When we arrived there was a horse thing on. Some very accomplished looking riders prancing around – ok, they weren’t prancing, the horses they were on were prancing – around a dressage ring. Cluny is big on horses – Haras National, the national stud farm, was founded here by Napoleon in 1806 and houses some of France’s finest thoroughbreds. Well might they prance. You can do tours of it, but we didn’t have that long.
We were there for the Abbey.
Cluny’s abbey, dating back to the 11th and 12th century, was the largest in all of Christendom when it was built. St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican took that title when it was constructed.
Back in the 12th century though, it was all about Cluny. The abbey, answering only to the Pope, had such great wealth and political power that it controlled over 1100 priories and monasteries not just across France, but as far afield as Portugal and Poland.
Of course, there are only ruins here now, but you can still get a fair idea of the scale and, if you close your eyes, it’s possible to picture what it must have been like.
As always, I was drawn to the gardens.
Just outside the abbey, we found an artisan glacier or home-made ice cream shop – the blood orange gelato finally took away the taste of the andouillette hubby had taken a bite of at lunch.
This town isn’t, however, just about the abbey. Full of restaurants, art galleries and cute little boutiques, this is one of those towns that you couldan wander for more hours than we had.
Each of the neighbourhoods in Vieux or Old Lyon are named after the churches in those neighbourhoods. We have St-Georges to the south, St-Jean in the middle and St-Paul to the north. The area we stayed in was St-Jean, one of the traditionally more wealthy of the neighbourhoods.
Cathedrale St-Jean is, as many churches we looked at seemed to be, in a state of almost constant scaffold and renovation. It was built between the 11th and 16th century, with the facade completed in 1480. I was drawn – as you’d probably expect me to be – to the astronomical and astrological clock.
I told you last week about the traboules and how these alleys were used by the silk traders as a convenient shortcut, keeping their precious fabrics dry as they went from the workshops to the river. The traboules have, however, been in Lyon at least since the 4th century.
Back in the day, Lyon was a bit of a poster child for the Roman Empire. Lugdunum as they called it – which doesn’t have quite the same ring as Lyon – was important partly because it was a handy stop-over point, but mostly because it has two rivers. The Rhone curves through the centre of Lyon as does the Saone. It was, for many years, the capital of the Gaulish Roman Territories.
Anyways, once the Romans reluctantly left town, the aqueducts bringing water to the city started to fail – a little like an iPhone at the end of its warranty. People started building closer to the river and the first traboules were built around this time to allow people to get from their homes to the water quicker.
Which brings me back to Fourviere. The Romans built Lugdunum on the slopes of Fourviere more than 2000 years ago. Yes, we’re talking BC – but when we’re talking millennia, do the exact details really matter? It’s still very well preserved and well worth visiting – although it’s far better to catch the funicular up here than it is to walk.
The Roman Theatre – Théâtre Romain – was capable of holding an audience of up to 10,000 people. The day we visited we watched a school group rehearse.
There’s a museum you can go look at, but we were entranced by what we found here in the ruins and didn’t bother.
Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere
As far as French churches go, this one isn’t that old – it is, however magnificent and stands high on the hill with the whole of Lyon below it.
The day that we visited the funicular station at the Basilica was closed so we walked up from the Roman ruins. Even if we hadn’t, stepping into this grand space would have taken our breath away.
There’s part of me that is offended – although I don’t know if offended is the right word – by this outrageous display of wealth and power, and I feel quite hypocritical to be marvelling at it, but it’s impossible to turn away from. I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that all of this opulence could possibly have been to make up for the fact that the Basilica had no real political clout with the powers that be in Rome. Whatever the reason, the mosaics are absolute works of art.
The views from the terrace down to old Lyon and across the river are also pretty spectacular.
With Lyon as our destination and the start of stage 4 of our Tour de France, we’d left Burgundy relatively late, planning to stop in Cluny for lunch. That was until we saw the sign “Cité Médiévale” – always a reason to turn off the highway and go and have a look.
