International foodies have long been drawn to Paris and the French countryside for the famous food and wine. What many people don't know is that Lyon, the second most populous city in France, second only to Paris and also known as Little Paris, is France's culinary capital. The gastronomical city boasts 1.4 million residents and is the capital of the French Rhone-Alps region. So, if looking to take your love of food to another level, the sensuous city of Lyon is simply a must for a foodie-infused rendezvous.
Set in the Rhone Alps region of France and near Beaujolais and Cotes De Rhone, two of France's most prominent wine regions, Lyon has all the seduction, art and architecture of Paris -- yet it comes in a much smaller package and at a slightly slower pace. In essence, it is a sensual slice of French heaven with that definitive French foodie and wine twist.
Once in Lyon, check in to the chic boutique hotel of Cour Des Loges set in the heart of Vieux Lyon, the historical Renaissance District or the 5th arrondissement. Surrounded by cobblestone streets, medieval architecture, boutiques, bistros, bouchons and a bevy of brightly colored buildings, the ambient Cour Des Loges is an architectural gem comprised of four beautiful and meticulously restored Renaissance buildings.
As one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Cour Des Loges is a very unique offering that harkens back to another time. The property is a seamless mix of classic and contemporary design with endless ambience on-site from the romantic alcoves and nooks, to modern tapestries, a glass atrium, a garden, wine cellar, Turkish baths and an indoor swimming pool.
Each of the 61 well-appointed rooms and suites is completely unique. French artist Herve Thibaut used Venetian opera houses to inspire his design for a few of the junior suites while others were designed with the working artist or photographer in mind. You will feel like you are not only sleeping with the artist, but as the artist in a studio from the early 20th century. If this doesn't stir the artistic taste buds, trust that nothing will.
The Small Mezzanine rooms are proof positive that the best things in life often come in small packages. This jewel box of a room set in rich regal red and gold tones comes with a French style ceiling, an attic, loft-like bedroom and a bathtub with a Mullion window overlooking the busy cobblestone streets below. Be sure to take your wine towards the tub and turn the moody music on before you slip far and away. You could get lost for hours in a bath of bubbles. This room immediately screams for romance and the tub was made for love. One can only hope for rain and a reason to never leave.
If and when you do venture forth, Lyon, like Paris and Marseilles is divided in to a number of districts or arrondissements. The Renaissance district, together with the silk district (slopes of Croix-Rousse), and the Presqu'île, make up the Historical Site of Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the perfect place to kick off your urban exploring. Be sure to slip in to the many traboules, the small evocative passageways between buildings and houses: It's quintessential Lyon. A few slips in and you will feel like a local with the old stones surrounding you.
Lyon is a great place to get lost, so allow the city to naturally unravel before you. Be sure to make your way up the iconic Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière. It provides a beautiful view of the intact Roman amphitheater built around 19 BC and the most beautiful panoramic view of the city. It will give you an immediate lay of the land.
Our first night we had dinner at Bistrot de Lyon. I couldn't have asked for a better intro. This classic French brasserie with a traditional and evocative décor form the 1900s provided a soul-sating ambiance. Half in and half out, we were facing the street enjoying al fresco dining with a sea of people out for La Fête de la Musique, or Festival of Music.
The streets were heaving with sexy and spirited locals enjoying the festival and celebrating the official kick-off of summer. The energy around us was tangible. The fest continued past dinner, in to the night and on to a series of streets and traboules as we stumbled upon an endless series of impromptu street concerts. Dancing and random Franglish with our new French friends was flying. It's these moments and vibrant experiences that make me wonder, Why aren't I living in Europe? It's such a fit for me.
After our first festive night, we hit the foodie floor running. There is nothing I love more than a great local market. Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse was just the ticket, an amazing covered market with an expansive selection of cheeses, including the local St. Marcellin, beautiful French pastries, meats, seafood, produce, chocolates, sweets, several sexy locals and of course an abundance of wine.
The sensory display really wound up the appetite. So, we slipped into Daniel et Denise, a traditional and celebrated bouchon, which is a Lyonnais bistro serving delicacies, food and wine specific to the region. As expected, award winning chef Chef Joseph Viola served traditional bouchon cuisine for lunch, such as quenelles -- dumplings in a rich cream sauce consisting of various seafoods -- pâté-en-croûte, foie gras, pan-fried potatoes and their heavenly version of a melt in your mouth mac and cheese.
Pairing a little culture with my cuisine, we then headed to the Musée Lumière, a museum dedicated to the Lumière family, responsible for the invention of cinema. Set in their stunning family home, it's a fascinating look at those innovative men and the birth and creation of moving pictures we now take for granted.
After a lazy walk and wander, we headed out for a fancy-pants dinner at La Mère Brazier, a famous two Michelin star restaurant. Founded in 1921 by Eugenie Brazier, the establishment has a long and storied history of playing host to the high-profile and politicos alike. The impressive Brazier was home to the first woman to ever receive three Michelin stars in 1933. Their big black and white photos of her at the helm paid homage.
Today chef and proprietor Mathieu Viannay is at the helm maintaining culinary excellence and adhering to the original design and charm. Our feast in the private dining room of the old home included oysters with caviar, a slowly poached chicken and a cheese course that needs to be seen and savored to be believed.
It was a quick, yet memorable clip of Lyon. By the next day we were off, heading towards the festive French Alps with a stop in the design driven city of Saint-Ettiene. We popped in to the Corbusier site, a great spot for architecture buffs to experience the famed Swiss-French architect's design of the town's houses, a cultural center and an ultra-modern church.
