France's Rhone Alpes Region: Where Food is King
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
As I walk around the town of Grignan in Rhone Alpes, I am most grateful to travel writer Peter Mayle for extolling the virtues of Provence -- not all that far away, but just far enough. The narrow streets of Grignan aren’t filled with tourists and the pace is slow and ancient. I felt much the same when I arrived in Lyon a few days ago, a city steeped in history which I had almost entirely to myself.
While so many zip past central France heading north to Paris or south to Provence, the opportunities for a fascinating glimpse into the French lifestyle can be found in the areas of Cote de Rhone, Beaujolais and Drome, all in the Rhone Alpes Region.
The Romans enjoyed the area long ago and for many of the same reasons travelers today will: food, wine and beauty go hand in hand.
The area has its own appellation chicken, known wine vineyards, and lodgings that are royal. A quick train ride from Charles De Gaulle airport puts you smack dab in France’s central zone, a guaranteed great experience.
Luxuriating in Lyon
While Paris is truly an international city, Lyon is absolutely French through and through. I first visited Lyon just this past September and thought to myself that this was a city I wanted to return to soon; by chance my return in April wasn’t too soon.
This city’s position at the meeting of the Saone and Rhone Rivers has insured its importance for over two thousand years. Throughout the city are places to visit that will transport you back in time to many different eras in history.
A Roman amphitheater in Lyon.
Lyon also has its place in this century and the blend is magic. It is, however, food that is Lyon’s best known attribute. Food is king here. While at one time there were hundreds of little bouchons, or working-man places to eat, authentic ones have dwindled.
That's partly because of a food evolution toward lighter, tastier (and healthier) dishes led by Paul Bocuse of the Restaurant Auberge du Pont De Collonges, who has held the coveted three-star Michelin rating for more than 40 years. Great restaurants can be found everywhere.
My two favorite areas of Lyon are the Presquile and Vieux Lyon. The first is a peninsula between the two rivers and the last area or old town is narrow streets filled with Renaissance charm.
Specifically the Presquile is an area that has broad pedestrian boulevards, parks and most of the city’s museums such as the Musee des Beaux-Arts and the Musee Historique des Tissus. The latter shows the importance of the silk industry so important to Lyon’s history.
Vieux Lyon is one of the richest collections of urban Renaissance dwellings in Europe. My hotel, La Cour des Loges, is in four of them. All of the buildings reflect the wealth generated from the silk and weaving industry from the 15th century. Above the old city are the Roman theaters and ruins dating from AD 48 when the city boasted being the Roman Empire's second largest city and capital of Gallic Rome.
The Chateau de Bagnols.
No matter what your interests are, Lyon can provide history, dining, wine and art — all flourish amidst the flow of two of France’s most important rivers. Café life, restaurants and places to see, the Résistance Musee is a perfect example of the spirit of an area with its own persona.
The Royal Grape Escape
After a few nights spent in an urban wonderland we headed about 30 miles north of Lyon to the Beaujolais vineyard tour, the Route du Vin, and checked into the Château de Bagnols. The château, from the very first look, lived up to its reputation as the "ne plus ultra" of French châteaux (in English, the very best, the pinnacle of achievement).
The château dates from the 13th century and Lady Hamlyn, widow of publisher Lord Hamlyn spent four years and more than 19 million dollars in the 1980s to restore the castle to its regal past. More than 400 specialists were used to insure the job was perfectly done. It was.
The 21 suites are filled with priceless antiques, yet have every modern convenience a roving Lord would need. After a swim in my huge tub placed in one of the round towers, I was more than ready for some great wine on the grounds surrounded by vineyards.
Olives for sale in Lyon.
While many know that Beaujolais wine creates a worldwide event when released on the second Thursday in November, not many travel the Route du Vin and that is a shame; the 30-mile drive through granite peaks, vineyards and small villages is intoxicating. The best place to get info and a map is Villefranche-sur-Saone’s tourism office or at one of Lyon’s tourism offices. Exploring the region is rural, relaxing and perfect for an unhurried expedition.
Roaming Down the Rhone
While other cities farther north and south boast about Roman roots, Vienne lives amongst them. This city, built between the Rhone River and the hills, spouts history, capped by the Theatre Romania, one of the largest Roman amphitheaters built at the base of Mont Pipet.
It is impossible to miss ancient history in Vienne and its position on the Rhone. Walking around the city will bring you back centuries, from the Roman Temple d’Auguste you can turn in any direction and see buildings from the Renaissance or 16th century, and somehow they blend seamlessly.
