Deprived of Thanksgiving, the French kick off their holiday season with an event that is far from traditional, totally artificial – and lots of fun. When Beaujolais Nouveau is released on November 16, try celebrating in the town that used to claim Beaujolais as its own.
Not Beaujeu, which despite its charms is just a wide spot in the road. No, we mean Lyon. Until a few decades ago, virtually all Beaujolais primeur flowed into Lyon – the city’s famous “third river” after the Rhône and Saône. The new wine was cheap and cheerful, none of it worth bottling and all of it guzzled, not sipped, by the end of the year.
Many’s the Lyonnais who rues the day some négociant got the bright idea of persuading Paris, and later the world, to pay a premium for this fruity swill. Beaujolais Nouveau, usually chaptalized to suit Paris tastes and bottled to permit the shipment round the world of a wine originally meant to travel only a few miles down the Saône, is now too dear to be the city’s house plonk. In working class cafés, the far inferior Côteaux du Lyonnais has taken its place.
This does not mean you will find no Beaujolais Nouveau in Lyon. Far from it. It’s a business town, and it knows a good marketing gimmick when it sees one. On the third Thursday of November, Lyon rolls out the barrel: look for the nostalgic tonneau on the zinc, the sign of an establishment that does things right.
The best place to enjoy a pot, or 46 cl carafe, of Beaujo Nouveau is a bouchon, a traditional bistro specializing in local fare. Most close on weekends, but near the Hôtel de Ville a couple of the better bouchons are open Saturday nights: La Meunière (11, rue Neuve, tel: 18.104.22.168) and the Café du Jura (25, rue Tupin, tel: 22.214.171.124). Both are tiny and popular; a reservation is essential, and can take weeks to get.
Or cross the Saône and try one of the many bouchons of more dubious provenance, open even on Sundays, amid the medieval and Renaissance buildings around St. Jean’s Cathedral (or, properly speaking, “Primatial”; Lyon’s archbishop, reflecting the ancient ascendancy of Lyon in church hierarchy, is Primate of the Gauls).
That other great Lyonnais house of worship, Paul Bocuse’s restaurant, is actually out of town – but hey, if you’re springing for the meal, what’s a little cab fare? Yet there are many more reasons to visit Lyon than eating and drinking. France’s second city, two hours from Paris by TGV, merits any number of weekend trips. Below are just a few suggestions.
Start with Roman Lugdunum’s theaters, atop the hill of Fourvière (from “forum vetus,” old forum). The larger of the two is the oldest Roman theater in France. Nearby are a ruined temple and the odeum, or music hall, plus an excellent Gallo-Roman museum. (The quarter’s other landmark, the gaudy pilgrimage church of Notre Dame de Fourvière, can be skipped by all but devoted fans of 19th century pseudo medieval byzantine kitsch.) To the west lie ruins of an aqueduct (rue Roger Radisson) and three mausoleums from the Roman necropolis (place Wernert).
From the 16th century to the late 19th, silk built much of the Lyon we see today. Vieux Lyon, from St. Jean north to the St. Paul quarter, is criss-crossed with traboules, the mysterious passageways that allowed canuts (silkworkers) to carry bundles of precious stuffs around town without risk of the cloth getting spoiled by rain. Between Saône and Rhône, north of the Hôtel de Ville, the Croix-Rousse quarter is also honeycombed with traboules. And a visit to the renowned Musée Historique des Tissus is a must.
Jean Nouvel’s barrel-vaulted redesign of the Opéra is a success acoustically if not aesthetically. Highlights coming up include Donizetti’s “Elisir d’Amore,” starring Roberto Alagna, Nov 21 to Dec 3; Lyon Opéra Ballet in works by Jiri Kylián, William Forsythe and Martino Müller, Nov 7-10; and a recital by Jessye Norman, Nov 11 (tel: 72.00.45.45). The Maison de la Danse welcomes the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Nov 14-19; and Béjart Ballet Lausanne, Dec 1-17; (tel: 126.96.36.199). The famed Théâtre des Célestins (tel: 188.8.131.52) is but the most visible part of a flourishing theater scene. And don’t forget the Guignol de Lyon, for this is the birthplace of France’s beloved marionettes. They even have their own museum in Vieux Lyon.