Saturday, 18 June 2011: Serrières to Saint-Étienne
Written 14 July 2011
Here is part of the hotel's elegant breakfast: hot drink of choice, fruit juice of choice, butter, two kinds of jam and covered pot of honey, silver sugar bowl matching the sauceboat of the night before, bowl of fresh cherries, and (in the upper left corner) one edge of the straw basket of breads and pastries. Very nice indeed.
At the right is a closer view of the chef's compact little herb garden. The tall, untidy tuft is sage. Most of the lower plants in the foreground are marjoram. Tucked in between, here and there, we found two kinds of mint, some tarragon, a very small rosemary struggling for its share of the sun, what looked like heliotrope (can you cook with that?), and two colors of pansies for garnishing. I saw no sign of nasturtiums, either in the planter or in the windowboxes surrounding the restaurant's terrace (which were full of pink geraniums), so they must grow elsewhere.
Almost our entire drive Saint-Étienne would be through the sparsely populated and mountainous Parc Naturel Regional du Pilat (Pilat is the name of a mountain and a river in the area), and the road looked pretty twisty, so we set off promptly in case the trip should take longer than foreseen and to allow for the scenic rather than the shortest route.
From Serrières to Bourg-Argental, we first passed through miles and miles of orchards. Cherries predominated, but other stone fruit was also common. As we climbed higher, many orchards were growing under thin white fabric shade covers, like those used for tobacco. I don't know whether the object was shade, heat conservation, discouraging birds, or what. With increasing altitude, though, the orchards gradually gave way to pastures and cattle, interspersed.
The scenery was gorgeous, and the views spectacular but difficult to photograph, particularly from a moving car. Here's one shot that managed to capture some sense of depth and distance.
Between Bourg-Argental and Greix, we crossed a ridge that topped out at 824 m altitude. There, the forests were less tall and were interspersed with flowery meadows dotted with daisies and foxgloves. Then after crossing a valley, we climbed over another ridge that topped out at 1201 m! In much of this area, the cows were spotted brown and white, different from any we'd seen elsewhere in France. We were astonished, as we approached our destination, to find ourselves in the Département de la Loire! Yes, the same river lined by all those castles way up in the northern half of France. Who knew it started way down southwest of Lyon?
We actually made such good time that we arrived in Saint-Étienne in time for lunch. The disconnect between the road map and my area map was extreme, but I knew that our hotel was right by the train station, and that's always well signposted in France. We soon picked up train-station signs as we came into town. On the way through, we passed the École Normale Supérieure des Mines—the Écoles Normales Supérieures are the ne plus ultra of French higher education—not surprising, as one of Saint-Étiennes claims to fame is its mining museum (that and the manufacture of weapons and of ribbons and braids). The route was long and circuitous, and the we and the French have different ideas about how frequent direction signs should be, but I soon spotted the Ibis hotel (by its huge gaudy sign), which I knew to be next door to ours, and sure enough, there it was, less than a block from the station.
It was called Le Terminus de Forez, and it boasted a number of unique features. For example, it was the first hotel room on the trip to be stocked with a Gideon Bible, and not any any old, but a trilingual Gideon Bible. It's staircase was in use as a sort of museum of the highlights of the Forez region (a valley and mountain range it was proud to be situated in), a sign in the elevator said to go up to the sixth floor and then walk down the staircase admiring the paintings, murals, and photographs—a booklet describing all of them was at our disposal on request at reception, we were assured.
Not the least (or least appreciated) of its virtues, though, was this magnificent shower, the "Système Thalasso." We hadn't had as good luck with hotel showers this year—several were not what I would even call adequate. But this one—wow! As the diagram on the wall (actually a specially made tile with the lettering embedded in the glaze) shows, the pipe loop swung up or down to any height at a touch, and the two shower heads (either of which would have been an excellent specimen all alone) swiveled independently to any angle, all while pouring out an impressive volume of water. I know what I'm getting the next time we renovate!
You could even hear a rooster crowing every morning from the train-station plaza and even from our hotel room. Nice place altogether.
It was time and past for lunch, so as soon as we'd dropped off our stuff, we went out to forage, and right there, on the corner between us and the station, was a Taverne du Maêtre Kanter—our chance to get that steak tartare we'd passed up in Vienne. Not, as it turns out, the best rendition ever. It came ready-mixed with, in my opinion, too many pickles and olives, but it was okay, and the fries were good.
