Lyon's share of good times

by Anthony.Peregrine

Lyon is supposed to be dreary and grey. So what is it about this surprisingly stylish and lively French city that will have visitors singing?

It is evening-tide in Lyon and I am in a bouchon neighbourhood restaurant. I am the right side of herring salad, black pudding and too much Beaujolais wine. And I am singing. I have a voice like a helicopter flying into a flock of geese. I never sing.

So this is a first. And, with that part of my brain still capable, I’m thinking: “If this is dour, I’m not sure I could stand happy.”

Lyon is supposed to be dourness incarnate. The city has spent 2000 years grafting at commerce, banking and industry. The image – even (especially) in France – is of hard work and low cloud. “Going to Lyon for fun is like going to Baghdad for beer,” says a French friend.

He knows nothing. On my first visit, I find myself wandering the tight streets, towers and courtyards of a Renaissance old town to rival anything in Italy. I stroll two world-class rivers. I pass by a Parisian abundance of shops. I watch France’s most consistent soccer team.

And I favour fellow diners with a rousing version of The Wild Rover. Lyon is indeed a substantial city – but as stylish and lively as you like. If you've not been, now's the time. Here's how.

Day 1
Start in Vieux Lyon, the Renaissance warren which bagged Lyon its World Heritage status. Here, from the 16th century, silk workers wove and Italian bankers handled the cash. Lots of it. Enough to put up grand edifices and ochre town-houses, towers, loggias and churches. They’re still jammed in tight as the 21st century scurries into bars, bistros and shops arund their feet. And you may still scurry through the bowels of it along the traboules public passages once used by silk men for faster communication. Push the door at 54 Rue St Jean and scuttle in.

Then scuttle out again and amble, pausing on Quai Bondy at the René Nardony ice-cream shop. It offers a rare opportunity to try poppy-flavoured ices.

Now hop on the funicular up Fourvière Hill to the Notre-Dame basilica - a Byzantine monster which, like Sacré Coeur in Paris, could be improved only by demolition. It must be seen, though, as evidence that late 19th-century church architects in France worked under the influence of opium. Nearby, the Roman amphitheatre is a far more reasonable piece of work – and the views from up here are terrific.

Back down, cross the Saône river to the Presqu’ile – which separates the Saône from the Rhône. This remains the bona fide city centre, full of dignified frontages and more shopping than reasonable legs can manage. While you’re in the district, guide leaflets will try to entice you to the Musée des Tissus & des Arts Décoratifs, a Lyon pride and joy on Rue de la Charité. Tragically, museums of textiles and décor leave me in a light coma. But you may be different so, by all means, go.

I’d prefer the Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance at 14 Rue Berthelot. Within the former Gestapo HQ where Klaus Barbie presided, this is a brilliant, multi-media evocation of the war times which remain the city’s sombre sub-text. Resistance leader Jean Moulin was betrayed and tortured to death here.

Duty done, take a short walk to clear the head and end up by the town hall, opera house and more 19th-century grandeur in the Place des Terreaux. The tiny thoroughfares all around throb with bars and eateries which will feed you up and wind you down.

Day 2
Out early to the open-air Quai de Saône food market and then head along the river to Rue de la Martinière for the best of Lyon’s very many outdoor frescoes. On a trompe-l’oeil façade, this one features every famous person ever associated with Lyon – including chef Paul Bocuse, pope of the city’s food-based religion. He doesn’t half look smug.

Now trek up the Croix-Rousse hill to the working class district where silk-workers moved when cleared out of the Vieux Lyon in the 1800s. The story is told well at the Maison des Canuts at 10, Rue d’Ivry. You will learn that a “canut” is a silk-worker, that silk-worms multiply their weight by 10,000 times in a month (quite easy for humans to do in Lyon, incidentally) and that silk-workers were an insurrectionary bunch. They staged Europe’s first worker rebellion in 1831.

There’s an atmosphere up here quite distinct from that down in the centre – where you should now return, perhaps to the Institut Lumière at 25 Rue du Premier Film. The clue is in the street name. This was where brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière effectively invented the cinema in the 1890s. You may see the planet’s first movie – of workers leaving the Lumière factory – plus lots of others, and as much Lumière memorabilia as anyone could need.

And then your time’s your own. You might stroll to the main covered market, Les Halles de Lyon on Rue Garibaldi, gambol along the banks of the Rhône or attend to your silk requirements at silk centres on Rue Romarin. Last time I was there, a young woman was modelling a silk frock which lit up. “She keeps the batteries in her knickers,” said the lady boss. Lyon is, in short, a world-class and surprising city.

To stay
Top of the pile is the Renaissance Cour des Loges (2-8 Rue de Boeuf, 0033 472 274444, www.courdesloges.com). Fine restaurant, too. A full silken purse will help you appreciate it. Of similar class, with a swish of 19th-century style – and right on the huge, central Place Bellecour – is the Hotel Grand Lyon (20 Place Bellecour, 0033 478 375731, www.lyonhotel-leroyal.com). More modest, but equally central, the Hotel des Célestins (4 Rue des Archers, 0033 472 560898, www.hotelcelestins.com) is fabled for its welcome.

To eat
Lyon reckons to be capital of French gastronomy, though I’m not sure why. You can eat very well there – but you can in any big French city (or, indeed, small French town). It’s perhaps to do with the long-time presence of 83-year-old Paul Bocuse, France’s first and most self-satisfied superstar chef whom everyone treats as a deity when he’s really only a cook. No matter. If you want to taste his top stuff, you must travel just out of town to the Auberge du Pont de Collonges (0033 472 429040, www.bocuse.fr).

Take at least 150€ per person. Two hundred would be better. If that sounds absurd, Bocuse has a string of cheaper brasseries in Lyon itself. Details on the website (above).

Bocuse is not the only big name in town. Neither Pierre Orsi (3 Place Kléber, 0033 478 895768, www.pierreorsi.com) nor Nicolas le Bec (14 Rue Grôlée, 0033 478 421500, www.nicolaslebec.com) is embarrassed to have christened his restaurant after himself.

But the best fun is in the bouchons – Lyon’s distinctive contribution to everyday eating. These are generally small, noisy, replete with wood, homely service, a tie-loosening atmosphere and in-your-face fare like quenelles, hot saucisson or, indeed, black pudding. Try Chez Hugon at 12 Rue Pizay (0033 478 281094) or Café Comptoir Abel, 25 Rue Guynemer (0033 478 374618). You’ll be singing by the end.

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.