Chanoy Honeymoon: Annecy, Geneva and the French Alps, October 2015

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

Fresh from an invigorating few days in Lyon and its surrounds, K and I turned our attention to something that calls to skiers and snowboarders the world over – the Alps. It wasn’t snow season when we went through, but we were still treated to some amazing views through the mountains on our way from Lyon, via Annecy and Geneva, to Torino in north-western Italy.

Before our arrival in Geneva, we spent a few hours in Annecy, a quaint lakeside town a mere hour and a half from Lyon by the toll road. The town is bordered on one side by Lac D’Annecy and fringed with mountains, providing a stunning backdrop even when you’re out of the picturesque Old Town with its medieval chateau. Spending an afternoon wandering its streets and canals is definitely a pleasant way to pass one’s time!

The town can be quite touristy with the corresponding price hikes in most of the restaurants. Rather than paying high prices for a substandard meal, we decided to buy a takeaway lunch from Pauvert Charcuterie Traiteur instead. While they seem to specialise in catering, they also have a little shop which is popular for its range of ready-made salads, pastries, charcuterie, sweets and desserts, pates, and more. I loved our choices of a croque monsieur, a small salad, an apple galette, and more importantly, I loved my purchase of a pain au chocolat as large as my head at a local boulangerie!

Once you get tired of dodging tourists in Annecy, I recommend doing as we did – driving your rental car out of town to the nearby Gorges du Fier. It’s only ten minutes out of town, but it feels almost other-worldly as you walk on a narrow suspended footbridge through a natural gorge created through a millenia of water erosion. The rock formations you see as you walk through are absolutely stunning, and at only about $6 Euro per entry, it’s a pretty cheap way of getting in touch with nature.

After a short visit to the Gorges, we drove on to our accommodation at Saint-Genis-Pouilly in France, just over the border from Geneva – a cute little standalone bedroom and ensuite in a family home. Karen our hostess was lovely and gave us lots of recommendations for Geneva, and provided us with a hearty breakfast each morning as well. They had a lovely dog called Cashew who would stare at us through breakfast with big puppy dog eyes, begging for a treat.

Unfortunately the main reason for our visit to Geneva was a bust – K wanted to visit CERN on a guided tour, but forgot to make the booking for the in-demand tour. It wasn’t until a week out that he remembered, by which time it was too late. Still, given that we had already booked the accommodation, we decided to go ahead with our visit to Geneva anyway. So, a note to those interested in science and a tour of CERN – remember to book your tour well in advance!

Still, Geneva on a Sunday wasn’t totally disappointing. While most shops we passed were closed and most restaurants were out of our range (even a meal for two at McDonalds was $25 Euro, or nearly $40 AUD!), it soon became clear that Sundays are a day for family activities in expat-driven Geneva. Families throng around the lake (Lac Leman) as they go out sailing or take part in other water-based activities. They all go out grocery shopping at the Sunday markets at Plainpalais. They picnic, play games, and watch street performers in the large Parc des Bastions. If you’re not interested in the above, you could do what we did, and visit the two excellent free museums that Geneva has to offer.

Entrance to these museums is entirely free, a nice change in a city that sees fit to charge $8 Euro for an ice-cream cone. The Musée d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) had a special exhibition on at the time around the solar system, which unfortunately was all in French so much of the exhibition was lost to us. Their permanent exhibitions are very impressive though, with all specimens of animal, bird and marine life on display in realistic environments. They also have a strange specimen of a two-headed turtle called Janus, named after the Roman god with two heads.

The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Museum of Art and History) is also free, and has some very impressive works ranging from Greek and Roman sculptures to Renaissance paintings and Impressionist art. There’s obviously a particular emphasis on French and Swiss art, but overall the collection is quite comprehensive. It’s a great art museum for those who prefer to take in art in small doses, and can’t handle the more overwhelming collections of museums like the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum.

The next day, we said goodbye to Geneva and hit the road again, taking the long way around off the toll road into Torino. This meant that instead of driving through the tunnel under Mont-Blanc mountain into Torino (making the journey a mere three hour drive), we drove around and over the French Alps to get into northern Italy. It doubled the driving time, but also quadrupled our touring pleasure as we got to see some amazing snow-capped mountains up close, even driving up high enough that we were above the clouds themselves. The outlook at Mont-Cenis over the lake just before you enter Italy…it’s without parallel.

Driving through this part of south-western France with its lakes, mountains, gorges and views is a road trip that I would recommend to anyone. I especially encourage you to take the long way around – don’t restrict yourself to the fast toll roads because you’ll lose the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

Chanoy Honeymoon: Auxerre, Dijon and Lyon, France, September 2015

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

The last time I was in France was in 2009, when I spent a mere three or four days in Paris with my friend Maren. It was a short break from a longer trip that I spent travelling around England visiting friends, but gave me a taste for France that I was determined to satisfy during our #chanoy European honeymoon with a much longer visit. A few days in Paris simply wasn’t going to cut it. Hence we rented a car for a month and decided to go driving around the south-east of France, across to north-west Italy, and down through Spain and Portugal.

