I Was A French School Dropout
I have an aversion to the term Bucket List (for its suggestion of impending doom), but if I had one, this would be on it. I’ve always wanted to study French IN France. My daughter’s session at the University of Grenoble inspired me to head over for a few weeks of French Immersion. I’ve never taken three weeks off, or been away from home for that long. Two weeks of which I spent alone in a foreign country…also a first. My images of jolly evenings with my classmates never materialized (I was surprised to find myself the oldest!), and spending so much time tout seule was tiring, but it was an exciting adventure, not to mention excellent for the old brain.
After too many nights spent googling schools, hotels, restaurants, and things to do (they need an e-list!) in the Rhone-Alpes region, I finally settled on an itinerary. My husband and I would spend a week with my daughter in Grenoble, then he’d head back home and drop me in Annecy for a week at Ifalpes, a French language school in this Alpine village, and for good measure, another week in Lyon studying French at Alpadia.
Our family week in Grenoble flew by, with lots of city-walking and cafe-sitting, a jaw-dropping trip to the mountains of Chartreuse (see video below) and a fantastic Mother’s Day lunch at Chez Le Per Gras, reached by the tram at the top of the Bastille, 100 meters over the city. A gastronomic treat with an incredible view of the city.
Jardin de Ville Grenoble
View from the top of the Bastille, Grenoble
Tracing Joe’s crazy ride in the French Alps (he did it on a bike!).
All too soon, my husband dropped me in Annecy on his way to the Geneva airport. I had a couple of days to discover the town before classes started on Monday. What a gorgeous spot: an ancient village, crisscrossed by canals, surrounded by
All too soon, my husband dropped me in Annecy on his way to the Geneva airport. I had a couple of days to discover the town before classes started on Monday. What a gorgeous spot: an ancient village, crisscrossed by canals, surrounded by Alps that descend to the crystal clear lake. Mornings I spent walking as far as I could around the azure waters, gazing at the still snow-capped Alps and an assortment of joggers, walkers, roller bladers and scooters, and taking full advantage of the perfect spring weather. I tried desperately to walk off the stunning amount of cheese (Reblochon, St. Marcellin and Comte), baguettes and croissants that I managed to stuff in my gueule daily. Even my good intentions were thwarted: an order of a simple salad would appear covered in cheese toasts, lardons, and likely an egg! In Annecy, you simply have to give in to the ever-present fondue and tartiflette.
After two days of walking every tiny canal-lined street of the town known as the Venice of France, I started classes at Ifalpes. I was thrilled to see a few other “elders”, as I had no idea what the class makeup would be. A rather long and nerve-wracking test landed me in the B section, squarely intermediate, and on my own with a bunch of twenty-somethings. Few Americans attend this school. My classmates were Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Slovak and Swedish. Our only common language was French. A mixture of exercises, discussion, and oral activities ensued and my nerves settled. We were all in the exact same place, after all, no matter our age or ability. And we all LOVED our professor, Corinne, an ageless French beauty, with a warm way about her and a fabulous sense of humor. She managed to keep our class engaged for four hours straight. Just loved her.
Our idyllic week was interrupted by the Manchester bombing. The shock consumed our class and made for sad discussion and lots of new vocabulary.
Vieille Ville Annecy
Vieille Ville Annecy
Lake Perch Annecy
Chez Mamie Lise Annecy
The following Friday, I took the bus to Lyon (7 euros and non-stop which was easier than lugging my ridiculously over-packed suitcase on the train), and the weather went from spring to summer overnight. Lyon was 90 degrees. My daughter met me for a short stay in a fancy hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, and we barely left Cour de Loges to venture into the steamy streets.
This hotel is a stunner, with parts of the building dating back to the Renaissance. The center courtyard houses the dining room, which serves an impressive buffet every morning and the gastronomic menu at night. The breakfast is crazy…tables laden with ham and charcuterie, brioche and croissant, smoked salmon, homemade yogurt, freshly picked strawberries and fruit salad, eggs and sausage, platters of cheese and freshly squeezed juices. All so gorgeous and delicious, that we happily skipped lunch and made little piggies of ourselves. Later we tried walking it off by discovering the ancient cobblestone streets and traboules (hidden passages) of Vieux Lyon. Main photo is the restaurant at Cour des Loges, taken from outside our room.
On Sunday, we had lunch at the Michelin starred restaurant in the hotel, helmed by chef Anthony Bonnet. If you ask my daughter what was her most memorable experience in France, she’ll say this was it. Servers as poised as ballet dancers proffered our tasting menu, starting off with an enormous cone of housemade butter, slivered tableside accompanied by (more) gorgeous breads. An artful plate of fruit salad with asparagus ice cream, a slim filet of trout with sorrel foam, slices of aged beef with juniper and a pot of pureed potatoes that had at least as much cream and butter as spud, followed. On and on it went, with the traditional trolley of cheese and several desserts. It was an incredible and memorable meal on my second Mother’s Day (celebrated two weeks later in France), and I’ve never felt so lucky: to be in this magnificent hotel with my delightful daughter, eating the meal of a lifetime. Needless to say, we spent the rest of the day napping. Quite an extravaganza.
