Paris and the French gastronomic capital of Lyon are must-visits
Qweekend, The Courier-Mail, March 11-12, 2023
The first time I visited Paris was in 2017. I know, rather late in the piece and frankly, on that visit, it didn't quite take. It was December, cold, raining and my wife and son insisted on walking the entire city. What does it say about that trip that the highlight was visiting Napoleon's tomb (at Les Invalides) and a cemetery? I'm talking about the Cimeteire du Pere- Lachaise, which boasts a who's who of the deceased. Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, they are all there.
On a recent trip (in late November and early December) things clicked and when Paris clicks it becomes an obsession. In fact as soon as we got home we started planning the next trip. Then we sat down and watched Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris again (it's his love letter to the French capital) and checked off all the places featured in the film we had visited. The Moulin Rouge, check. Shakespeare and Company bookshop, check. Le Musee Rodin, check. Musee de l'Orangerie (to see the incredible Monet waterlily murals), check. (I would recommend buying a Paris Museum Pass so you can waltz in everywhere without queuing.)
Should we feel guilty that another highlight was visiting a department store? Ah, but Galeries Lafayette Haussmann is so much more than that and Lafayette Maison and Gourmet across the road is incredible.
Staying at the Sofitel Le Scribe Paris Opera we were just a five-minute walk from Galeries Lafayette (dangerously close) and very near to the stunning Palais Garnier Opera House, setting of The Phantom of The Opera. Do a tour if you have time. The opera district is swish and central with Metro stations nearby.
The Sofitel here is a heritage treasure, formerly Hotel Scribe and figures like Marcel Proust, Jules Verne and Josephine Baker all resided there at one point or another. Louis Vuitton had his first store out the front and the Lumiere Brothers showed their first films in the building.
Our two shortish stays in Paris this time book-ended a trip to Lyon where our son was doing a university exchange. The TGV train from Paris to Lyon takes just under two hours travelling at up to 300km.
In Lyon we stayed at the Hotel Mercure Lyon Centre Beaux-Arts, which is very central, and our room overlooked a lovely square. I knew little about Lyon and while it's great to study up before you go it's also nice to be surprised. I did know it is the culinary capital and that Lyonnaise food is world famous. The late Anthony Bourdain was a fan and our son took us to a local bouchon (a traditional Lyon bistro) that Bourdain had raved about - Cafe Comptoir Abel - which serves hearty provincial fare. Just for the record I had kidneys for dinner.
We also treated ourselves to lunch at a Lyon restaurant with three Michelin stars, La Mere Brazier, an art deco establishment started in 1921 in this city (France's third largest) at the confluence of the Rhine and Saine rivers. Our set menu included crab with shell emulsion and caviar, scallops and veal sweetbreads, with dessert the most amazing chestnut souffle. Downtown Lyon is charming, more mellow than Paris and the shopping is excellent.
The Musee Des Beaux-Arts De Lyon, housed in the 17th century Palais St-Pierre, a former Benedictine convent, has what some say is the most important collection of art in France after the Louvre.
We were chuffed to find they even had a painting by Brett Whiteley. It also has an amazing collection of antiquities, which makes sense because Lyon was once a Roman stronghold called Lugdunum, founded by Julius Caesar in 43 BC. The Roman amphitheatres overlooking the city are incredible as is the attached underground Lugdunum-Musee. Also make sure you explore the restored old quarter on the west bank of the River Saone, with its cobbled streets and the impressive 12th century Cathedrale St Jean. Lyon is a great city and quite a revelation although we barely scratched the surface.
Back in Paris for take two we checked off more items on our to-do list including our visit to the Moulin Rouge, home of the cancan. We loved the show featuring showgirls and cabaret acts. A touristy thing to do but, then again, we were tourists.
Hemingway wrote a book about Paris entitled A Moveable Feast and I bought a copy at Shakespeare and Company book shop, a hub for literary types. We walked to it from the Musee Rodin through Saint- Germain-des-Pres and another day strolled through Le Marais, another fashionable neighbourhood in the 6th arrondissement.
Other highlights included a night at the Opera Bastille and a concert at the Philharmonie de Paris. And, one has to have an overpriced coffee at Cafe Trocadero with a view of the nearby Eiffel Tower. Sitting there you will pinch yourself to make sure you are not dreaming.
with PHIL BROWN
Arts Editor - The Courier-Mail
Copyright © Phil Brown