We picked up our hybrid rental car on our last morning in Paris, and promptly jumped onto the toll road down towards the town of Auxerre, a halfway point between Paris and Lyon. Driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road wasn’t an issue – I got used to it pretty quickly. Getting onto the toll road wasn’t an issue – you can pick any toll gate and simply take a ticket. It’s getting off the toll road and into a town that we ended up having issues with.

We accidentally went up to the wrong exit gate, the one reserved for those with automated passes for French toll roads. Stuck there at the gate, we tried to explain to the attendant via the intercom that we couldn’t just reverse out of that toll gate because we had three cars and an angry truck driver behind us – none of whom would allow us to reverse out and into the right lane. After ten minutes of futile Frenglish via intercom and constant horn honking and verbal abuse from the truck driver, the attendant finally walked over to our gate and helped us get through manually. I was a bundle of nerves by that point!

Luckily once we passed the toll gates and got into the town of Auxerre, we found ourselves in the most perfectly beautiful and serene old city to pass a few hours and calm our nerves. It’s a small-ish city replete with Renaissance/Enlightenment-era buildings, topped with a few key landmarks including a splendid Gothic church. Situated on the banks of the River Yonne, it’s just the perfect size for a day trip from either Paris or Lyon with a nice lunch in one of the cafes in the centre of the Old Town.

If you’re into wine though, it might be worth making Auxerre a base for exploring the wider Burgundy region for a few days – as we left Auxerre and took the back roads through the country into Lyon, we discovered countless vineyards and primary producers along the way. While we didn’t stop for any tastings (I don’t drink alcohol!) and can’t vouch for the wines of the region, I know many people enjoy the signature Burgundys.

Our base in the area was to be Lyon, and a little studio apartment in the third arrondissement. Free parking was non-existent in the area, so here’s a tip for those planning on renting a car and driving through any major city in Europe. What we did almost everywhere we went was to find free street parking near the last station of a major metro line and leave the car there for however many days we required. When there are trains every five minutes, and it costs under $2 Euro per person for a fifteen-minute trip, it ends up being much cheaper to do that than to pay $20 Euro a day for parking in the city centre.

Lyon itself felt like a city that was best suited to locals rather than tourists who want to tick experiences off a list. There’s some Roman ruins, a few churches and cathedrals, a lot of old buildings, some interesting hip neighbourhoods, and a pretty developed commercial centre. The location of the city on two major rivers makes it quite scenic in many parts. However, there’s not a lot in the city that you wouldn’t necessarily find in other similar cities nearby – for instance, Nimes (two and a half hours away) has much better preserved Roman historical sites.

What Lyon has instead, is liveability. Public transport runs smoothly. The environment is clean without pollution. Shops and commerce are easily accessible and service is brisk. Restaurants and eateries are plentiful across a wide price range (we visited Brasserie Georges and loved it). There’s some diversity as well – we managed to find little Chinatown. Wonderful fresh farmers markets are on somewhere in the city almost every day of the week. If you wanted to base yourself somewhere in France for a few months, to live as a local rather than a tourist, to speak with other young people every day and really learn what it means to be French…Lyon is the place to be.

During our stay in Lyon, we also took a day trip to nearby Dijon. Two hours by car one-way on the toll road, with a $15 Euro charge each way – quite a quick and easy drive for us Australians who are used to spending an hour in the car every day to get anywhere in Sydney! Unhappily we did not have Dijon mustard while we were in Dijon, but we did have a fantastic lunch courtesy of stalls at the Les Halles markets – a must visit for anyone who delights in fresh produce, artisan bread, or fantastic cheeses and pates.

Dijon has much more to offer the average tourist when compared to Lyon, with a stunning palace which used to belong to the Ducs de Bourgogne, or as you might know them, the Dukes of Burgundy who used to rule over an area stretching from Burgundy in present-day France up to what is now the Netherlands. Dijon is a cheap day out for the art and history lover, as the old Palace (Palais Ducal) has free entry and also includes the Musee des Beaux-Arts with a fantastic collection of medieval artworks, sculptures, and artifacts like armour. I recommend also paying the nominal $3 Euro fee to take the tour (English-speaking!) up the tower in the palace, which gives you the best views over the whole city.

Overall, the cities of Auxerre, Dijon and Lyon (and no doubt other towns in the area) afford some of the best and most genuine French experiences one can have as a tourist. Join the locals at the daily market, stroll along the rivers Saone, Rhone and Yonne, visit some impressive historical sites, taste some local wines if you’re so inclined…in fact, just order a drink at a cafe, sit outside and watch the world go past. Life moves at a slower pace.

