WHICH FRENCH CITY DOES THIS DESCRIBE: historic Belle époque buildings, museums filled with priceless art, Gothic and Romanesque churches with soaring spires, river cruises, picturesque riverside promenades, sculpture-filled parks, and world-class food and wine that includes Michelin-star restaurants?
Paris might come to mind first, but it also describes Lyon—France's third largest city (Marseille is No. 2). Lyon offers some things that the City of Light does not: extensive Roman ruins in the heart of the city, and the Beaujolais wineries of the Rhône-Alpes less than an hour away.
Lyon is at the confluence of two rivers, the Saône and the Rhône, which has contributed to its importance as an inland port city and business center. The rivers are part of what attracted the Romans here 2,000 years ago. The expansive Ampitheater of the Three Gauls shares the city's highest hillside with the equally impressive Basilica Notre Dame de Fourvière. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For anybody who has ever taken a picture or gone to the movies, the Lumière Museum is a must-visit, focusing—pun intended—on the history of photography and cinematography (011-33-4-7878-1895, www.institut-lumiere.org). The museum is housed in the luxuriously detailed Victorian home of the Lumière brothers, pioneers in the development of film and movie cameras. The adjoining Institut Lumière, where early films were produced, screens European and American films. Your clients will enjoy lingering in the park across the street to watch teams play petonc, a lawn bowling game similar to bocce.
Lyon was the center of the French Resistance during World War II, and the Historic Center of the Resistance and the Deportation (011-33-4-7872-2311) is a compelling reminder of that dark period in Europe's history. There also are temporary exhibits on other genocides, including Cambodia and Darfur.
From the 18th to the early 20th century, Lyon was the center of the silk-weaving industry (Jackie Kennedy decorated the Yellow State Room in the White House with Lyon silk jacquards). Your clients will want to view the collection of fabrics, including ancient Egyptian textiles, at the Musée des Tissus (011-33-4-7838-4200, www.musee-des-tissus.com). Other fabrics cover the walls and drape the windows of the Hotel de Ville, or City Hall, which was built in 1646 and has dozens of ornate rooms, including a Grand Salon with 17 enormous crystal chandeliers. Tours are available; call 011-33-4-7277-7250.
The most picturesque area is Vieux Lyon, or the Old Town, with narrow cobblestone streets and buildings dating to medieval times. Unique to the city are its 400 or so traboules, enclosed alleyways between buildings, many of them lined with shops. Several restaurants and cafés are clustered along Rue Mercière, a pedestrian area of shops and eateries in 18th- and 19th-century buildings.
Gastronomy is important here, and food is prepared with produce from nearby farms. A Lyonnaise specialty is tartiflette, a mixture of potatoes, bacon bits and melted Reblochon cheese. Your clients should look for a logo in the window identifying an eatery as an authentic "Bouchon" bistro, serving hearty dishes of pork, beef and sausage.
Lyon is homebase for Paul Bocuse, arguably the most important French chef in recent memory, who helped popularize nouvelle cuisine. His restaurant at L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges (011-33-4-7242-9090, www.bocuse.fr) is booked months in advance, despite a prix fixe menu of around $250. Bocuse's dedication to top-quality ingredients is evident in Les Halles, the modern indoor market he opened downtown, with aisle after aisle of eye-popping fruits, vegetables, meats and pastries. The market is well worth visiting and nibbling through.
Bocuse is one of three Michelin three-star chefs in the Lyon area. Marie-Pierre and Michel Troisgros run their eponymous restaurant (011-33-4-7771-6697, www.troisgros.fr) in Roanne. Anne-Sophie Pic operates Maison Pic (011-33-4-7544-1532, www.pic-valence.com) in Valence. Both are about 60 miles outside the city.
After all that rich food, exercise is required. Surrounding Lyon are some of the world's most famous ski resorts, including Chamonix and Val d'Isère, home of the legendary Jean-Claude Killy. In summer, these formidable mountains of the Rhône-Alpes beckon for hiking, river rafting and kayaking. The city is dotted with parks and riverside promenades that invite an afternoon or post-dinner constitutional, and the Lyon region has about 60 golf courses.
Or advise your clients to "borrow" a bicycle. Lyon has a velos program, composed of bike stations throughout the city. Register with a credit card, then just unlock one of the bikes and ride to a museum, shopping or wherever you need to go. You can drop off the bike at any station and take another one when you're ready to travel again. You are charged only for the time a bike is used, not when it is parked at a station.
Lyon's accommodations vary from Cours des Loges (www.courdesloges.com), a trio of 14th-century monasteries united into a boutique hotel, to the high-rise Radisson SAS Hotel Lyon (www.lyon.radissonsas.com), a croissant's throw from Les Halles.
Lyon's new Cité Internationale complex houses the sprawling convention center—where the ASTA International Destination Expo will take place in April—as well as office buildings, a casino and several hotels, including a Hilton, the Hotel de la Cité and an apartment hotel.
Delta is relaunching nonstop flights between New York and Lyon in April. As an alternate, travelers can fly into Paris and take the high-speed TGV train to Lyon in just over two hours.
For more about what Lyon has to offer in attractions, dining and lodging, go to www.en.lyon-france.com.
Elizabeth Lindstedt grew up in France and joyfully shares her roots with clients. An agent for Valerie Wilson Travel in Riverside, CT, she calls Lyon a "beautiful, historic and exciting city, the eating capital of France." Lindstedt makes reservations for clients at the Bocuse and Troisgros restaurants at least three weeks ahead. "It's worth it," she says. Lyon's location, midway between Paris and the Riviera, makes it an ideal stopover on a multi-destination France trip. Lyon also is just two hours from Geneva by train.
Shopping and Dining
1. La Marquise for pastries
2. Pignole for charcuterie (meats)
3. Rue du Président Edouard Herriot for designer shops, including Longchamps and Salamander
4. Bernachon and Richert for handmade chocolates
Beaujolais is sometimes referred to as the "third river" of Lyon, and the wineries begin just beyond the city limits.
The largest wine producer in the Rhône-Alpes by far is Georges DuBoeuf, whose Le Hammeau du Vin (Wine Hamlet) (011-33-3-8535-2222, www.hameauduvin.com) is a destination for families as well as for adult wine enthusiasts. It combines a museum of transportation, with miniature and full-size trains, including the 1855 private car of Napoleon III; a museum of viticulture (wine production), with room-size wooden wine presses and such artifacts as a chain mail glove to strip bugs from vines; and a Disney-like show of animated figures telling the history of wine. There's also a garden, several restaurants, an extensive wine and gift shop and, of course, Beaujolais tastings in a charming bistro-like setting with antique circus calliopes for musical accompaniment.
A totally different experience takes place at the winery of Sylvette and Gérard Texier in the small village of Le Bourg (011-33-4-7467-5121, www.cret-du-ris.com). A fourth-generation winemaker, Texier holds tastings, by appointment, of his own handmade wines in a cave built in the 18th century.
Château de Bagnols
This castle, dating from 1221, is a destination for select clients, either for a romantic stay or just a gourmet meal in an elegantly appointed dining room. Each of the 21 rooms and suites is decorated with antique furniture and carpeting—including beds canopied with period velvets and embroideries—and many have original frescoes, which were found under layers of paint during a four-year restoration. The Grand Salon features a 20-foot-tall fireplace and rich woodwork. Beyond the moat (dry now) lies a lush garden with walkways shaded by ancient lime trees. There are stables for horseback riding, and a pool and spa are planned for 2010. Part of the Von Essen Hotels group and Virtuoso, Château de Bagnols opened to guests in 1992 (011-33-4-7471-4000, www.chateaudebagnols.fr).