After eating at Bocuse’s Restaurant Auberge in Lyon I thought that the food could only go downhill as I headed farther from Lyon. I was immediately set straight as I had a spectacular lunch at an unpretentious place called Le Cloitre near the Cathedral St. Maurice. Food and wine were paired well and the price reasonable. Very reassuring as I was heading farther off the river’s path and to the relatively undiscovered Drome Provencal.
The Chateau de Rochegude.
Peaceful Easy Feeling
It is instantly apparent that Drome Provencal has many of the same features as the nearby
Provencal region visited by so many tourists: the air is clean and the vistas stunning. Vineyards compete with lavender fields and olive trees in the fertile soil.
To use the old cliché, it is "just what Provencal was 25-years ago."
The sun had a late afterglow as we pulled into the fortress-like Château de Rochegude. The glow was intensified by the local stone used in its building. There is no sleek touristy feel to this Chateau, just a dignified understatement.
The Château was at the center of the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics centuries ago. In fact the dining room was once the hall where the Popes of Avignon held ecclesiastic court during the papal schism of the Middle Ages.
The place has its own grounds, complete with deer and pool, and relaxing is the cause adhered to today. The abundance of local wines and produce are evident during dinner and tomorrow I need to heed the nearby chapel’s bells for my class and tasting at the Wine University a short distance away.
The Chateau de Rochegude.
A Class of the Glass
The Universite du Vin, or Wine University, in Suze la Rousse has this as its mission: "If we are to celebrate wine, we must also transmit the knowledge across many disciplines. That is the goal of the University of Wine." Finally a school that has classes I wouldn’t skip!
However the sommelier designation given here takes much study. The school is housed at the stunning medieval château de Suze-la-Rousse, high above the village of the same name. The smells of vineyard and fields drift past the ramparts and below serious students gather near the classrooms. The vine garden on the grounds has cultivated the seventy main types of vines from all of the great wine producing countries.
On weekends tastings and short courses are often available for the amateur oenophiles and the Chateau de Rochegude was close enough to set up lodgings while the University wasn’t. After we took a short tasting course we headed to the Village of Nyons to taste some of the areas other grown treasures.
Slow Food in Nyons
The mountains get a little steeper as we head to Nyons and that apparently makes the village a great place for certain activities; the Slow Food Movement has been a way of life here for centuries. A perfect example is the fantastic vinegar produced there by a guy named Raphael and called La Para.
A tasting of La Para vinegar.
A commercial operation can produce 5000 barrels of vinegar in twelve hours; it takes him up to nine months to produce a perfect barrel of vinegar. I went through the tasting from several different herb concoctions. Delicious!
Another craftsman we visited in Nyons was Philippe Soguel, the owner of Distillerie Bleu Provence. What Raphael does to vinegar, Philippe does with lavender and herbs: he creates magic.
The process of extracting the essence of lavender is a long one, but the end products of oils and soaps are astounding. Crafts are a large part of a visit to Nyons as well as the quaint streets and mountain vistas, all in all a great view into rural France.
Love Letters to Grignan
From the front of the massive stone Manoir de la Roseraie, the Château de Grignan commands attention; it is one of the finest Renaissance structures in France. It was also where Madame de Sevigne wrote many of the letters about life in France in the 17th century. It is through her letters that the lifestyle for the mighty is known in detail today.
Beneath the Château is the charming village, filled with shops and restaurants. This is a France that still lives for long lunches and relaxing. The grounds of the Manior de la Roseraie are perfect for strolling or lounging by the pool or perhaps even writing some letters of your own.
As I savored my last lunch in the Rhone Alpes Region at the picturesque Le Poeme in the village center, I thought about the wonderful experiences of the past days traveling. Great food, wine and sights make for a great trip.
I for one was glad not to be a traveler that zips past central France heading to Paris or Provence. But then again that may be just what makes the area as wonderful as it is.
One of the best aspects of my trip was staying in historic and interesting lodgings. Rhone Alpes has astounding choices at all price ranges. If food and wine are your interest then rest assured that you will find your palate pleased. Some must-see sites for planning your own visit are;
A sidewalk cafe in Lyons.
From an urban hotel created out of four Renaissance buildings to a castle in the midst of vineyards these hotels where exceptional and all for different reasons, click to see if they fit for you.
Rochegude - Chateau de Rochegude Hotel
Grignan - Manoir de la Roseraie Hotel
Lyon and the Rhone Alpes area has a stellar reputation for dining and some of my favorites can be studied on line.
The name Paul Bocuse says it all: Restaurant Auberge du Pont De Collonges
A traditional bouchon in Lyon: Chez Abel
Even if not staying at the Chateau de Bagnols, the formal dining room is sublime.
In Vienne the Le Cloitre was inexpensive and one of my favorites.
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