27 APR 2015:  Off the Place Bellecour in Lyon, footsteps from the Father of French Nouvelle Cuisine Paul Bocuse’s casual brasserie Le Sud, I’m at another foodie bastion – Le Grand Cafe Lyonnais carving into a succulent organic chicken leg bathed in a heavenly butter cream sauce.

The two-floor mainstay has black clad waiters parading plates swerving past patrons in a familiar scene you only get at a French bistro. Executive chef Roger Jaloux (meaning jealous) keenly observes the eatery from the sidelines, his youthful photo from his days with Bocuse dominating his resto. I only discovered he was in the photo after a waiter politely pointed to a young champagne bottle wielding Jaloux, hugely smiling beside Pinder the elephant because he was part of the Bocuse brigade at Collonges as the chef de cuisine for many years. The circus had come to town then.

That was my intro to Lyon on this journey.

Known for gastronomy – Lyon’s revered as the country’s culinary capital and besides being the capital of the Rhone-Alpes - there are other perks to discover in this ancient hub with roots dating back to the Romans.

Lyon 101

Big on the silk scene King Francois I spawned a whole new industry from then rival Italy. In this city of two rivers (The Saone and the Rhone) there’s a whole section that morphed into silk central with its Italian-inspired buildings akin to the looming towers in Tuscany. Locals know the traboules meaning unmarked secret passageways that open onto hidden quarters with pools of natural sunlight washing away the shade in this early version of sky lights. Clients can take walking tours of Old Lyon to see the traboules around the Rue de Bouef in the 5th arrondissement or visit the Quartier de la Croix-Rousse in the first and 4th arrondissement.

The Lyonnais have a rich past. One of the best places to discover its early origins including that of the region as well as civilization itself is at a marvelous new museum, Le Musee des Confluences which opened in December.

Located at the confluence of the Saone and Rhone Rivers, the futuristic building appears to be floating like a cloud. Created by Austrian architect firm, Coop Himmelb(l)au, the new museum meshes collections from the former Museum of Natural History with culture showcasing science and society through the ages. There are four permanent exhibitions: origins, species, societies and eternities in what has been described by one museum organizer as, “It’s as if the (gallery) space has become the mind’s imagination. All the exhibits are in the crystal cloud of knowledge.”

The permanent exhibits have interactive displays. You can touch and feel relics. At the Origins, the hard edges of a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite discovered in the desert of Algeria feels cold and smooth. The 630 kg rock sits radiantly on its own pedestal. Other museum highlights: reconstructed dinosaur fossils, micro organisms classified from crustaceans to butterflies to extinct species like the Dodo bird, arrowheads, many of them discovered in France’s caves and so much more.

Upon entry into the Eternity section devoted to Egyptian funerary rites, it all comes full circle. An ancient delicate clay urn with its top removed reveals a fossilized bird. The tag reads: “Placed in the tomb of the wife of Ramses III this mummified duck was meant to sustain her in the afterlife.” For the Lyonnais, even Ancient Egyptian queens needed to eat succulent duck in the afterlife.

Getting and Staying around Lyon

The city is easy to get around on foot but also has the popular Velo’v bike rentals with a credit card and a locally owned property which is part of the Best Western brand located in the new Confluence Business District in the 2nd arrondissement just blocks from the museum.

Lyon is also a great gateway to the South of France. Here are two easy side trips only two hours away:

Le Puy-en-Velay, Auvergne region
Distance from Lyon: 134 km

Off-the-beaten path this is where you linger in nature-rich Auvergne, enjoy an aperitif, spend time having lunch, it’s authentic.

The capital of the Haute-Loire department this medieval town surrounded by ancient volcanic hills has two magnificent symbols towering over it: the Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe Chapel and the cast iron statue of Our Lady of France. At the start point of the pilgrimage route of Saint Jacques de Compostelle, pilgrims gather in Le Puy-en-Velay to embark on the 1600 km journey to Santiago, Spain (65 days of walking).

Authentic experiences and little changed destinations are harder to find these days but a visit to Le Puy-en-Velay reinforces how some gems remain untarnished. Some of the vestiges dating to the Middle Ages have remained intact for over 500 years. It also helps that the Cathedral Our Lady Le Puy-en-Velay has UNESCO Heritage Site status since 1998. On Saturdays, the market by the Place de Plot has remained a vibrant market over the centuries.

Inside the adjacent newly renovated Hotel Dieu Museum without any fanfare or loud signage is one of America’s rarest finds: a copy of the flag of George Washington with the 13 stars and 13 stripes. The story of General Lafayette and George Washington is fascinating and so is how the flag wound up there.

Local agricultural products are huge draws too. La Verveine du Velay around for over 150 years specializes in the aromatic lemon verbena digestif. Find a new shop Espace Pages located in the town’s old cinema which has a museum that showcases the company’s early posters, vintage bottles, along with exhibits explaining distillation and production. Enjoy samples and see a short 10-minute video of the company’s history. Clients also can take a factory tour in nearby St. Germain Laprade located 7 km outside the city.


Vals-les-Bains, The Rhone-Alpes
Distance from Lyon: 176 km

As the name implies, water rules here. This is a spa town where rest and relaxation meshes with fine dining.

Steeped in the rugged Ardeche region by the River Volane, the sleepy hamlet’s hey days was during the Belle Epoque period of the 1900s when the population surged to nearly 4,500. Today there are only around 3,600 residents but the leisurely ambiance remains the main draw.

The 27-room Hotel Helvie which opened in the thirties has beautifully restored rooms that reflect the rich past. In addition the hotel’s Viverais restaurant recently was lauded with its first Michelin-star. Chef Stephane Polly currently the only Michelin-starred chef in Vals-les-Bains uses local seasonal products to create a modern play on Mediterranean and traditional French cooking using such ingredients as truffles, chestnuts, honey, juniper, citrus fruits and boar.

The wine menu is extensive and looks more like a leather-bound bible containing countless pages of wines mostly from France. There’s also a vast array of mineral waters on hand. The famous Eau de Vals is one of them. The sparkling mineral water high in bicarbonates is refreshing and known for its medicinal properties.

You can head to the Intermittente Park near the Thermal Baths for a spectacular geyser show that spouts every six hours like an Old Faithful.

A great escape hatch, clients can unwind at any of the town’s spas by day and try their hand at black jack at the Vals les Bains Casino by night. Once part of the historic Monte Carlo car rally, the town was overtaken by rally fans in 2011 during the centenary of the legendary race.

 

The South of France
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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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