ParisDiary by Harriet Welty Rochefort


 Outside Paris?

I've been a permanent resident of the City of Light for years. Paris is fantastic but so is the rest of France. Here are a few descriptions of the regions I like the most.

The Paris Diary, a selection of some of my monthly Letters From Paris on The Paris Pages, brings you one writer's musings on life in France.

And now en avant !

  • Lyon and its region

Lyon and its region...

Patrimoine and Art de Vivre in the Rhône-Alps

Dazzling white mountains, soft mauve lavendar fields, gentle green vineyards, worn soft grey Roman stones : the Rhône-Alps is a region of many hues. And it's big : the size of Switzerland, it stretches from the rich agricultural land of the Bresse in the north to the wineyards and olive groves of the Drome Provencale in the south. On its eastern edge, snow-capped Alps fairly pierce the sky. On the west, the harrowing Ardèche cliffs plunge vertiginously earthward.

Lyon and Vienne ­ two treasure troves of Roman history

Thank you, Lucius Munatius Plancus ! While on command mission to Gaul in 43 B.C., Plancus was ordered to found a Roman colony on the strategic hill overlooking the confluence of the Rhone and the Saone. Lugdunum, as it was called, is the core of present-day Lyon where Roman traces still abound. On a scorching August day, I reveled in the cool of the Gallo-Roman Archealogical Museum from which there is an arresting view of the oldest Roman Theatre in France. An absolute must see :the 48 A.D. bronze Claudian Tables, granting Lugdunum inhabitants the right to become Roman senators. A Lyonnais clothmaker discovered the tables in. 1528 ­ nothing unusual, for through the centuries Roman vestiges have kept turning up all over the city and its outskirts.
The best way to approach Lyon ­ past and present - is to simply walk through it. The " praying hill " of the Fourvière offers a widespread view of the entire city below; while there, take a close-up look at the extravagantly decorated nineteenth century Basilica, a beloved symbol for the Lyonnais. A funicular ride or short walk down the hill takes you to Old Lyon and its cobblestoned streets bordered by Renaissance mansions. Don't miss a trip through one of the city's 350 covered passageways or " traboules " - resistants used them as meeting places during World War II and silkmakers used the passages to protect their precious wares. Between the Rhone and the Saone lies the presqu'ile, the heart of the city with the stately Place Bellecour, the prestigious Fine Arts Museum, the lively Place des Terraux, the ornate seventeenth century Hotel de Ville and behind it, the nineteenth century Opera House with a decidedly twentieth century semi-cylindrical glass roof. The tall buildings of the Croix Rousse, atop Lyon on a steep hill, once housed the city's silkworkers or " canuts ". The Maison des Canuts gives demonstrations of silk making on a traditional loom.
So valuable is Lyon's history that in 1998 Unesco included its historic sector on the prestigious World Heritage List. Throughout its entire history, Lyon has never witnessed such a massive " earthquake " as the one triggered by Unesco, " said Denis Trouxe, Deputy in charge of Heritage and Culture.
Many vacationers whiz past Vienne on their way to the Riviera without visiting its old quarter. If they stopped ­ and they definitely should ­ they'd find a peaceful southern feeling town where townspeople sip coffee in front of the 25 B.C. Temple of Augustus and Livia. The Roman theatre, backed up against Mount Pipet, is the lively scene of a two-week jazz festival each July.
Nowhere is Vienne's Roman past more visible than at the Museum and Archaeological site of Saint-Romain-en-Gal. The modern museum and research center sits astride an as yet unexplored Roman house ; from the museum there's a fine view over the eight hectare excavation site where boutiques, a marketplace, and the houses of notables have been unearthed. I particularly admired the public latrines which in Roman times comprised a fresco representing wrestlers and discus throwers as well as 40 toilets and five marble fountains ! The attraction of this site is that it is so well preserved and the thickness of the sedimentation enables us to have a very precise chronology " observed archaeologist Jean-Luc Prisset. Together Lyon and Vienne represent the largest archaeological site in France and the second in Europe after Rome.

