|Where's Tom? France|
| France: Fabulous and unforgettable
A tour of the French countryside offers up a fairytale-like charm that can't be found elsewhere.
By Tom Calicchio
When I boarded my Air France flight from Miami to Paris and was shown to my business class seat by a charming stewardess, it became immediately evident that I was not on your typical, domestic airline. The cabin crew was polite and extremely helpful, all the while sporting a friendly demeanor ... a sharp contrast to the reprimands and admonitions I've grown accustomed to getting from the crew on US carriers. With things getting off to such a great start, I settled into my seat, hopeful that everything else would follow in kind. I wasn't disappointed.
Mealtime began with an impressively presented champagne and foie gras aperitif. This was followed by a delicious lamb entrée, accompanied by excellent wines and patisserie for dessert. Over the years, airplane food has earned itself a bad rap but this food was as good as any restaurant food; hard to believe it came from an aircraft galley!
Equally enjoyable, the wide and comfy leather seats convert to nearly flat beds. There are power outlets (for laptops and other approved electronics) and individual video screens. Perhaps one of the best features on this Air France flight was the Bar Espace, an area on each side of the galley, where passengers can help themselves to fruit, snacks and beverages during the flight. I slept well on my fully reclined seat, complete with comfortable sheets and blankets and awoke an hour before landing to a tasty chive omelet and croissant for breakfast.
If you want to taste the real flavor of France, forget Paris! From Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG), you can catch the TGV and head two hours south to the city of Lyon. (Incidentally, TGV stands for "train à grande vitesse" and is French for "high-speed train".) Lyon is the perennial food capital of the country and is well known by gourmands from all over the world. From its origin as the second largest city in the Roman Empire through its evolution as the hub of food distribution for all of France, Paris has overshadowed Lyon by all but the most discerning of travelers and food lovers. It is the third most populated city after Paris and Marseilles, but it feels smaller because it is spread out over a larger area.
So, what makes Lyon a more enjoyable experience than Paris? For starters, you won't find the herds of tourists that make visiting the French capital such drudgery. (Isn't it a well-known fact that during peak season, every country in the world must send to Paris its own herd of not less than 25, to visit every point of interest ever described in any travel guide?) Lyon has a much quieter demeanor; it's concise for walking around or, if you prefer, cyclopolitains (bicycle-chauffeured rickshaws) and even Segway tours are perfect for touring the city. But however you get around, you're sure to appreciate the gorgeous surroundings. Take in the beautiful and decidedly un-crowded architectural riches that Lyon offers, from Roman ruins to the buildings where silk fabric production flourished in the 15th century.
VILLA FLORENTINE AND COUR DES LOGES
A few of the best hotels in Lyon, such as the 28-room Villa Florentine located in the Fourviere hills and the Cour des Loges, are modernized 17th-century structures that have the perfect blend of creature comforts and preserved period authenticity. You can check out a virtual tour of the Cour des Loges here; it's awesome. Each room is unique in both decor and configuration and all are richly appointed with antique furniture, beautiful fabrics, chandeliers, carved wooden beds and original artwork. Above all of the hotel's unique charms is the chief concierge Gerard Ravet. This amusing gentleman was the most knowledgeable and attentive concierge I have ever encountered. He speaks English perfectly, knows every nook and cranny in the entire Rhone Alpes region, and will happily solve any problem with which he is presented. On the business card he handed me, he quickly drew a portrait of himself on the back, complete with his signature curly waxed mustache. Villa Florentine Hotel Relais & Chateaux, Promotion 95, 25, montée Saint-Barthélemy, 69005 Lyon, France, Tel: 04 72 56 56 56; Cour des Loges, 2, 4, 6, 8, rue du Bœuf, 69005 Lyon, France, Tel: +33 (0)4 72 77 44 44.
I lunched at a bouchon called Chez Abel (25, rue Guynemer) located near the Basilica of Ainay -- a definite must-see. Bouchons date back to a period when inns that served horse drawn coach passengers wine outside mealtimes, were indicated by a wisp of straw (bouchon) hanging from their signs. Today, these warm and friendly places retain the character of the 18th century and serve the same hearty fare like charcuterie, paté, and stews of pork, beef and lamb in large portions at inexpensive prices. Eating in a bouchon is a great way to experience old-school French cuisine at great prices that will take you back in time. There is also a great covered food market, Lyon Halle, where the largest assortment of the best fresh products can be obtained. But even if you don't buy, the range of offerings is staggering. There are all kinds of fowl from Bresse, pike, carp and trout from Dombes, fruits from les Monts du Lyonnais, cheese from Dauphine and Ardeche, and wines from small growers in Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone, Dugey and Burgundy. It is an intoxicating mélange for all of your senses that simply must be experienced.
