning of the meal.
Then they offered dessert, and again, we had to pass. The French have a tradition of bringing sweets as a “pre-dessert” and they call it mignardise. They can be likened to petite fours. So even though we didn’t get dessert, they brought out a sampling of confections – a lemon macaron, a cranberry gelee, lemon mousse with lingonberry, and a chocolate caramel.
We watched them closing down the house and said our au revoir’s and did our ritual walk after dinner. With eating late in the evening, we have instinctually needed to get some blood flowing before we retire for the evening. Taking in old town and walking on streets that have been steeped in history since shortly after Jesus was a baby (quite literally!), is uber charming.