One Day in Lyon


After a great few days in Aix, we were headed back to Paris, but first stopped in Lyon for a day.  As it turned out, we wished that we could have stayed longer because we were pleasantly surprised about what a fantastic time we had there.  Lyon is located where the Soane river dumps into the Rhone, and the city is laid out on the river banks.  In the photo above, the old city is in the foreground (behind the trees), and the Soane is the river just beyond it.  The second oldest part of the city is located between the Soane and the Rhone (the green strip in the distance, parallel to the Soane).  The city is known as the gastronomic capital of France, and we were looking forward to trying some of its traditional fare in a Bouchon (a small, friendly restaurant that serves regional food).  Here are the photos:

Our hotel had a garden with a rooftop view over the old city.

Unfortunately, we only had the afternoon for exploring, but we made the most of it in Vielle Lyon, the oldest part of town.

Lyon is full of narrow passageways, called traboules, that link parallel streets, and frequently open onto interior courtyards.

In this case, the passage opened onto a sort of cul-de-sac, which was pretty remarkable for its swooping forms and asymmetry. The future designer of castles in the Loire Valley, was faced with a couple of constraints. He could not touch down on the existing well in the corner.

In the other corner, he had to avoid the existing entrance seen here. Unfortunately, these small courtyards don’t really photograph all that well.

The traboules open up onto unexpected courtyards. Frequently, these tiny courtyards feature elaborate detail.

Most of the streets in old Lyon run parallel to the water, and the traboules made short cuts from the hill to the river.

Frequently, the tiny courtyards feature elaborate staircases like this one.

During the German occupation in Word War II, the secret network of traboules proved to be very useful to the French Resistance.

I spotted this incredible 1911 Peugeot in a shop window.

Lyon’s cathedral is a massive presence in the old quarter.

Finished in 1476, the cathedral seems to have held up pretty well.

We came at just the right time to catch the light from the stained glass windows dancing on the walls.

I don’t remember ever seeing the light quite so magically cast in a cathedral like this. Maybe I usually see them on cloudy days. The result was more of a psychedelic light show than I expected.

There’s nothing quite like the shifting scales and contrast in light that are created in the side aisles of Gothic churches.

The combination of the height and narrowness of the nave dwarfs the congregation.

Unlike the attractions in Paris, we practically had the whole place to ourselves.

The people even look tiny in the aisles.

Across the plaza in front of the cathedral, we spotted the city’s other huge church, the Basilica of Fourviere, which was our next destination. We took a funicular up to the top of the hill. Unfortunately, the interior of the church was undergoing renovations, and a mass was getting started, so we didn’t really have a chance to take a good look at it, but we did get the best view of the city from the hill (the photo at the top of this post).

The other great attractions at the top of the Fourviere hill are the remains of the original Roman settlement of Lugdunum. The two theaters are still in great shape, and are still used for plays and concerts. Workers were busy preparing for them when we walked through.  Bernard Zehrfuss designed the concrete museum that pokes its way out of the hill in the distance.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to go inside.

The narrow streets that descend the hill open out to grand views of the city every once in a while.

Seemingly ancient retaining walls hold back the hill from crumbling into the city below.

Although we covered a good portion of Old Lyon in just a couple of hours, we wished that we could have spent more time exploring its narrow streets.

We had heard great things about the bouchon that we picked for dinner, le Garet, and we were excited for a traditional Lyonnaise meal. Elizabeth looks a little worried about the food coming her way, though.

Elizabeth ordered sausage for her first course, and this is not exactly what she was expecting. It was tasty, though, and the bread that was put on the table was delicious, too.

I ordered a lentil dish with assorted meat parts for my first course. I was a little taken aback when the waiter brought over this giant tray of food with a pot of lentils in the middle. I assumed that I was to take the items family-style, so I took a big spoonful of each. I was told that the meat parts included nose, foot, ear, and stomach (I think. I can’t actually remember exactly what each one was.). Surprisingly (or maybe not, since Lyonnaise bouchon food is legendary for a reason), everything was delicious. Once I got past the names of the parts, I enjoyed everything there. They were flavored very delicately with citrus and spices. I took way to much for my first course, though.

