Soak up cul­ture on a slow boat

Plenty of time to eat, drink and ex­plore this re­gion of his­toric buildings and in­no­va­tive food

Central Telegraph - - ESCAPE - BY Shan­non New­ley

IHAD seen France. Or so I thought. I had flown over snow-capped moun­tains. I had walked the cob­bled streets of tiny vil­lages and me­an­dered through the many al­leys of Paris. I had caught trains through the coun­try­side. I had driven around the green hills. I had swum the wa­ters of Nice and cy­cled through the vine­yards of Bordeaux.

So I thought I had seen France. But the view from the River Rhone makes me re­flect. Maybe there is more than I thought to this coun­try of his­tor­i­cal, gas­tro­nom­i­cal and cul­tural de­lights.

My travel buddy De­vii and I find our Rhone River ride, the Vik­ing Cruises long­ship Heim­dal, docked in Lyon in cen­tral-east France, about 420km from Paris.

Here we will start our eight-day cruise to­wards Avi­gnon in the south.

Be­ing docked for three days in the gas­tro­nom­i­cal cap­i­tal of France means there is a chance to ex­plore a foodie scene with a dif­fer­ence, which is per­fect be­cause De­vii is a chef in Europe.

She tells me chefs are avoid­ing the ex­pense of op­er­at­ing in Paris and cre­at­ing a new wave of mod­ern French fu­sion bistros through­out Lyon.

You’ll still get the typ­i­cally French menu du jour (menu of the day) which will give you an en­tree, main and dessert for a set price (13–40 eu­ros). But the dishes steer away from the tra­di­tional cui­sine we as­so­ciate with French bistro eat­ing. There’s not a coq au vin or boeuf bour­guignon in sight.

We stum­ble upon Po­tager des Halles (Vegetable Gar­den of the Halls) which bucks the trend a lit­tle with some great tapas-style small plates to share.

We eat our din­ner of grilled sar­dines on skew­ers, a whole grilled oc­to­pus ten­ta­cle and tiny ravi­oli in a truf­fle sauce, with a view of La Fresque De Ly­on­nais (Fresco of the Peo­ple of Lyon), one of the many painted houses in the city.

These houses are fa­mous in Lyon and the in­cred­i­ble art­work of this one par­tic­u­larly brings the peo­ple of Lyon to life. From the chef stand­ing in front of his bistro to the pi­lot and au­thor An­toine de Saint-Ex­u­pery and his char­ac­ter The Lit­tle Prince star­ing off a third-floor bal­cony and even a real res­i­dent of the build­ing tak­ing pho­tos of pass­ing tourists, it will give you an in­sight into the history of France’s third largest city.

You can take in more of Lyon’s long history in the cob­bled streets of its old town. Residents even open up the court­yards of their re­fur­bished buildings to tourists. You can weave the maze of streets through the tra­boules, unique hid­den pas­sage­ways made for busy mer­chants in me­dieval days and used through the Sec­ond World War to mount a re­sis­tance against the Nazis.

The charm of the old town with its stun­ning silk shops, tra­di­tional French bistros, choco­late shops and fro­mageries, is a must. But cross­ing the river to the newer part of town tells a story of a city em­brac­ing a style of din­ing we are look­ing for.

Bars and cafes with sim­ple or colour­ful crate fur­ni­ture are pop­ping up among the mostly drab, in­dus­trial buildings.

This in­cludes the kind of place chefs want to eat. The unas­sum­ing Le Kitchen of­fers up the stand­out meal of the trip with its fresh herb salad and cured beef, pick­led radish, per­fectly cooked lamb and nec­tarine with a fluffy ball of meringue to fin­ish. It is a must visit.

This fresh fu­sion style of din­ing is a foodie’s dream, but for those look­ing for a quin­tes­sen­tial French ex­pe­ri­ence, you’ll need just a short drive in to the moun­tains.

For­tu­nately Vik­ing has plenty of in­cluded and op­tional shore ex­cur­sions. Take your pick of a num­ber of tours through the Beau­jo­lais re­gion.

At Oliver’s farm in the moun­tains we taste truf­fle but­ter be­fore a seated lunch. Then head out with truf­fle dogs Shenook or Maistro to hunt for the elu­sive fungi in a pri­vate for­est.

Re­stored chateaus are dot­ted through vine­yards that line the hills of the Beau­jo­lais. The views are stun­ning though the wine leaves a lit­tle bit to be de­sired.

Af­ter wind­ing our way fur­ther through the moun­tains to­wards Bur­gundy, we meet a herd of cheeky goats and taste a num­ber of cheeses and, of course, there is more wine.

Af­ter three days of eat­ing and drink­ing our way through Lyon and sur­rounds, we are ready to set sail aboard the Vik­ing Heim­dal.

Sit­ting on our state­room bal­cony as we sail down the Rhone River, we see the me­dieval fortresses and im­pos­ing moun­tains

PHO­TOS: SHAN­NON NEW­LEY AND CON­TRIB­UTED

◗ Af­ter­noon sail­ing of­fers up stun­ning views of the Rhone and the towns that line its banks. RIGHT: The Vik­ing long­boat sails past ter­race houses of Lyon, with La Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere in the back­ground.

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