Review: Brasserie Georges, Lyon France

With the currency exchange rate the way it currently (ha!) is, travelling around Europe has been quite significantly more expensive than we originally budgeted. Budgeting for 1 Euro to $1.38 AUD doesn’t work when the current exchange rate means we’re averaging $1.60 AUD to the Euro. It means that we’ve had to save money where we can, which means doing a lot more cooking in our Airbnb apartments using market produce rather than eating out as often as we would have liked. Still, it’s important to treat yourself every now and again in order to expose yourself to new food and cultures, and so K and I went to Brasserie Georges for lunch, a restaurant steeped in the history of Lyon since its first opening in 1836.

Popular for both business lunches and leisurely ‘ladies who lunch’ meals, we were surprisingly the only ones in the restaurant who clearly looked like they weren’t locals. Brasserie Georges is definitely still a local favourite that hasn’t yet been discovered by other tourists. While you can order a la carte, most people seemed to opt for either one of the two set menus available – a Menu Lyonnais ($27.50 Euro for four courses – entree, main, cheese and dessert) or the Menu Confluence ($22.50 for three courses – entree, main, dessert). K and I decided to split the odds and ordered one of each.

brasseriegeorges-01

I was getting a bit peckish by the point we sat down to lunch although it was still only 1pm which is comparably early by French dining standards! The complimentary basket of fresh bread rolls definitely helped to take the edge off my hunger, though I’ll never get used to the fact that it’s not normal practice to offer butter with the complimentary bread. Instead, you’re not supposed to eat the bread until the end of your meal, as you use it to sop up any sauce left on the plate.

Poireaux Vinaigrette, Gelee de Joue de Boeuf aux Condiments
Poireaux Vinaigrette, Gelee de Joue de Boeuf aux Condiments

K’s entree as part of the Menu Lyonnais was Leeks with Jellied Beef Cheeks…which doesn’t sound quite as exciting in English as it does in in French! As a cold entree, it wasn’t a bad dish. I particularly liked the baby leeks which were a lot softer and milder than the giant old leeks that we tend to get in Australia. The buttery herbed sauce was particularly good when sopped up with the bread rolls.

Oeuf Poche et Champignons, Creme au Lard et Croutons
Oeuf Poche et Champignons, Creme au Lard et Croutons

My entree as part of the Menu Confluence was almost like a deconstructed breakfast dish, of a poached egg with a crispy fried piece of bacon and crispy toast on top. Sitting on a base of mushrooms and creamy hollandaise-esque sauce and chives, the runny-yolked egg was simply delicious. The hollandaise sauce was a tad on the salty side, but all the elements still worked really well together.

Saucisson Pistache a la Maconnaise, Pommes de Terre Ecrasees a la Fourchette
Saucisson Pistache a la Maconnaise, Pommes de Terre Ecrasees a la Fourchette

K’s main meal was pistachio and pork sausages in the Mâcon style.  Mâcon is a town located only an hour north of Lyon, so this is very much a local dish to the region. I found the sausage particularly porky and meaty, like it had used some less common parts of the pig that are more strongly flavoured. I really liked the potatoes though – they were more like smashed potatoes than mashed potatoes as they still had quite a bit of texture to them. Liberally dressed with salt and butter, they were highly more-ish.

Escalope de Saumon Soufflee a la Dieppoise
Escalope de Saumon Soufflee a la Dieppoise

I enjoyed my salmon fillet served with creamed spinach. While the salmon was probably cooked for longer than I personally prefer (I prefer my salmon rare), the crumbly salmon meat meant that it actually worked particularly well with the cream of the spinach. The little fried puff pastry on the side was a strange addition – I imagine it’s to help soak up some of the sauce, but honestly the bread rolls were much better for that.

Le Fromage de Tradition
Le Fromage de Tradition

K’s set meal came with a generous serving of cheese chosen by the restaurant. On the day, it turned out to be a particularly strong hard vintage, not dissimilar to an Old Amsterdam. It was a really generous serving, especially given the intensity of flavour which made it hard to eat too much of it in one setting. Still, we managed.

Feuillantin au Chocolat Pur Caraibes
Feuillantin au Chocolat Pur Caraibes

K’s dessert was a chocolate feillantin came out as a real work of art – magnificently glossy and topped with crumbed praline and biscuit. The sweet dark chocolate mousse inside combined with the many layers of praline and chocolate made for a dessert of many different textures, one that I happily ate more of than K!

Ile Flottante aux Pralines Roses de St Genix
Ile Flottante aux Pralines Roses de St Genix

My floating island dessert was as pretty as a picture with a soft meringue topped with the colourful candied pralines that you find in that part of France. Sat in a pool of tinted cream, the meringue simply melted on the tongue as though it was made of no more than air.

brasseriegeorges-09

Brasserie Georges serves up traditional Lyonnaise fare that really hits the spot. It’s simple, hearty home cooking, the way French cooking used to be before it became over-fancified in hatted silver-spoon restuarants. It comes with a price tag, with the $20+ euro set lunch menus about double the price of the usual prix fixe lunches of other restaurants in the centre of Lyon. If you’re looking for a genuine Lyon experience away from tourists though, you can’t go wrong with Brasserie Georges!

Brasserie Georges is located at 30 Cours de Verdun Perrache, Lyon, France.