The divine Grand Hôtel-Dieu

No serious Francophile can afford to miss France’s second city, says Jeremy Wayne.

“When good Americans die,” as Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “they go to Paris.” The very good ones, he might have added go to Lyon, France’s second city and gastronomic epicenter. 

Some 300 miles south of Paris and 200 miles north of Marseille, Lyon enjoys a superb position, even by European standards. This city is close to everywhere — Geneva is up the road and the Alps are virtually on your doorstep; Milan is over the hills and Paris — if you really must — is a mere two hours away by high-speed train.

But the real joy of Lyon is the city itself, gloriously situated at the confluence of two rivers, namely the mighty Rhône and the gentler Saône. Founded by the Romans, Lyon has long been known as the banking center of France, its coffers swelled by Italian merchants in the 14th century. (The city still has an air of Italianate refinement.) Later, during the Renaissance, Lyon’s development was driven by the silk trade, which still flourishes today. Lyon further consolidated its wealth during the Industrial Revolution.

In the heart of town, the Grand Hôtel-Dieu had been a travelers’ refuge from the 12th century and a fully-fledged hospital since the 15th, until it finally closed its doors in 2010. Now, after four years under the knife itself, Hôtel-Dieu has morphed from a hospital (one of the most important and revered in France) into a luxury shopping mall, food court and hotel, all discreetly hidden behind an exquisite 18th-century façade, which at 1,181 feet is the length of almost four football fields.

Back in July, as the mercury hit 104 degrees on what would turn out to be the hottest day since records began, I arrived at the Grand Hôtel-Dieu in an Uber and a muck sweat. Right in the center of the building, under its emblematic 100-foot-high dome, sits the entrance to the InterContinental Lyon Hôtel-Dieu, the newest, most talked-about hotel in Lyon — well, possibly ever. From a location standpoint, it is, of course, a peach, its rooms and duplex suites either looking out over the Rhône, which flows in front of the hotel, or overlooking the immaculately restored courtyards and cloisters at the rear.

The significance of the original building cannot be overstated. One in three Lyonnais over the age of 10 was born here, so that nearly everyone in the city has, to this day, a special connection with the place. In developing the site — at 43,056 square feet, one of the largest private renovation projects ever undertaken in Europe — the architects and designers had to be aware of this. Thus, the design of the InterContinental itself makes a deep and gracious bow to history, its limestone columns left intact in the guest-room corridors, its vast silk drapes in the rooms and public spaces an homage to the city’s silk industry. I love how the blue-green tinge of the fabric reflects the many glancing colors of the Rhône itself.

The hotel, it goes without saying perhaps, is the last word in comfort, with its army of receptionists and wait-staff, polished in all senses, with wonderfully plush mattresses and pillows in the guestrooms, bathrooms with vast soaking tubs and shower cabinets so large you could hold a cocktail party for 12 and still find room for a small jazz trio. Without a doubt, all of these features make the 144-room InterContinental a truly delightful place to stay.

But as a former religious hospital for the poor, the cloisters still intact and a palpable air of almost spiritual contemplation about the place, the planners were also keen that nothing too showy or splashy crept into the decoration. Lyon’s great church on the hill, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fouvières is, after all, visible from the rear-facing rooms, a siren-call to piety, while below you in the courtyards, stone panels sunk into the walls record donations made by private individuals to the hospital. Hôtel-Dieu, for all its newfound gloss, is still a place of reflection and community spirit.

There is food, of course, because France’s greatest food city is never too humble to begrudge its stomach. Indeed, in a city where good food is honored with an almost religious reverence, where 4,000 quality restaurants compete to keep standards high and ensure that the consumer is always the winner, the InterContinental was always going to have to come up with a great restaurant if it was to look its peers in the eye.

In its restaurant, Epona, it has done just that — a long room, spick and span, with the palest taupe upholstery, almost utilitarian in its simplicity. It’s a backdrop for Chef Mathieu Charrois’ “taste and flavors of yesteryear.” While the obvious choice of appetizer might be his take on quenelle de brochet — here called “k’nell,” the classic Lyonnais dish of creamed pike with a rich crayfish sauce, Charrois’ talent is to my mind as apparent in a dish called Belle de Lyon — mini toasts of St. Marcellin cheese, paddling in a wondrous gazpacho, topped with a “granita” of frozen red Rhône wine. Ooh la bloomin’ la! You won’t go far wrong either in his rendition of omble chevalier, Arctic char with Lyonnais potatoes and a moreish sorrel sauce, or a magnificent volaille jaune, cornfed chicken with tomatoes and confit garlic.

Food awaits you too in Les Halles. This is not the great market of Paris, but its modernist Lyon namesake, two floors of the restored Hôtel-Dieu, given over to the best fruit and vegetables, boucherie, fish and prepared foods, all dreamily presented for your delectation. (Tables and chairs allow you to eat anything you like on the spot.) 

A gastronomy museum, opening on the site in the fall, will not only celebrate the culinary delights of this great city but will also play host to visiting country cuisines on six-month rotations. (Japan will be the first country to participate.)

Of course, there are myriad other diversions in this glorious city, and food in any case must be taken in moderation. (“Everything in moderation, even moderation,” as Wilde also remarked.) What is certain, however, is that for any  serious Francophile, Lyon — and the spectacular Hôtel-Dieu — are not to be missed.

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