Saturday, 16 July 2011

Sink me! It's Lyon! (& including grape picking and cuisine lyonnaise)

Lyon in 1844
As a teenager I shall never forget seeing an explorer on a TV chat show. He sat on a couch, wearing a bush hat and safari jacket, saying "Sink me!" at any and every moment, while delighting the studio audience with the witty and sparkling accounts of his daring-do adventures. Whether in the desert wastes of the Sahara, the icy wastes of the Arctic, the remote mountains of Peru and the malarial jungles of Borneo, doing battle with severe heat and extreme cold, with crocodiles and alligators, with poisonous snakes and spiders, he emerged from it all with a "Sink me!" and a smile on his suntanned, handsome face.

I was so impressed that there and then I made a solemn vow to myself that one day I too would become an famous explorer, and it is a vow I would have kept but for one thing - I just couldn't find a decent safari jacket anywhere! So I 
thought instead of wearing my grandfather's old shooting jacket and knee-breeches with matching stockings, and perhaps a William Tell hat for headgear, which would have made me very fetching as I paddled up the Oronoco in my hollowed-out canoe. But one thing troubled me: Were knee-breeches and a William Tell hat what your intrepid explorer was wearing that season? I wrestled with the dilemma for some time, but as I've never been a quitter - no, that won't work, let me rephrase that - but as I've always been a quitter, it took no effort for me to arrive at the bold and courageous decision to ditch the whole idea, solemn vow and all, and go grape picking instead.

The grapes I went to pick were in Beaujolais, in a vineyard that a French friend from the region had recommended. The vineyard had showers for the pickers, which was almost unique at that time (apparently), and so I duly set off for two weeks in the warm October sunshine. Or so I thought, for in fact it rained the entire time, torrential rain at times, not in the least le canicule that I expected. So I quit after one week, got my money, and  together with another picker, went to explore the inner reaches of nearby Lyon.

Basilica of Notre Dame
de Fourvière
The rain came with us but the city was agreeable all the same. It is France's second city and part of the Rhône-Alpes agglomeration with the nearby city of Grenoble, an important centre for the production of hydroelectricity. It has two rivers (this is Lyon), the  Rhône and the Saône, which converge at the south of Vieux Lyon, the historic centre of the city. To the west is Fourvière, 'the hill that prays', and at its summit the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, from the top of which it is said that on a clear day one can see Mont Blanc.

The city was the scene of a Hugenots massacre on St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572, and in 1793, during the French Revolution, was under siege for two months by the Revolutionary Army following its uprising against the National Convention. In more recent times it was an important centre of resistance during the Second World War, and in still more recent times it is where I was the day that Jean-Paul Satre died. Lyon, too, is the headquarters of Interpol, and the city is also famed for its cuisine. Once, while trying to impress a French friend who came from Lyon, I told her that la cuisine lyonnaise was the finest in France, and she indignantly replied: "Not France - the world!"

It stopped raining after we'd been there a couple of days, and I was able to enjoy the wonderful square, la Place Bellecour, and wander aimlessly by the rivers. Later that year I bought a bottle of the first nouveau, which could have been made from grapes that I trod on. It had a musky taste. Maybe I should have taken my socks off first!

Place Bellecour, Lyon at night

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