Monday, 6 June 2011: Lyon to Mâcon

Written 13 June 2011

carAlways an adenture gettin' outa Dodge. Of the three options—fetching the rental car and bringing it to the hotel to pick up the luggage (dismissed out of hand the minute we saw driving conditions in Lyon), schlepping the luggage to the rental office by metro (too many uncertainties about getting from the metro at the far end to the actual rental office), and just calling a cab—we went for the last. We didn't even walk the three blocks to the cabstand; the nice man at reception called them for us, and the taxi appeared promptly at our door.

When he turned west out of the tiny, one-way rue Tony Tollet onto the slightly larger but still one-way rue Sala, though, he discovered that movers were emptying an upstairs appartment through a window, as is the urban French way, by means of an inclined hydraulic shaft up and down which slides a horizontal loading platform, and they had parked it sideways across the street, entirely blocking our path. After grumbling for a few seconds, our resourceful driver simply turned the other way and drove east, against the one-way arrows, which turned out to be perfectly safe, as the movers had thoughtfully placed a detour sign a block east of us to deflect drivers planning to pass through the rue Sala (never occurred to them that anyone would drive through Tony Tollet!). Reaching the back of the detour sign, our driver turned south, with the deflected traffic, and we were on our way.

Our driver knew the area around the Part-Dieu train station so well that he not only drove us straight to the right door but was able to give us walking directions to find the Europcar desk inside. While David stayed with the heap of luggage, I located a Relay newstand where I bought us a road map of the area we'd be covering and a six-pack of half-liter Evians for driving days (we drink the Evian, then refill the bottles as needed for the rest of the trip).

At the Europcar desk, with only the usual interminable paperwork, they rented us the snazzy black VW Golf shown above. It had just been checked in and was still at the cleaning station, to which the nice clerk directed us (up and down stairs, with all our bags), where the cleaner issued final instructions. The clerk had already given us directions for getting out of town (which involved driving right through the middle of things across the peninsula, but on high-speed through streets), but we were ready to say yes to anything to get away from the cleaning station! The car next to ours was being cleaned with an industrial-strength (and concommitantly loud) vaccuum. The cleaners were shouting to other over the noise. The phone (with amplified bell) was ringing constantly for communication with the office. And something, we couldn't tell what, was emitting a very loud, irritating, continuous beeping sound. Then the next car arrived to be cleaned, and its driver kept honking at us to move ours out of the way! We backed out, parked a few yards away, and realized that the loud continuous beep was our car's "parking assistance" system. Anytime you put it in reverse or approached an obstacle, forward or backward, it put a special display on the dashboard and started that continuous, loud, nerve-shredding beep! We considered trying to get the cleaners to show us how to disable it, but it shut up when we drove forward, so we decided just to deal with it later and drove to the exit gate, only to find a gigantic piece of earth-moving equipment backing glacially across our path, blocking the exit. Fortunately, we weren't in a hurry, and no one was honking at us any more, so we just waited it out. We thought the one behind it was going to cross our path as well, but it went back the other way.

Okay, once out onto the street, we found that the clerk's meticulous directions, including advice about what lane to be in where, worked like a charm, and we were soon over the Rhône and speeding south along the peninsula quaiside. Then to the right across the peninsula, over the Saône, and into the infamous Lyon tunnel, which is kilometers long and takes the freeway right under the Fourvière hill! David was delighted—he had heard all about it, listening to his Champs Élysées tapes—that tunnel is notoriously the worst traffic bottleneck in all of France on the weekends of the Grand Départ (first weekend of July), Grand Échange (first weekend of August), and Grande Rentrée (first weekend of September), when all Frenchmen worthy of the name are either leaving for or returning from vacation, by car, with the whole family, the dog, and a month's worth of luggage and vacation gear. In the second week of June, headed north, we were not delayed, but the traffic coming the other way was backed up for miles at the other end.

sausage livers We stopped for lunch in Romanèche-Thorins. We first pulled into a restaurant called "La Maison Blanche," but we met the owner and his family just leaving, explaining that they were closed on Mondays. They recommended "Le Moulin à Vent" (hte Windmill) a few yards down the road, so we ate there. While we waited for our food we had plenty of time to study the paper placemats with the usual ads around the edges but, in the center, adorned with the logo of a Beaujolais festival that we apparently missed, back in May

David (uncharacteristically) ordered sausages in red wine sauce, served with fried potatoes and green beans, and pronounced them very good.

moulin I had "salade Bressane." They raise a whole lotta poultry in Bresse, so a Bressane salad is topped with a heap of sautéed chicken livers and surrounded by the slices of a hard-cooked egg. I thought the livers looked overcooked when they arrived, but they were delicious—nicely browned and, although not still pink in the center, moist and tender. I ate the whole thing!

The entrance to the restaurant is actually to the left of David, under the awning, and not through the decorative mill. After lunch, we sat in the parking lot and read the whole owner's manual for the car, until we finally figured out what the back-up-assistance system was called (at first, we couldn't even figure out how to look it up in the index!) and, at last, how to make it shut up. Still for the rest of the trip, every time we shifted into reverse, one or the other of us had to push a button on the console to silence that awful, continuous, screechy beep! I'd lay odds that that system causes more mishaps than it prevents.

