It turns out that Paris is NOT the culinary capital of France.
The title belongs to Lyon, France’s third city, located in the east-central part of the country where the Rhône and Saône rivers converge.
Founded in 43 BC, by the 17th century it was the silk capital of Europe. Its rich history includes being a major center of la résistance during WW2.
We reached Lyon from Paris via TGV, France’s intercity high-speed rail service. Inaugurated in 1966 as turbo trains powered by gas turbines, the network evolved into electricity due to the 1973 oil crisis.
We stayed at the historic Intercontinental Lyon Hotel Dieu, a UNESCO World Heritage site across the Rhône River. Dating back to the 17th century, when it served as a meeting place for clergy members, The Hôtel-Dieu became one of France’s most important hospitals in 1454.
It contains a permanent exhibition of the history of medicine (a recurrent theme in the region). Le Dôme Bar, a 104-feet (32 meters) high magnificent dome located on the first floor, is a perfect place to pre-game or have a nightcap.
We took the 15-minute walk to Vieux Lyon, the Old Town, one of Europe’s largest Renaissance neighborhoods inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998.
Three historical sections: Saint-Jean (where the iconic Cathedral of St Jean sits), Saint Paul (15th and 16th-century bankers and merchants) and Saint Georges (where the silk weavers lived).
At night, we stayed on our side of the Rhône to explore the modern city center, where we admired the Nouvel Opera House (home to the Opéra National de Lyon), redesigned in 1985—on the site of the historic 1756 building by Jacques-Germain Soufflot, the architect of the Panthéon in Paris.
The surrounding area swarmed with multicultural youth who packed falafel places and a dive bar with cheap, cold draft beer decorated with dozens of brassieres (classy). We strolled across the Saône River and into the Quai de Bondy district filled with picturesque restaurants and wine bars. We were in heaven.
The next day, we drove 96 miles (156 kilometers) northbound to Beaune (pronounced “bone”), the epicenter of Burgundy in the heart of the Côte d’Or wine region (recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
The plan was a biking pilgrimage through the many villages and small, well-defined parcels of vineyards (known as climats).
Our lovely Airbnb was above La Maison du Colombier, the go-to wine bar in the town center and across the street from the Basilique Collégiale Notre-Dame (Basilica of Our Lady).
Immediately, we started exploring the town, from the ancient city gate to the other example of Medieval medicine: The Hospices de Beaune Hôtel-Dieu.
Founded in 1443, after the Hundred Years’ War and an outbreak of plague left the majority of the population destitute, the Hôtel-Dieu is a vision.
Now a museum, its iconic tiled roofs, and interiors, classic examples of fifteenth-century Burgundian architecture, are perfectly preserved.
Hôtel-Dieu is quite the religious experience: there’s a hospital ward inside a chapel. Architects furnished the Room of the Poor with two rows of curtained beds leading to the altar so that the sick could attend Mass from their beds.
The Domaine des Hospices de Beaune is also famous for being a non-profit organization that hosts a wine auction dating to 1859. It takes place on the third Sunday in November during Les Trois Glorieuses (The Three Glorious) festival.
And so the day of our pilgrimage arrived. As we rode through the Côte de Nuits, we understood why wine and religion have been intertwined since the Middle Ages.
The rise of Christianity declared wine sacred, symbolizing the blood of Christ. The increasingly important role of the clergy caused them to receive land as gifts from the local nobility.
Over many centuries, bishops and monks established the delineation of the vineyards, which are still maintained. When tasting wines today, you may hear the expression “the monks got it right,” as La Romanee-Conti tastes quite different from Romanee St-Vivant, even though a mere gravel road separates them.