Next, we had white asparagus with a flavorful red wine and mustard mousse, which is something we’d like to attempt at home.

Elizabeth got a salad with bacon and a poached egg for her third course.

The salad was pretty great, and I think the photo speaks for itself.

I opted for the anouillette, a very rustic sausage with barely chopped up meat parts that I won’t mention. I was a little worried about this dish, but again, was very pleasantly surprised.

I ended up making a sizable dent in the course, considering how much I had eaten of the first course. Once I got over the barely chopped up parts, I realized that the flavors were complex and perfect, and the meat was tender. I would definitely order this again.

For our cheese course, the waiter brought out these special le Garet plates.

I hate to use superlatives, but this was probably the best cheese that I’ve ever had in my life. As he dropped of this huge wheel for us to take what we wanted, proprietor said that he had to drive fifty kilometers to get it from a small village in the country get it, and that it could not be found anywhere else. Unfortunately, since we had stuffed ourselves with the previous courses, we could only eat a sliver of it. If I ever go back, I will definitely be getting this again.

Elizabeth ordered this hilarious looking sorbet and meringue dessert.

After completely stuffing myself on previous courses, I went with sorbet for dessert. when the waiter brought it out, he drizzled brandy all over it, and left the bottle for a digestif.

The brandy bottle had a wooden man playing petanque inside of it.

Another clever coffee service.

We had to do some walking after our huge meal. This shot was taken on a pedestrian bridge over the Rhone.

The Basilica is dramatically lit at night, and served as a good beacon back to the Vielle Lyon.  Over to the right, is Lyon’s mini version of the Eiffel Tower.  The next day, we were headed back to Paris for the last part of our trip.

A Last Day in Aix

Just a quick update here from our last day in Aix.  After our trip to the vineyards the day before, we spent the day strolling around town.  Here are a few photos:

We came upon another flea market, which, like all the others, had some great old books.

Some books are better forgotten.

In a display of efficiency, Aix’s builders have taken advantage of every existing wall, and square foot of space. Houses and shops have been built in between the buttresses of the Madeleine church.

Our desert bounty of the day, some of the best of our whole trip. The praline and meringue treat in the top right corner of the box was our favorite, and reminded us of something that my mother occasionally makes. The chocolate treats weren’t too bad, either.

Churches, Popes, and Wine

After some incredible days in the Vaucluse hills, we headed to Aix-en-Provence.  To be honest, it was tough to get used to being in a city after the countryside.  We did some exploring around town, but were excited to head to Chateauneuf-du-Pape for a tour of some wineries there.

For those that don’t know, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, refers to both a town and a wine. The name translates to “the pope’s new castle,” and when the popes decided to move the church headquarters to Avignon, which is nearby, they built a summer home on the top of a hill here.  The wine is a controlled appellation, meaning that in order for any wine to bear the name “Chateauneuf,” it has to be grown and bottled here, and has to follow certain production standards.  Every bottle of it contains 13 varieties of grapes, but the most prominent are grenache and syrah.  Wine grown just down the street cannot get the name, and is usually classified as Cotes-du-Rhone (as long as it follows the standards for that appellation).  It may be confusing for Americans, who are used to ordering wine by the grape, not the region, but here it is a way of insuring that certain standards are maintained, and, basically, branding.    One of the most important elements that makes the wine so special here is the soil, which is covered in large river rocks, deposited by the Rhone River thousands of years ago.  They are large, eggplant-sized rocks that sit on the top of the soil, and help to insulate the roots.  Obviously, the climate is pretty important, too.

Here are the photos:

Aix’s cathedral, Saint-Saveur, is an amazing mix of a wide variety of styles, and was built over the course of almost two thousand years.

On the interior of Saint-Saveur, it is possible to see just about all of the eras of European architecture, up until the 19th Century, come together in one place. There are a couple of holes in the floor where visitors can look down on the ruins of the roman forum underneath.

In the side aisles, the contrast of styles is most evident. The succession of arches leads from baroque, to gothic, to romanesque.

The history of architecture coming together in one place.

