April 12, 2012 by The Editor
Passing through Paris after a holiday weekend in Lyon, I was reminded of how there is Paris, and then there is the rest of France. Paris is a beautiful city. It’s architecture, bridges, the cafes, the sights and sounds make being there an experience of all the senses. Over the past decade I’ve been to Paris many times, and I hope that in the future Alex and I will be able to spend much more time there.
But Paris is Paris. It’s the most-visited city in the world and along with all those tourists come millions of ideas of what Paris is. It’s the center of fashion. It’s the destination of many a young aspiring artist just as it is the center of power and money in France. It could be said that Paris is the center of the Francophone world, with French speakers from the four corners of the planet inhabiting its storied rues.
Many people visit Paris expecting gourmet dining in every café. There are many wonderful restaurants in Paris. It does, to be fair, have a thriving food culture. What would Paris be without its stalwart merchants like G. Detou and Dillerhin not to mention La Grande Epicerie along with the great restaurants of chefs like Christian Constant and Hélène Darroze? But for every fine resto there are a dozen average-to-bad apples. I’ve eaten many an overpriced, limp salad served by an angry waiter in Paris. It’s part of ‘the experience.’
Alex and I have also had the opportunity to travel to many other parts of France. And it occurred to me during our visit to Lyon, the second largest city in France, that Lyon in a way represents ‘the rest of France.’ In the rest of France, whether in Normandy, Metz, the Vaucluse, or Champagne, our experience of France and the French people has always been fundamentally different. There is, actually, in the rest of France, a sense of deliberation and calmness that people show in their interactions with each other and with tourists alike. In our experience, they deeply appreciate the fact that I speak some French and are delighted that Alex speaks like a native.
In Lyon, despite the fact that it is a very large city with many tourists of its own, we encountered this same welcoming attitude nearly everywhere we went. A beautiful city in its own right, it is also very prosperous and maintains a vibrant sense of its history while showing it has all the right stuff to be a cutting-edge, world-class city. Its basilica overlooking the city is a dominating architectural element, if not a dominant cultural force as well.
Lyon also has food. If tourists in Paris discover that their dreams of fine dining are too often quashed, in Lyon they may just find the apotheosis of food. It is said that the great Lyonnais Chef Paul Bocuse invented nouvelle cuisine, while being a master of classic French cuisine, as evidenced at his finest restaurant l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges just outside Lyon. Bocuse, at 86, is the dean of French cooking – having maintained a 3-star Michelin status for his main restaurant for 50 years.
The food culture of Lyon is in turn generally elevated due to the presence of such a great culinary force. Les Halles Paul Bocuse is a market open to the public in Lyon where dozens of primeurs and traiteurs, representing the very best of French products from cheese and yogurt to the finest cured meats and pastry, sell their goods. It is a center of gastronomy that is surely the envy of even the best markets in Paris. I would go back to Lyon just for this market.
Sure, it is possible to find mediocre food in Lyon. And while I’ve gone on a bit about food, my intent here has not been to persuade anyone as to the merits or demerits of a particular place based on its menus. I just wanted to share that it was interesting to experience France in a major city, outside Paris. I often find Paris at its best when I am not around lots of other people. In other parts of France, I find that its people are part of the pleasure of being there. The apparent sense of connection to their land and their way of life are the greatest testaments to a country that is held as the epitome of culture in the minds of people around the world. Outside Paris, I have often experienced France at its best, and this visit was no exception.