The Art and Industry Museum showcased a collection of arms and textiles, which Lyon is known for. That, together with historical artifacts, like the bicycle, which was created in the region, made for a vibrant visit. Our stop at The Modern Art Museum showcased more than 15,000 works of very modern and interpretive art from famous French artists, sculptors, designers and photographers of the 20th and 21st century. I found the most inspired design of the day to be the urban art and the city itself, an idyllic little city with a village square, a picturesque carousel and a fountain surrounded by happy locals.
We consumed the local culture with a feast of local innovative dishes with beautiful French wines at La Toque a l'Envers. The evening was capped off with deserts and wines in the charming courtyard out back. After a quick wink at the Hotel Mercure we finally made our way to Annecy, a historical city in the Alps, next to Lake Annecy, the purest lake in all of Europe. We checked in to The Hotel Annecy, a sleek, contemporary, centrally located hotel just steps away from the old part of the city and the alpine lake.
This picturesque town had all the fairy tale magic one would imagine, with twisty cobblestone streets, storybook buildings with flower beds in the windows, performers and clowns on the canals, craft shops, cafes, bistros and bustling markets across town. All of this was accented with a stunning set of surreal snowcapped mountains in the beautiful background. After a day of whimsical wandering, soaking in the sun and local charm, we had dinner at L'Etage outside on the cobblestone street where we drank heaps of wine, flirted with locals and finally had fondue, one of the region's favorites.
I was up, rise and shine, with the first pressed coffee to catch the local farmers market set up throughout the town with local vendors selling a myriad of meats, cheeses, produce, wine, pastries, breads and vintage things. The town was full of fun and flavor. My meander was cut short as we were off on Libellule, the restaurant boat, for a lunch cruise on Lake Annecy, a leisurely way to take in the alpine aesthetics.
We made stops along the way, experiencing an enviable slice of French life in the mountain town of Faverges at their small market with strawberries and wine -- and with a visit with Yan Zoritchak, a famous glass artist in the town of Talloires.
The cream clearly rises to the top, at least in France, as was experienced once we arrived to the top of Lake Annecy. Looking down at the beauty before and below us, that was the crème de le crème of views and visuals thus far. It was truly otherworldly with the paragliders floating like angels gently above us, then floating seemingly and effortlessly over the lake for an hour.
We parked it on the terrace, otherwise known as French heaven, at the organic restaurant Chalet de la Pricaz in Montmin where the food was as seductive as the ambiance. While the sun was slowly setting, a series of meats and cheeses arrived in baby mason jars on edgy wood-and-stone slats, paired with several glasses of chilled rose champagne. It was rustic chic at its best.
Once inside, slats of food the length of diving boards would appear on the table with duplicates on either end, so everyone at the table could enjoy the French food orgy. The showstopper came with the expansive, diving board of deserts, which had us all diving in, head first. It was the meal, the experience and the ambiance to beat. It just may be one of my favorite places on the planet.
How to top the previous night? Surprisingly, the next morning gave it a good run for its money. I was once again brought to my travel knees as we arrived in the Aravis Mountains within the Alps, a short drive from Annecy to the town of Le Grand Bornand. I was all but singing "The Hills are Alive" on the inside as I twirled through the lush green hills dotted only with cows. When I stood still to breathe in the beauty, all I heard were the cow bells all around me.
After a lovely local lunch in Le Grand Bornand at Confins des Sens, we went to the ski resort in La Clusaz. We took the telecabine up to once again capture the beautiful view. A short -- yet well needed -- hike later, we landed at La Ferme de Corbassiers, where they make Reblochon, the local and highly celebrated cheese. The proprietors, a mother and son duo, served up a picturesque picnic of fresh Reblochon cheese, homemade butter, blueberry jam, fresh baked breads, yogurt, honey and hot rich coffee served with fresh milk that came from the cow that morning. It was downright decadent. In the simple, I always find the sublime. We sat and savored the feast and the scenery for some time. Safe to say, the day successfully rivaled the prior night.
That final evening we finished off in the mountain town of Thônes, where they were celebrating La Fete de la Musique. Parking set the local tone, as our driver Bruno, our French Tony Soprano, a guy who you know would take a bullet if needed, got in a scuff with a local over parking... as you do. A few French words later, grown men were pushed and shoved. I whipped out a Flip. A guy looked at me angrily, as I was up front and he said something threatening that ended with Blondie and a French fist.
It was so out of synch with all that we experienced thus far. Like kids in the custody of our parents, we nervously giggled like school girls. Then we quickly made our way in to town for an afternoon wine in the town square before our dinner of charcuterie and the famous regional rich dish, tartiflette, a creamy casserole of potatoes, bacon and Reblochon cheese at La Pisciculture. It was the pitch-perfect last supper.
Before we could walk back to the car, Bruno, forever the gracious guide and driver, whipped around a corner and picked us all up. Not at all ruffled or intimidated -- hardly! -- by the earlier events, he proceeded to drive through the crowd on the streets of Thones: There were throngs of party people out for a music fest. With a full-blown concert before and around us, we were mortified.
Before we could shrink or think, the crowd cleared, waving and grabbing our hands from the van as if we were the stars of the show as we inched through with our big tour van. As we pulled away, a sea of friendly French hands waved on, blew French kisses and yelled after us with smiles a mile wide. It was the perfect French send off.
Follow Karen Loftus on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LAKarenLoftus