As the gastronomical epicenter of the nation, food remains paramount in Lyon; well-known chef Paul Bocuse has no less than seven restaurants throughout the city. I dined in the rarified air of the renowned L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges restaurant where the quality of the food was exceeded only by the price. With the euro costing nearly $1.40USD at the time, the roasted Bresse chicken for two, at this three-Michelin- star Mecca, cost over $200USD. I had the less expensive (44 euro) fricassée of chicken from Bresse, served in a light, creamy sauce with morels; absolute perfection. The chicken from Bresse has a well-deserved reputation for being the finest in the world and Bocuse's kitchen served up a meal I'll never forget. There are only 55 other three-Michelin-star restaurants in the world and 26 of them are in France. This was my first trip into this stratosphere of fine dining ... and I can't wait to return! L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, 40 Quai de la Plage, 69660 Collonges au Mont d'Or, Tel: +33 04 72 42 90 90.
LIFE'S LITTLE LUXURIES: SILK AND CHOCOLATE
Silk production still thrives in Lyon, however it is reserved for domestic haute couture and the most expensive furniture. There are small producers such as Ludovic de la Calle's small workshop called Saint-Georges Soierie. The old hand looms utilized by the talented craftsmen are very much like the ones utilized for the past four centuries by their ancestors. Ludovic will warmly greet any visitor and demonstrate how his fine silken fabrics are made. Saint-Georges Soierie, 11, rue Mourguet, 69005 LYON, Vieux Lyon (5e arrt), Vieux-Lyon-Fourvière / Vaise, Tel: +33 0 4 72 40 25 13.
Lyon is also home to several boutique chocolate shops and they prepare a wide range of confections fresh on the premises each day. The intricate little masterpieces are of all kinds of chocolates combined with creamy mixtures of fruits and nuts with flavors and textures that are delicious beyond description. I was fortunate enough to have the manager of Bernachon, one of these chocolate Edens show me the behind-the-scenes production area. Unfortunately it was mid-afternoon, and all the work is done in the early morning hours, but it was great fun to see all of the hand-mixers, form sheets and especially the sacks of cocoa beans from all corners of the world. Bernachon, 42 Cours Franklin Roosevelt, 69006, Lyon, France, Tél: 04 78 24 37 98.
THE OLD CITY
The most interesting section of Lyon is the old city where many of the oldest structures have been restored to their original splendor. Many of these buildings have traboules, a word derived from the Latin meaning, “to cross”. Traboules, a most defining characteristic of Lyon, are narrow pedestrian passageways used to navigate the city and provide shortcuts to get around. They connect one street to another and pass through multiple buildings and courtyards. Historically, merchants used these passageways to transfer their goods from one part of the city to another and nowadays, knowing the intricate paths of the traboules is heralded as the sign of a “true Lyonnais”. There are an estimated 400 traboules in and around the area though many are no longer accessible to the public as they are either privately owned or have been closed off entirely. The earliest traboules in Lyon are believed to date as far back as the 4th century, making them truly a historic marvel.
NEXT STOP: THE RHONE VALLEY
I left Lyon for my next destination, grateful to the city for having successfully transformed my mental state from the chaos of Kennedy Airport to the Beaujolais bliss of the Rhone Valley. Just a short ride south from Lyon, through a route of vineyards, brought me to French Nirvana, the five-star Chateau de Bagnols. It's the finest vineyard hotel in the world and you'll think you've left this world for someplace more akin to heaven. The perfectly manicured grounds boast 100-year-old lime trees and overlook magnificent vistas of vineyards in every direction. The conversion of the main castle into 21 regal guest suites was a four-year labor of love and was completed in 1992. The $20 million renovation involved the finest craftsman and structural engineers to complete the amazing transformation. Quite an achievement to incorporate modern comforts like plumbing and electricity into the 14th century structure, without changing or damaging the original stone, wood and tiling.
My room was vast; an enormous four-poster bed, fireplace and period furniture hurtled me back in time to the opulent days of the French royalty. The bathroom featured a soaring, circular turret ceiling with original, narrowly slit windows that centuries ago, archers would have fired from to defend the castle. The tub was near-Olympic size and the commode was a throne-like, wooden affair. It was unlike any hotel room I've ever seen; since new hotel rooms seem to be getting smaller and smaller, it's unlikely that elsewhere I'll enjoy the scale, the history and the grandeur I was so lucky to find here, tucked away in the French countryside.
I enjoyed a pre-dinner cocktail in the Lavender Alley, surrounded by the fragrance of these pale purple beauties. Lavender Alley overlooks a fountain and sprawling gardens and there's little indication that you're staying at a hotel. The place was so hushed and comfortable; I hardly saw many other quests, just lots of staff discreetly keeping everything in a constant state of perfection. It was more like one of those billionaire Google guys had called you up and invited you to stay at his place in France for a few days with some friends. The sitting rooms and dining rooms were magnificent, the dinner and wine absolute perfection and the staff was gracious, knowledgeable and well trained. What more could a traveler ask for? Chateau de Bagnols, 69620, Bagnols, France, Tel: +33 4 74 71 40 00.