Mâcon is a good-sized town, so the way to it is well sign-posted (on the way, I spotted a business selling ironwork called "Paradis en Fer"—"Heaven in iron," a homonym of "Paradis Enfer," "Heaven Hell"), and our hotel was directly on the main north-south route, which runs right along the Saône, so it wasn't hard to find. It's quite a nice place, but we couldn't seem to get on the right foot. First, we pulled into the archway leading to their little six-car parking lot to find the inner gate closed (the inside of the gate was being cleaned), so we were told just to leave the car there for 20 minutes or so. Second, they had us down for only one night, although I had reserved for two. Not a problem—they could still give us a choice of two rooms, either of which we could have for two nights. The nicer had only a bathtub with a hand-held sprayer. The other had a shower stall, but again, the sprayer couldn't be hung from the wall. We went with the nicer room, though we suspect that neither was the one they had reserved for us, thinking we were staying only one night. Third, after we took our luggage up, I went back down to move the car, which I had not yet driven, to a parking space, fumbled the brake and bumped a wooden garage door. A stone relic leaning against the door fell over, denting our fender and breaking into three pieces. The lady at reception said she'd have to talk to "Monsieur" about it; I couldn't tell whether she was an owner of the hotel or just an employee. In the room, the wifi (as I had been warned might be the case) couldn't penetrate the walls. Later, I was able to connect downstairs, but the dratted signal kept dropping me every two minutes, and every time I signed back in, I had to enter a 26-digit nonsense sequence of letters and digits, twice. (I soon caught on that I could type it into a Word document, then cut and paste it into both log-in boxes.) The TV worked in that it turned on and lit up, but every channel displayed only "Signal too weak" in whatever language was appropriate to that channel. We found no evidence of the advertised AC. The hair dryer was broken.

church ceiling After settling in, we strolled downtown to see what Mâcon had to offer. We stopped in to look at the church, which, like most churches in this area, incorporates both romanesque and gothic elements. David speculated that the white drapery was a propos of some approaching religious holiday, but we didn't know which one. In the little chapel behind the altar, I got this photo of the painted ceiling, which actually shows up better in the photo than in real life.

Then we visited the Office de Tourisme, which wasn't really much help. Did they have a single ticket good for all public transport, as in Lyon? No. A ticket good for admission to several museums? No. Did they know of anyone, government or private, who organized vinyard tours of the Mâconnais region? No. Perhaps a map with a recommended scenic driving route or list of wineries open for tours or visits? No. A map of the town—staple item of all Offices de Tourisme? No, just the one the hotel had already given us, showing only a few blocks of downtown. Uh, so long; thanks anyway.

fish cat Some really nice touches though. Somebody had photographed a daisy, blown the photo up, and printed it as foot-in-diameter decals, which were pasted at intervals onto the sidewalks throughout the shopping districts. At the entrance of a small street that used to be the fish market, these stylized fish were built into the sidewalk.

On our way back to the hotel, this cat watched us carefully from his second floor perch.

Our intended restaurant for the night was Le Saint-Laurent (one George Blanc's six establishments), across the river from our hotel, but it was booked up, even back in March when I contacted them, so we fell back on La Perdrix (The Partridge), recommended by the website of the Office de Tourisme.

scallops snails Amuse-bouche, both (no photo): Small, warm, savory crèmes bruléees with bits of vegetables (artichoke, carrot, mushroom) embedded in them. Delicious!

First course, David: Orange-flavored tartare of scallops, with diced apple, matchsticks of radish, and a sesame cracker, all on a bed of arugula that set it off very well. Very good.

First course, me: An "aumonière" (crispy pastry package) of snails (made with feuilles de brik), with a Saint-Marcellin cream sauce. Inside the packet, the snails were unadorned. Good, but not enough sauce.

prawns bavette Main course, David: Grilled prawns.

Main course, me: They were out of the rib steak that was supposed to come with my menu, and the other options didn't appeal to me, so I asked them to substitute the "bavette d'aloyau" steak from the less expensive menu. It came with a big glob of "maitre d'hotel" butter (butter with shallots and herbs). Very tasty but, frankly, tough. That's normal for bavette, which is popular for its flavor, not its tenderness.

Both came with a skewer of new potatoes and large squares of lardon and with roasted tomatoes with crumbs on top. The pastry squiggles with which both were garnished were not the usual crispy, tender crêpe batter, but thinned bread dough baked until hard. Not palatable.

Cheese, both: Faisselle of fromage blanc with garlic, herbs, and salt. Yummy.

dessert fraisier Dessert, David: An assortment of three desserts, which David was dismayed to find included a wedge of melon (which he doesn't consider to be food, let alone dessert). He gave it to me, but I didn't dare eat more than a couple of pieces, because I have trouble digesting it. The cake and the ice cream were okay, though.

Dessert, me: A "fraisier," of a rather primitive sort. Ordinarily two thin slices of cake are separated by a thick layer of filling studded with whole strawberries. In this version, three slices of cake were separated by thinner layers of chopped strawberries in whipped cream. Okay, but not spectacular. The pineapple-mint sorbet served with it was spectacularly good, though.

Not haute cuisine (except for the amuse-bouche and the pineapple-mint sorbet), but a good meal for the price.

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