None of the elements really match here, which is what I found so interesting about this church. It stands as a real counter-argument to that made on a lot of American college campuses, that consistency of pseudo-historical style must be preserved regardless of the era when it was built.

The altarpieces were even somewhat modern, and looked like they were supported by a Henry Moore sculpture.

More different arches, all built at different times.

The columns in the baptistry were actually reused from the Roman forum that once stood here. The rest of the baptistry is from the Renaissance.

A view towards the Aix city hall.

A market is set up on one of the squares just about every day. We got some great strawberries and apricots here.

Elizabeth shows off the local bread specialty of Aix. This one has olives, but some of them are made with bacon, tomatoes, or other local goods.  We stocked up on snacks before heading out to Chateauneuf-du-Pape to tour some of the vineyards.

The interior of a fermentation tank. Everything was state of the art in these parts.

Chateauneuf wine is aged in oak barrels like these. The coopers give each barrel a distinctive characteristic. These were stained in their mid-section.

The wineries don’t really care to deal much with tourists, so they have “self-guided tours,” meaning that visitors are free to walk around wherever they want. In the bottling room, we found all sorts of stuff, like this stamp, which is used to label the white wine.

The labels were also left out in the deserted bottling room. These are from a wine that Robert Parker gave a 98.

At another Chateauneuf vineyard, we took a look at the 110-year old vines that have survived a tremendous amount of turmoil since they were planted.   You can see some of the river rocks on the tops of the beds.

A view across the vineyard to Mont Ventoux, which you might recognize from yesterday’s post (probably not, though). It has been the scene for many dramatic Tour de France hilltop finishes.

In this winery, the barrels were dramatically lit to inspire awe.

We ended up picking up two bottles to somehow bring home.

There is nothing left of the pope’s new summer castle but some ruins at the crest of the hill.

The pope had a great view over the surrounding countryside. That’s the Rhone River in the distance.

The Rhone stretches towards Lyon, which would be our destination after Aix.

From some angles, Chateauneuf still looks like a pretty formidable castle.

From other angles, it doesn’t look too imposing.

This is some of the most valuable farmland in the world. In order to be called Chateauneuf, the wine has to be grown here, in just 9,300 acres. It must also be grown on land that is arid enough to support lavender and thyme. In the distance, Mont Ventoux still looms.

We had a great dinner in Aix that evening, which started with this amuse bouche.

Elizabeth’s eggplant salad included edible flowers.

I started out with lamb sweetbreads, which were surprisingly delicious and tender.

We each had fish courses. I can’t remember what type of fish this was.

Dorade with carrots.

Elizabeth went for the chocolate souffle.

I went with the red wine and apple tart, which also had some red wine and pepper flavored whipped cream.

The chocolate souffle was the real star of the meal.

Antiques and Views

We were sorry to leave the little village where we stayed in the Vaucluse hills, but we had to head on to our next destination, Aix-en-Provence.  We didn’t have to return the car until evening, though, so we took our time getting there.  In the morning, we headed to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which is often referred to as the “Venice of Provence,” although it’s more accurately the “antique furniture store of Provence.”  We went for the Sunday flea market, and saw a lot of great things, all of which were too big to carry back in our luggage.  We opted for one antique petanque boule, and headed on to two other hill towns, Lacoste and Bonnieux, before driving on to Aix.

The sun lit up a corner of our room just around breakfast time.

The antique market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue had some amazing items. Here Francois and Nicolas look very electable as they gaze towards the future.

If you are in the market for any kind of cute kitchen item, this is the place to find it.

It seemed like there was more silver at the market than anything else, including the egg cups and spoons seen here.

My favorite items at the market were the antique petanque boules (bocce balls).

I ended up buying one of the petanque boules in this photo, all of which are from the late 19th Century. The guy from whom I bought it told me all about the significance of their designs. The balls have a solid wood core, and the metal exteriors are actually nails that were driven into the wood in patterns particular to the region where they were made. He said that the balls were all made by women for their husbands to enjoy. The studded balls are from Lyon, and the cobblestone-like ones are from the northeast of France (those in the previous photo are also from there). The fish-scale boules, one of which I bought, are from Provence. Afterwards, I looked for them on e-Bay, and it looks like I got a great deal!