According to Wikipedia, this place has had a bit of an identity crisis over the years. At the revolution, Saint-Gengoux-le-Royal took the name of Saint-Gengoux-le-National. It reverted to Saint-Gengoux-le-Royal is 1834, Saint-Gengoux-le-National in 1848, Saint-Gengoux-le-Royal in 1852 before finally settling on Saint-Gengoux-le-National in 1881.
This town is full of houses with history – and by history, I mean hundreds of years. The church was built in 1100 something by the Benedictines of Cluny but has been extensively renovated over the years – following semi-regular plunders, trade issues, and changes in architectural taste.
There are plenty of other properties from the 16th and 17th centuries as well. I loved looking through the fences to see the medieval gardens – many still growing the same plants as they would have grown back then.
When we arrive it’s just past midday and the whole town is deserted. The only activity is in the few coffee shops and restaurants in the village square.
After walking around we decided to stop for lunch too – in what ended up being the only truly bad meal with truly bad service that we had in our entire French experience.
There were a couple of lovely looking bistros in the square – the sorts of places that had wisteria hanging down the stone walls and yummy sounding fixed price lunch menus. As tempting as the menus were, we had dinner booked at Le Nord that night so didn’t want a full meal – just something cheap and light.
There was a place across the road that looked as though it could be okay – pretty ordinary from outside, but they’d made some effort with the decor and the menu was cheap.
F and I order a croque monsieur – sort of like a French toasted ham and cheese sandwich, but so much better. This one is served spread across a disposable plate – like the ones you use at barbeques – and slapped on the table with some plastic knives and forks. It’s the worst croque monsieur that we’ve had, but then, even an ordinary croque monsieur is pretty good. It’s one of those dependable things in life.
Hubby, however, wanted to eat here because they had andouillette on the menu for 7E. This sausage made of pigs large intestines is often referred to euphemistically as a tripe sausage – and my husband has been wanting to try one ever since he got talked out of one in a Paris bistro back in 1995. What can I say? He has a long memory.
Of course, I tried to talk him out of it. I told him that Gary Mehigan said in a podcast that the first time he tried one it was like he was eating a biology lesson. I told him that the food writer Terry Durack said you needed to be able to get past “the aggressive aroma of stale urine mixed with sweet spices and pork fat” in order to enjoy it. As an aside, Durack apparently does enjoy it – as do (inexplicably) so many others. There is, believe it or not, an Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique (AAAAA) that was formed in order to protect standards and to honour those establishments serving the true, original andouillette. True story.
After both F and I repeated all the reasons why he’d be an idiot to eat something that sounded so gross, hubby reminded us that he enjoys blood sausage, tripe and haggis and that this could not be much different to that. Besides, he said, at 7E if it was really awful he wouldn’t have ruined a nice dinner. Then he reminded us that he’s a Scotsman – although what that had to do with anything I didn’t know.
The andouillette turned up on yet another disposable plate with a handful of ordinary chips and an approximation of a salad. When he cut into it the smell permeated everything and all the bits that were previously inside the sausage were suddenly not – and that is the nicest way I can explain it. Gary Mehigan was right when he described it as a biology lesson.
Bravely he took a bite and wordlessly F and I each handed across half of our croque monsieur and ordered him a beer – which also came in a disposable cup. Even the chips tasted of the smell of the sausage. He said that neither the beer or the croque monsieur was able to get rid of the taste.
When we indicated to the waiter that we’d finished our meals, he grunted and nodded towards the garbage bin in the middle of the floor. We understood that we were to take our plates and our cups and our utensils and the remains of the foul sausage and dump the lot in the bin. The meal was memorable for all of the wrong reasons.
We saw andouillette on virtually every menu in every Bouchon over the next couple of days in Lyon. If they’re that popular, maybe I’m missing something. I must have just had a bad one, hubby decided. Perhaps I should try another one here or maybe there? F and I simply glared at him.
Have you tried andouillette? Are you a lover of all things offal?
