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A Side Trip to Lyons: Le Marché

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Our final day in Lyons: we woke up to sunshine pouring in between the cracks in the curtains and rolled out of bed and down to the dining room for breakfast. Over coffee, orange juice and our newspapers, we discussed the only one must-do-today on our list before going home: le marché, the market. And not just any market: Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, the ne plus ultra of this city's markets, the Mecca for gourmets and gourmands alike. We had seen the rest of the city, the archeology museum and the old Roman ruins, the bourgeois luxury of centreville, we had eaten in the bouchons and wandered in and out of traboules, we basked in the atmosphere of this old, glorious city and now we had a full morning for discovering Les Halles.

You see, we are market fiends. Wherever we travel, whether small town, country village or cosmopolitan metropolis, we search out the market: sprawling across a paved parking lot, tiny booths gathered in the town square or multi-storied covered complex, we are drawn as moths to a flame. We collect markets as others collect stamps or coins, with the same glee as teens collecting autographs, the same satisfaction with which vamps collect broken hearts. While other tourists are sitting in sidewalk cafés or searching out the famous monuments, we, camera in hand, are heading towards the market.

Budapest, Bilbao or Brest, we adore meandering the alleyways, discovering the unusual ingredients, the local specialties. Most of our summer in the tiny, picturesque port town of Le Conquet on the Brittany coast was spent wandering in and out of the noisy market stalls, buying scoops of winkles, whelks, huge, plump crabs right out of the ocean. Throwing in a sweet kouign amann or slices of dense, prune-studded far we had for the perfect meal. The vast three-story Central Market in Budapest, vibrant and full of fabulous treasures, was as exciting an attractions as the gorgeous, jewel box of an Opera House where we heard Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, entranced, or the Old World Tea Salons with their velvet chairs, gilded fixtures, carpeted floors, the rich, thick slices of Dobos Torte and cherry tart eaten amid the ghosts of aristocrats past. Our final day in Bilbao, that glorious city of Basque cuisine and contemporary art, was spent at the Ensanche Market in the old part of town, staring at slices of blood red cured meats, chains of sausages, delicate powdered sugar cookies inviting us from behind their glass windows. Markets. We simply can never get enough.

So is it any wonder that our last, our final morning in the glorious, gastronomic city of Lyons was spent at Les Halles Paul Bocuse, the wonderful enclosed marketplace? Nothing is left of the original mid-19th century Les Halles des Cordeliers, the covered market built to regroup many of the city's fast-disappearing markets. The modern glass building now the home of just under 60 commerçants and restaurants was finished in the early 70's and has evolved into the haut lieu of la gastronomie lyonnaise, rather surprising when one steps into the glass and cement building. If one doesn't take too close a look at the stalls, if one only glances around at the basic lines, walls, floors, ceilings, bathrooms, one could easily imagine that one is standing in an average American high school gymnasium!

But begin your voyage... wander up and down the alleys, the multitude of alleys, it seems to go on forever, take that first, quick glance at the elegant glass cases filled with perfect rounds, domes and pyramids of every imaginable type of cheese sitting in picture-perfect straw baskets, the rows upon rows of marinated vegetables, olives, salads, perfectly aligned sardines glistening in their tiny individual containers, the sea urchins, shrimps, clams, crabs, the garnet red meats, raw, cured and smoked, stacked up or spread out in mouthwatering temptation, the huge bunches of sausages dangling from shiny aluminum racks like so many ballgowned debutantes waiting for the next dance. And the pastries, luscious, amazingly intricate, graciously decorated pastries sitting proudly, flaunting their beauty, trying to outshine the perfect little chocolates nestled in rows beside them.

I want one of everything! My husband steers me towards one of the bars after our first run through the market and sits me down on a tall stool and orders us coffees. It is too early for lunch and a snack he won't hear of! He has his heart set on escargots, snails, and he is loathe to ruin his appetite, and as guardian of mine he will not let me fill up on anything before that plate of steaming, fragrant snails is set before me, the better to savor every single mouthful. Who, after all, can visit Les Halles Paul Bocuse without enjoying a traditional lunch of escargots?!

Coffee cup drained, I leave my husband to his newspaper purloined from the barman and stroll back and forth between the merchants, snapping pictures, pressing my nose against the panes of glass as I oooh and ahhhh each luscious delicacy, each perfect pastry, breath in the heady, briny odor of seafood, the pungency of the cheeses, the spicy scent of the sausages. He finally joins me and pulls me away from my overzealous admiration and informs me that we must choose the best place to eat lunch. We walk back and forth between the tiny restaurants hidden behind bars and seafood displays, read menu after menu as he tries to remember what he has read about each spot. We find ourselves in front of La Maison Rousseau, all wood paneling, brass railings and an air of the sea about it. It looks promising but it is still too early, no diners with plates piled high with seafood or sipping bowls of steaming bouillabaisse to inform us. But he believes he has heard great things of this restaurant from friends so in we go.

Giggling and excited like kids expecting a surprise, we order our escargots and a glass of chilled white wine apiece. The much-awaited plates are finally placed before us and the heavenly, divine, fragrant garlic-infused steam rises and coils up around our heads making us giddy. Each plump, chewy snail is tucked inside his own golden swirl of a shell, bathed in rich buttery jus, le beurre d'escargots, the garlicky, parsley green butter created for these babies, a perfect marriage. We delicately scoop out each thick snail careful to avoid being splattered with boiling butter and slide it onto our tongue. Soft pieces of freshly baked bread are used to soak up more of the golden green liquid and are popped into our mouth. The chilled, slightly pungent bite of the wine is cool respite from the zesty, rich, sinful flavor of the snails. This is truly our idea of decadence!

What more perfect way to end a wonderful few days in this most magical of gastronomic French cities than a morning spent in Les Halles Paul Bocuse?

La Maison Rousseau, Halles de Lyon - Paul Bocuse, 102 Cours Lafayette, Lyon 3

Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.

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