Anyone need an old eye surgery kit?

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is called the “Venice of Provence” because it sits in the middle of the Sorgue River, which flows through and around the town like canals. The water is much cleaner than Venice’s canals, though.

Fresh garlic is in season, and our B&B’s kitchen had been fragrant with its aroma. We wished we had had a kitchen in which to cook!

One of the local specialties: an almond and honey tart.

Apple tarts that looked pretty good, too! I opted for the almond tart in the previous photo.

The market covered the whole town, but after Apt’s market the day before, we started to get marketed out.

Another town, another church to check out. This gem had some great frescoes.

Our next stop was another hill town, Lacoste.

A quiet and picturesque town, Lacoste seemed a bit more rugged than the rest.

When he was forced out of Paris on obscenity charges, the Marquis de Sade lived and wrote in Lacoste’s castle.

At the top of the hill, there are a few sculptures commemorating de Sade’s stay in the town. The castle where he lived is in the background.  Although it appears to be in ruins from here, it is actually still occupied.

Bonnieux, the next town that we visited, can be seen in the distance here.

The poppies were out in full force on the back side of the hill.

This is the other side of the Marquis de Sade’s castle, which, as you can see, is still occupied. In fact, as I learned while looking at listings in a real estate agent’s window in Menerbes the night before, it’s for sale!

This is the narrowest bakery that I saw the whole trip.

Lacoste was not built for those who need wheelchairs.

A last look up Lacoste from the orchards below.

The last town that we visited was Bonnieux. Speaking of Sadism, cycling fans may recognize the mountain across the valley. It’s Mont Ventoux, scene of many a punishing Tour de France stage finish.

Markets and Hill Towns

On our second day in Provence, we headed to Apt to check out the Saturday market, and then spent the afternoon exploring the surrounding hill towns.  Here are the photos (click to enlarge):

A brownie for breakfast? Why not? This was the second “B” at the B&B where we stayed.

Elizabeth enjoys breakfast on the terrace, but says “no thanks” to the 8:00 AM brownie (she saved it for later).

Apt’s Saturday market seems to attract just about everyone in Provence.

More cookies at the market.

It’s strawberry season here, and the markets are flooded with them.

And asparagus, too.

These must be the famous “herbes de provence” that everyone keeps talking about.

The air is fragrant with all sorts of different soap around here.

We found a nice brasserie, where Elizabeth enjoyed the vegetarian plate (one of her favorite meals of the whole trip).

I went for the provencal plate.

Another clever coffee presentation.

After the market cleared out in the afternoon, we were actually able to look around at the town a little bit. Apt has a nice old cathedral, and this is the bell tower.

The interior of the Romanesque church is both dark and ornate.

It was about 15 degrees cooler inside the church, which was a welcome relief.

Some parts of the church were almost two thousand years old.  This is the lower crypt, and it was built on top of some earlier Roman buildings.

The upper crypt once contained some remains of St. Ann, but we could not figure out what is held there now.

Our next stop was Rousillon, which is famous for its ochre quarries, which have churned out pigments for centuries. The cliffs glow with the color.

The town is painted in the same colors.

There are plenty of little nooks to explore.

Nowadays, it doesn’t seem like there’s any kind of industry except tourism.

The doors are fantastic in this part of the world.

A pretty good view from the top in Rousillon.

The bell towers in this part of France always have an iron spire on top, which holds the bells.

The whole region of Provence was covered with red poppies, which were in peak bloom during our visit.

Nantucket red is the default color in Rousillon.

Buildings have been built upon ruined buildings here for centuries. One wall in our B&B dated back to the 1st century.

Our next stop was the town of Menerbes, which was much quieter, and seemingly less touristy than Rousillon.

The town sits on the crest of a hill, and has views in all directions. This side has some terraced gardens that overlook the valley below.

Similarly to the other clock towers that we saw around here, the bells are supported by an iron spire that gives the tower a lightweight finish.  The museum of wine and truffles was right next door.  Unfortunately, we were not here during truffle season, but we sampled some good wine with a group of Italian women who had just rolled into town.