Layers of history in the Ardeche : Bear Bones and a village in black and white

The medieval town of Alba la Romaine, whose basalt and limestone buildings make it a study in black and white, is aptly named : in the vineyards near it lies the archaelogical site of a once bustling Roman city complete with temples, an aquaduct, a 3000 seat theatre and forum. But layers of history in the Ardeche go even deeper: the Chauvet ­Pont d'Arc cave had remained closed for twenty to thirty thousand years until its discovery in 1994 by a trio of local speleologists. In it, the bones of hundreds of bears as well as wall paintings and engravings of more than three hundred animals including an owl, a hyena, and a panther

The Middle Ages and an Italian Influence

With its remarkable lake setting, Annecy is literally " picture pretty ". The pristine Lac d'Annecy ( "the Pearl of the Alps") is a gracious backdrop to the Old Town with its museum and castle and restaurants and shops. Annecy was the home of St. Francis of Sales, a fervent opponent of Calvinism; here, Jean Jacques Rousseau first met Madame de Warens with whom he would live in Chambéry at the pretty country house of Les Charmettes. A dynamic industrial and university town, Chambéry was the historical capital of the Duchy of Savoy until 1563 and its facades, Italian theatre, and the rue de Boigne have a definite transalpine influence. Boigne, a Chambéry native who made a fortune in India, gave his hometown its landmark monument, the Fontaine des Elephants. Originally founded by immigrants from Perugia, the hilltop village of Perouges, with its timber-framed houses and mullioned windows looking out over narrow cobblestoned streets, is a filmmaker's ­ and tourist's ­ paradise.

Medieval Houses and Abbeys in the Beaujolais

Near Macon the Bresse Museum is located in a corn-stalk decorated house built tout simplement the year Columbus discovered America! Be sure to admire the voluminous Saracen chimney with a brick hood, typical of the region. For nine centuries monks worked and worshipped at the Abbey of Charlieu whose narthex is a jewel of lacy ochre stone. Inside is an elegant interior courtyard, the fifteenth century Hotel du Prieur, and a visitors center which explains monastic life. In the medieval streets of Charlieu, the Musée Hospitalier faithfully reconstitutes the life of the Hotel Dieu from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, with an apothecary, operating room, and laundry room. If you think it smells like a hospital, you're right. A specialized laboratory worked hard to reconstitute the different odors of the various rooms to make the visit even more realistic !

The Renaissance

One of the most imposing historical monuments in the southeast of France, the Château de Grignan was built atop a rock in the Middle Ages. Considerable refurbishing in the sixteenth century transformed it into one of the most famous Renaissance chateaux. Madame de Sevigné, whose daughter lived in the castle, often visited it and died there in 1696. The Château de Suze-la-Rousse was also rebuilt in the sixteenth century with a decorative Italiante courtyard. Now, budding enologists sniff and sip wine in the château which is the headquarters of the " Université du vin ".

and the The French Revolution

Surrounded by three mountain chains, Grenoble (Gratianopolis in 350 A.D.) is the capital of the French Alps and a lively industrial and university town. For an impregnable view, take the cable car up to the sixteenth century Fort de la Bastille. If you're a fan of Stendahl, don't miss the museum which retraces the life of the author of " Le Rouge et Le Noir ". Near Grenoble, the Château de Vizille houses The French Revolution Museum for it was here, on July 21, 1788, that the Estates General of the Dauphine met to proclaim individual rights for all, a cry that rang throughout France and started the French Revolution.

The Belle Epoque

" Nowhere could one find such perfect concord between water, mountains, earth and sky " wrote Honoré de Balzac, a frequent visitor to the Bourget Lake so celebrated by the French poet Lamartine. France's largest natural lake, Bourget is framed by the tail end of the Jura mountains and the beginning of the pre-Alps, creating a mild climate in both summer and winter. Kings and princes, writers and musicians flocked to Aix-les-Bains for the thermal baths and Belle Epoque Casino, now newly redecorated in tones of coral and cream. Queen Victoria liked the spot so much that she came incognito every year. Her favorite spot was La Chambotte, where she partook of tea and scones and a magnificent view of the lake and town below. Across the lake from Aix-les-Bains lies the twelfth century Abbey of Hautecombe, the mausoleum of the kings of Savoy and now the home of a charismatic religious community.