My next stop, following the Rhone River down the valley 30 kilometers south, was the town of Vienne, originally an important outpost of the Roman Empire. There is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre where each July, a jazz festival brings together top musicians from all over the world. There is also a magnificent Roman temple, the Temple of Augusta and Livia, which has survived for 20 centuries. Imagine that! It owes its survival to the Roman Emperor Theodius who made Christianity the official religion of the empire in the 4th century AD and the huge Corinthian structure has been used as a church since then. Vienne is a great place to walk around and draws relatively few tourists so you can experience a genuine small French town. It is laidback and as you adapt to its mellow pace, you appreciate the subtle nuances of life and how different it is from larger cities. The fruit and vegetable markets, bakeries and butcher shops still thrive despite the advent of the modern supermarket. Old traditions die hard here, and it is encouraging to experience a place whose residents seem to have found the right blend of old and new.
Next, it was on to another wonderful medieval castle that has been converted into a hotel, the 23-room Chateau de Rochegude. The castle, located in the small town of Drome, still has its original tower that dates back to the 12th century, but most of the present structure was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It's located on a high hill that overlooks the many vineyards, which surround the massive structure. The region is a producer of fine olive oils and truffles, which you'll find in many of the dishes the hotel chef prepares. I stopped for lunch in the small town of Drome at a restaurant called Le Cloitre and enjoyed foie gras with figs and balsamic vinegar and lobster ravioli with fennel and aromatic olive oil. Chateau de Rochegude, 26790 Rochegude, France, Tel: + 33 04 75 97 21 10.
The next morning, it was time to visit the University of Wine in the town of Suze-la-Rousse, where the curriculum is dedicated exclusively to the study of wine. There's a complete range of courses from weekends for the amateur oenophile to multi-year stints to become a master sommelier. I was invited to a mini-course (about an hour) where I learned how to properly "nose" a wine. To really appreciate the notes of a wine, you sniff it before tasting. The proper technique is to stick your nose in the glass and let the scent rise up. If you try to inhale the scent (as I and probably many others have done) you will get mostly alcohol fumes, which will mask the fruits, minerals and other aromas that gives each wine its unique character. Later in the day, I went to the southernmost part of the Rhone-Alps region, which is pretty much identical to the Provence region. There are lots of lavender fields, olive trees and vineyards. I stopped in to see a lavender distillery and learned about the process of extracting the essence of the lavender plant. They utilize the exhausted batch of processed lavender to fuel the fire for the next batch, which was an old but efficient method of conserving firewood. I was also fortunate enough to visit the workshop of Raphael Delaye-Reynaud, a vinegar producer who literally, by hand, makes each bottle. He produces fine vinegars flavored with local herbs utilizing the oak casks, filtration methods and aging techniques used for winemaking that he learned when he was working for a top Beaujolais vineyard. He personally fills each bottle and applies labels and seals under the brand La Para in sage, dill, elderflower, shallot and gamut flavors. If you'd like to try it, some of the flavors are available at splendidpalate.com.
MANOIR DE LA ROSERAIE
I spent the night at the Manoir de la Roseraie in Grignan, which had beautiful grounds, a delightful glass dining room and a view of the Chateau de Grignan. The hotel has acre upon acre of beautiful parks with specimen trees, a tennis court and a beautiful pool. My dinner at the hotel was an excellent mix of traditional and nouvelle cuisine. The next morning I walked up the hill to the Chateau, which is an extraordinary 16th-century fortress that was transformed into a luxurious residence in the 17th century by the Lieutenant General of Louis XIV. It was badly damaged in the Revolution but over time, has been restored by successive owners and is an incredibly fascinating marvel of architecture and interior furnishing. Interestingly, somewhere along the way seven large gargoyles carved in stone were added. Each one depicts one of the seven deadly sins.
Grignan is a delightful town, with narrow, un-crowded streets that you just wander through and find an intriguing shop or fountain square at each new turn. It is beautiful and peaceful, and entirely relaxing. During the summer you can attend the night festivals that feature storytellers, readers and calligraphers roaming the streets. You may also see some famous actors performing around the topic of poetry in the beautiful church or castle garden. For the long summer evenings, there are very animated night markets with an array of vendors selling everything from old books and lithos to local costume jewelry. You will enjoy the variety of sights, sounds and people and are sure to come across something that you simply cannot live without.
And that's just how I felt about France; it's a place our world simply cannot live without. The French countryside offers up a fairytale-like charm that can't be found elsewhere. If you've never been, I urge you to go. And if you have, consider revisiting and immersing yourself in all of the unforgettable delights and delicacies that are uniquely, most-distinctly and unforgettably France.
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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.
Note: This trip was sponsored by France Tourism.
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