Menerbes is famous for being the setting of Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” Although we didn’t spend much time here, I think it was my favorite of all the towns that we visited.

Both sides of the town have commanding views in either direction. The wind started to whip over the hill in the evening.

In sharp contrast to some of the other places that we visited, the streets were cool and quiet.

Even the downtown streets have switchbacks. 

Fortunately, we were able to find a little bakery before it closed. The old lady who ran it was sitting in the back room watching TV and folding laundry, and was delighted to see us. We were in dire straights since we had bought a lot of bread-dependant picnic items at the market that morning, and had neglected to purchase bread. We bought her last loaf.

As the sun began to set, we made our way back to the B&B, excited to dig into the meal that we had assembled, but sorry to leave Menerbes.

Back at our B&B, we feasted on the terrace as the sun set over the hills.  We had fresh strawberries, delicious cheese, tapenade, quiche, the bread that we bought in Menerbes, and a nice white wine that we bought in Roussillon.

Still life with Lonely Planet.

Our host, Serge, cut a fresh olive branch as a centerpiece for our table.

The delicious dessert that we purchased from the bakery in Menerbes – an apricot tart that reminded me of something my mother used to make. A fantastic end to a fantastic day!

Off to Provence!

After an eventful week in Paris, we set out for Provence last Friday.  We made our way by TGV to Aix-en-Provence, from where we picked up a rental car, and headed to the hill towns of the Vaucluse.  We first attempted the drive without the aid of a GPS, but after a 45 minute detour to Marseilles, we (Elizabeth) decided that we had to turn it on.  This ended up being a great decision, because, to be honest, my much self-touted sense of direction would not have gotten us very far.  Our B&B was in a small village that was centrally located for exploring the countryside.  Here are the photos (click to expand on them):

After stopping at a winery on our route, we stopped at a bakery to get some of the local specialties: cookies flavored with the food of the region, called “navettes.”. We picked up some orange, lavender, thyme, and lemon cookies, along with a bunch of other ones that I can’t remember. I prefer a more moist cookie, so I would call these only “OK.”

Our B&B was picture-perfect, and I made use of the chilly pool on the day we arrived. It was around 85 degrees, but a little breezy.

There was a path up to the cliffs above the house where we were staying. It led up to the ancient fortifications that were built for the town, and gave us a pretty nice view of the countryside. In the distance, you can just make out Menerbes, one of the tiny villages that we explored the next day.

The path up to the cliffs.

Our B&B from above, on an amazingly clear evening, which was made all the better after a rainy morning in Paris.

This is the entrance to the beautiful room where we stayed. The terrace out front was perfect for evening picnics with all of the food that we picked up at the markets.

Our first view of Gordes was from below, as we took a bizarre detour on the tiniest roads on which I could ever taking our Hyundai rental. The town sits at the top of a hill, offering what I presume were strategic advantages..

The few tiny narrow streets in Gordes have views across the valley.

The owner of the B&B where we stayed called to make a reservation for us, and we had a chance to do a little bit of exploring beforehand.  I would imagine that Gordes would not be a bad place to pass a couple of years.

Our meal started with the local tapenade, and the town’s local aperatif, which was some kind of vanilla-y, fruity wine concoction – not my favorite, but I like to try the local specialties.

Elizabeth opted for champagne, and relished the opportunity to see me shaking my head at the local specialty.

The region around Aix is famous for its Rose, which everyone told me was excellent. I have to say, though, that it’s just not for me – too fruity, and too light. I was willing to give the local specialty a try, though.

A fresh local salad.

Elizabeth’s meal: a little of everything, which included salad, fish, soup, chicken, potatoes, an eggplant thing, and a whole host of other treats.

A closeup of the pea soup, which was Elizabeth’s favorite part.

My meal, which was muscles, fish, asparagus, and potatoes in a langoustine sauce.

Elizabeth’s dessert sampler: why choose one dessert when you can sample five? She’s got cheese, strawberry soup, creme brulee, a lemon tart, and a local grape beverage.

The dessert that came with my meal: strawberry soup. It was definitely not something that I would have chosen on my own, but it was surprisingly delicious, and tasted like the season in a bowl.