A certain " art de vivre "

It's ten a.m. and we stand in a forest clearing on the Mt. Revard just above Aix-les-Bains watching a young lad and his father proceed through a maze of what looks like treetop houses some 10 meters above the ground. The boy swings like Tarzan from one pine tree to the other ; his father follows suit. They're on a " parcours sportif ", an athletic way of appreciating nature. That night I stop at a " bouchon " in Old Lyons to savor an andouillette and the lively conversation of my fellow diners. And I reflect that for more than two thousand years people have been perfecting the art of living in the Rhone-Alps. Here's to at least two thousand more !



It looks like a checkbook ­ and is. A special " Rendez-Vous checkbook " has been designed to help visitors get a special welcome at fifty different sites and 44 hotels and restaurants in the Rhône-Alps region. Using the coupons, tourists can benefit from special rates on guided tours of the cities of Lyon, Annecy, Chambéry, and Grenoble and their outskirts as well as reductions on museums, hotel rooms, bike rides, boat cruises or thematic lecture tours. Other perks ? How about a free breakfast or a drink before lunch or dinner in a superb château ­ or both. With advantages like these, why hesitate ? The Rendez-Vous Chequier can be obtained at the Tourist Offices in Lyon, Annecy, Chambéry, and Grenoble.


If you're a " gastronome ", the Rhone Alps is the place to be. Chef Marc Veyrat, in his characteristic floppy black hat, reigns over L'Auberge de l'Eridan on the lac d'Annecy. The TroisGros brothers preside in Roanne ; Alain Pic in Valence. The Bresse, land of the fine fowl (poulet de Bresse), boasts chefs Georges Blanc and Alain Chapel. Lyon is gifted with its " cuisine des mères " and the inventive cooking of master chefs Paul Bocuse, Pierre Orsi, Jean-Paul Lacombe and Philippe Chavent. Lyon specialties are mouthwatering ; many have unusual names such as the cervelles de Canut which is not " the brain of a Canut " but white cheese with crême fraiche and herbs, and the tablier de sapeur which is not " a fireman's apron " but beef belly marinated in dry white wine and grilled. Other specialties include ufs en meurette (poached eggs in wine sauce), quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings), and various sausages including la rosette, which is made of meat from leg of pork. Eat these specialties in a bouchon, a restaurant which derives it name from the tightly pressed bale of straw hung outside inns to inform coachmen that they could stop there to eat as well as to rub down their horses ! The Drome Provencale yields olives, olive oil, la pogne, la raviole, the nougat, and the picadon. In the Alps, eat fondue and raclette and don't forget the fish : fillets of perch caught in Lake Geneva and ombre-chevalier, a sort of grayling from Lac d'Annecy. Don't miss the cheese from sweet Alpine pastures : Beaufort, Reblochon, Abondance. The Ardeche is the home of the chestnut, turkey, and partridge. As for wines, Beaujolais is world-renowned for its ten crû vintages : firm and full-bodied Brouilly, flavorsome Chenas, light Chiroubles, solid Cote de Brouilly, fruity and floral Fleurie, lively Juliénas, meaty Morgon, rich Moulin-à-Vent, smooth Regnié, and the harmonious Saint-Amour. Taste them in the cool of welcoming village winetasting cellars. The Rhone produces delicious Côtes du Rhone (Cotes roties, the rare Condrieu, St. Joseph Hermitage, and Crozes Hermitage). For white sparkling wines, try Savoy wines : Ayze, from the banks of the Arve, is a sparkling white wine ; Abymes and Apremont go well with a cheese fondue.

(France Discovery Guide by Harriet Welty Rochefort)

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Order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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