After lunch, David wanted to take a nap, so I set off on my own to visit the Office de Tourisme, in the town hall, conveniently marked on the little map in the Michelin Green Guide.
It turned out to be rather a hike, but mostly along interesting shopping streets and past a whole assortment of war memorials. The monument on the left is the usual one for the two world wars. I mentions 6000 "Stephanois" (people from Saint-Étienne, which is French for Saint Stephen) killed in WWI and a rather smaller number from WWII. The one on the right is the collective war memorial for all wars for teachers, employees, and students of a particular lycée. I also passed an ultramodern, rectilinear, glass-and-steel building that we had seen during the drive in. It was all glass- and steel-colored, shiny and transparent, except for an opening in the middle the inside walls of which were painted a screamingly bright opaque yellow. No idea why. Maybe the same architect who built that orange thing in Lyon.
As I got closer to the town hall, I found myself in a sort of diffuse street market. Stalls lined both sides of the small streets for blocks around. I don't know whether this was a weekly or daily occurrence. Or maybe week-end-ly, as at least some of it was there the next day as well. I saw a little food, but mostly it was clothing, shoes, and accessories. On the plaza in front of the town hall, I found a double-decker carousel.
Finally, I reached the town hall itself (left), where something was clearly going on. Tables were set up in a row across the front, banners were flying, and young women on segways (holding their matching straw hats on their heads in the breeze) were handout out leaflets. It turns out the city was launching it's shiny new, redesigned interactive website, where, the leaflets assured me, you could find out anything! (I tried it later, back at the hotel, and was underwhelmed. Maybe it was acting so flaky because everyone in town was trying at the same time, but I doubt it.) I looked around but couldn't spot the Office de Tourisme, so I addressed myself to one of the guys manning the information tables. "Oh, no," he shook his head, "it's nowhere near here." Drat—the out-of-date green guide strikes again. Fortunately, he knew just where it was now and gave me meticulous and accurate directions that eventually led me there.
As usual, the office was a fount of information. They gave me maps and brochures, explained how the day-passes on the tram system worked (and gave me a map of the system), and showed me where all the stuff I wanted to visit was located.
David and I then set out together to look at the unusual church near the town hall. Instead of the usual barrel vaulting in the nave, it has a row of three domes, each with windows, so the nave much more light comes in than is usual. At the left, you can see all three, looking back toward the narthex from near the apse.
On the right is a view down the nave toward the apse, which is also crowned with a dome, so instead of being a dark recess it glows with light. Several of the side chapels are domed as well.
In addition, much of the church is still polychome—the walls and statuary are painted in muted colors.
Finally, it was time to hike back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.
Our reservations were at Le Bistrot de Paris, on the square behind the town hall. Here it is, glowing in the dusk as we approached. The interior turned out to look much like the exterior—lacquered red and black and glowing. We were seated upstairs, where, unfortunately, it was pretty hot and got hotter in the course of the evening.
At the right is the amuse-bouche—yes, standard chips and salsa. Tasty and somewhat cilantro-flavored, though I could detect no cilantro pieces in the salsa.
We both ordered the "Bistrot Menu."
First course, David: Ravioli of gorgonzola and goat cheese on a cream of green peas, each topped with a thin slice of Parmesan.
First course, me: A "tartine" (i.e., bread spread with something) of hot goat cheese with "small summer vegetables," which turned out to be about a quarter of a baguette toasted, topped with thick slices of goat cheese (bucheron, I think), and grilled. Then slices of grilled red bell pepper were laid in a crisscross pattern over the top. The long white things on top of the salad are pea sprouts grown so as to be long and perfectly straight.
Second course, David: Duck breast grilled in a crust of pistachios, accompanied by chutney of red peppers and sour cherries, with little ricotta "egg rolls."Second course, me: Lamb shank, long simmer with spices in a tomato sauce, accompanied by a large mound of excellent polenta smothered in the same sauce. On both plates, you can see more of the long, straight pea sprouts. The lamb was excellent, but we had to wait so long for it, the cheese "tartine" had been so big, and the room had gotten so hot that I couldn't come near finishing it.
Dessert, David: Apple tart of, he said, no great distinction, served chilled.
Dessert, me: Excellent coffee and caramel ice creams.
A nice place, but it sure felt good to get out of the heat and into the cool outdoor air for the walk back to the hotel!
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