The coffee courses, served after desert, are always nicely presented.

Yet another photo in my series of dental offices of the world, this one with my favorite dentist included.

Not to worry:  there’s much more Provence to come.  I just have to work my way through all the photos that I’ve taken.  Up next:  Apt, Rousillon, and Menerbes.

A Day at the Palace


It’s been while since I posted, so I thought I’d update with some photos from a few days ago.  Elizabeth and I spent the day at Versailles, and although we got a late start, and had to fend our way through almost unbearable crowds, we ended up having a great day in the gardens.  I have recently become obsessed with French formal gardens (something about their willful artifice and exploitation of perspectives), and these, of course, did not disappoint.  We’re in Provence now, and I’ll update with photos when I get a chance!   Here are the photos and comments (click on them to enlarge):

Our day started out with lamentable weather. Not only did we arrive with every other tourist in Paris, but we also had to wait in the rain.

The weather forecast called for clearing skies later in the day, so we opted to see the interior of Louis XIV’s palace as soon as we got there. So did everyone else.

The formality of the 17th C court remains: Now only school teachers wearing outfits that match the chairs, and who escort skipping schoolchildren, are allowed into the chapel.

By the time we reached the hall of mirrors, we couldn’t wait to get out of the palace. The heaving crowds took almost all of the enjoyment out of the visit to the royal apartments, a visit that I might have otherwise relished.

Something tells me that the Hall of Mirrors loses its effect when crammed with people like this.

Once we got outside again, the whole day turned around. The orangerie, where citrus was originally grown and displayed, was almost completely abandoned.

I don’t know much about citrus cultivation, but it seemed odd to me that the trees with the most fruit had virtually no leaves.

The long allees are evocative of an era when mastery over nature was still seen as a novelty. I had been really looking forward to wandering around Le Notre’s gardens.

What kind of person earnestly compares himself to Apollo? Either Louis XIV had an under-appreciated sarcastic sense of humor, or a conflated self image. This is the Apollo fountain, with the god rising out of the water.

To Le Notre, a garden view was a 3-dimensional affair.

We decided to rent a rowboat in the Grand Canal, which is, essentially, a massive man-made lake in the center of the gardens. It stretches to 1.5 km long, and there is a cross-piece that is 1 km long.

The Canal was so large that it had its own current. Where the two pieces intersected, a strong breeze kept pushing the boat north. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t make much progress towards the southern extreme.

Elizabeth gives it a two-minute try.

I wearily kicked it into overdrive to make it back to the dock to avoid paying for a full hour. That’s the palace in the background.

Le Notre created huge “forests” on the property, which connect the various palaces, and presumable provided some hunting grounds, but even the forests are carefully planned and groomed. This is the path to the Grand Triannon, or palace away from palace.

We took a nice break to dip our feet along the northern section of the canal. It didn’t appear that any of the other rowers were able to make it this far, either.

The allee that leads back to the Apollo Fountain.

Every view terminates in a distant tunnel of trees.

My favorite parts of the gardens were the bosquets – perfectly manicured, green-walled passages through dense one-specied forests.

Although these bosquets did not include a labyrinth (the original one was removed in the 18th C), Elizabeth and I had no trouble getting lost within.

Which way to go?

One stubborn branch makes fights its way into a tightly groomed allee. I have no doubt that its days are numbered.

I imagine that all sorts of illicit things could have taken place in the bosquets when they were first built, but the long views make discovery all the easier from a great distance. Unlike the enfilades in the great french chateaux, with their off-axis cabinets, there is really nowhere to hide from the long perspective.

A fork in the rode, followed by a couple of other forks in the resultant roads.

We were rewarded for our morning showers with beautiful clear skies for most of the day.

We’ll have to come back some day when the fountains are running. Unlike those in many other gardens of the era, those at Versailles are pump fed because Louis XIV chose to build his palace at the highest point.

A last view back towards Le Notre’s gardens, and the Grand Canal stretching to the horizon.

Our in-room feast included quiche and croques madames.

The real stars were the desserts, a mouse and meringue creation, and a religieuse, supplemented with chocolates.