Welcome to Lille – the base for Stage 1 of our La Grande Tour and home to the Aussie friends we’ll be spending the next couple of weeks road-tripping with.
Known also as Rijsel (in Flemish), Lille just happens to be (in my humble opinion) a very under-rated city.
What makes Lille different to many other French cities is that it wasn’t French until – in European terms – relatively recently. Louis XIV captured it in 1667 for the French. Before that, the city – along with much of Belgium and part of the Netherlands – belonged to Flanders. To this day it’s that Flemish influence that is responsible for much of Lille’s charm with the Flemish influence evident in its buildings, its food and its beers.
Vieux Lille by old car…
The best way to see the old town – or Vieux Lille – is on foot. The next best way to see Vieux Lille is the way we did, in a Citroen 2CV with a local to guide you.
These cute little cars are narrow enough to get into the narrowest of the cobbled streets – and Lille old town is full of narrow cobbled streets. Plus they’re super fun.
We were fortunate in that our guide/driver was a local, Louis, who happened to be studying architecture and was able to tell us – with passion – about all the different architectural styles: Flemish, Spanish and French.
Vieux Lille by foot…
I could have wandered these streets for hours – picture perfect cobbled streets with everything from High Street fashion brands to artisan chocolates to homewares to cheese and charcuterie to…you get the idea.
Lille Cathedral, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille…
This is not your average cathedral.
For starters, it’s relatively new and a divisive mix of gothic and contemporary styles. As Louis told us, people either love or hate it.
Although building commenced in 1854, two world wars slowed progress substantially to the extent that the front was pretty much boarded up in 1947. This temporary wall was destroyed in the early 90’s and the new contemporary wall – very different from the remainder of the cathedral – was installed.
What’s really interesting about this wall is that it’s constructed of 110 sheets of thin marble that take on a glorious orange sheen when lit by the sun. Another cool thing about this front is that it’s not actually moulded to the rest of the structure.
The marble also apparently contains some symbols that you wouldn’t expect to see on a cathedral – symbols like the belfry of Lille, E=mc2, and even cosmonauts. I would have paid more attention had I done my research before-hand.
Inside, just like outside, is a mix of old and new. Contemporary abstract art is combined with more traditional French styles and is both surprising and refreshing.
Warning – airborne calories…
These cute little shops in Vieux Lille contain not so hidden dangers of the calorific sort. Oh. My.
One of these, Meert, has been serving exquisite chocolate and patisserie to those who could afford it since 1761 – which, back in those days were kings and generals and the like.
We bought a merveilleux from Aux Merveilleux de Fred – apparently the only place one should ever purchase merveilleux from. What is it? Light as air.
The merveilleaux is comprised of two feather-weight meringues sandwiched together, coated in whipped cream and rolled in chocolate shavings. Aside from a thin crispness to the bottom of the meringue, the rest of the merveilleaux dissolves in a puff of air. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
Where we ate…
Brasserie La Paix – a little bit of art deco glamour amongst the cobbles.
This was our first introduction to Prix-Fixe or a “formule” – fixed price menus.
These are great options. Originally designed to fit in with lunch hours, most restaurants offer 2 or 3 courses at a good price. In the case of Le Paix, it was 5-star French service for a 3-star price tag.
For 18 euros you got either an entree and plat (main) or plat and dessert. Not bad value.
I chose the salade aux trois fromages (three cheese salad) and Dos de lieu avec endives braisees et sauce maltoise – essentially fish with braised endives and an orange sauce to cut through the bitterness of the endive.
Where we stayed…
With our friends in a village about 10 minutes from Lille. There was a boulangerie about 10 minutes walk away that sold amazing croissants for less than a euro and farms and gorgeous gardens in the other direction.
In the North East of France near the Belgian border, Lille is just an hour on the TGV from Charles De Gaulle. We paid 45 euros for a first class seat – after spending the previous almost 24 hours in a cramped economy seat we were happy to pay for some comfort and a little extra luggage room. As an aside, Lille is also a short hop to London – 90 minutes by Eurostar…just saying.