My daughter headed back to Grenoble and I switched to a much less expensive hotel near the school. Hotel Silky is new, well located in the Presque Isle, with huge (for France) rooms, fresh black and white tiled bath, and an espresso machine in-room (phew). Breakfast and “Happy Time” (wine, cheese and charcuterie) was included.
Day one of school was not promising. Here, I was the ONLY American (and the only new kid that week) and the discussion was climate change. With Trump’s waffling over the Paris Accord, I felt a distinct hostility towards Americans and missed my cozy class in Annecy. I gave it a go for two days but decided I was too old NOT to make the most of this trip. I quit school and spent the rest of the week happily discovering the city.
Lyon is the gastronomic capital of the France (according to the French themselves) with more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else. The Father of Nouvelle Cuisine, Paul Bocuse at 91, can still be found at his eponymous restaurant, but unfortunately, I didn’t make it. One over-the-top meal was enough. We did, however, spend a day browsing the delicacies at Les Halles de Paul Bocuse. This is a must for foodies or anyone else who wants to immerse themselves in the best of Lyon. Stall upon stall of cheese, charcuterie, and chocolate, plus restaurants serving up more of the same. We slurped briny oysters and downed plates of gooey and ridiculously delicious local cheeses. It’s a don’t miss and go HUNGRY.
As famous as Lyon is for gastronomy, it’s the Bouchon that provide the best cultural immersion. Bouchon are Lyon’s version of neighborhood bistro, and you’ll find them on every block, with virtually the same menu. The Lyonnaise love their Andouillette (you have to be born here to understand this stinky sausage of stomach and intestines; horrible!), Lyon sausage in red wine (YES, please), and my personal favorite, Quenelles. These fluffy fish soufflees bathed in lobster sauce are a treat. Oh, and virtually everything comes with a side of potatoes Lyonnaise. It’s a chummy meal. Don’t be surprised to be seated at communal tables and prepare to make friends with your tablemates and practice your French. For me, dining on my own every night, the Bouchon provided welcome camaraderie.
Lyon was the center of silk manufacturing before and after the French Revolution and retains remnants of this interesting past. The Jacquard loom was invented here, and all those damasks you see in Paris museums and Versailles were crafted in Lyon. I studied textiles in college so The Museum of Textiles and Decorative Arts and La Maison des Canuts (devoted to the silk weaving industry) were on my must see list. The Fine Arts Museum housed in an ancient convent, boasts masterpieces by the likes of Ingres, Fragonard and Renoir, and a serene courtyard which was somehow ten degrees cooler than the city (plus a lovely terrace for lunch). Walk up to the Croix Rousse, the original neighborhood of the silk workers, a long trek uphill, and see this burgeoning area of artisans and designers that are redeveloping the historic quarter. You’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the city.
My family is embarrassed by my delight in playing tourist, so I was happy to hop the Lyon City Bus on my own and get an hour and a half tour of the city. And yes, I sat on the top of the double decker. It’s an easy way to get the layout of the city and see the most important sites, and especially those you’d like to head back to. An afternoon well spent.
Style: The Rhone/Alpes region of France is not as chic as Paris, so in a way, it’s less intimidating. Dress is far more casual, and sneakers are the footwear of the day (so much easier to navigate the cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon). Grenoble’s community is diverse with lots of students sporting ripped jeans and Adidas, similar to their U.S. counterparts. Annecy is a tourist town (anything goes), and Lyon is more sophisticated with some great shopping. In Lyon, I noticed a touch of red everywhere; a red bag, a red sundress, or (my favorite) a pair of espadrilles, worn with black pants and a white top. It was definitely a “thing” and very chic. To get an overall sense of what’s in vogue, stop by Lyon Printemps and visit their contemporary and designer floors. Don’t miss the well-edited bag department, stocked with the latest from all the big names, plus Gerard Darel and (my favorite) Jerome Dreyfuss. I like to pick up a couple of Boho tops at BA&SH and I loved simply everything at Stella Forest. American Vintage is the go-to for perfect tees and easy summer dresses. Jonak is a good destination for on trend but quality shoes at great prices and whatever they’ve got on the shelves there, you’ll see in the U.S. in six months.
Good to know: In most boutiques, only the smallest size is displayed, so don’t be deterred, just ask for your size.
Shop: Printemps, Monoprix (of course), Stella Forest, BA&SH, Gerard Darel, American Vintage, Jonak
I can never get over how there’s an optician on every block in most French cities. (What’s up with the French eyeballs?) So I always manage to bring back a new pair of eyeglasses because the assortment is so much better. I also love shopping the pharmacies because you’ll find an herbal cure for everything from constipation (try explaining that in French) to roll on muscle pain relievers!
Antoine de St. Exupery (he was born in Lyon) and The Little Prince Statue
Cour Des Loges bedroom
Cour Des Loges bathroom
Cour Des Loges Gastronomic Restaurant
Salad course at Cour des Loges with asparagus ice cream
Cheese at Les Halles de Lyon -Paul Bocuse
Restaurant Le Musee
Sausage in Brioche
Lyonnaise sausage in red wine.
Textile Museum, Lyon
Boots circa 1880, Textile Museum
Award-winning Pate en croute at Daniel et Denis
Courtyard at the Museum of Fine Arts
On the tourist bus with the Basilica of Notre Dame in the background!
If you go to the Rhone-Alpes:
Le Grand Hotel – a four star, well priced, renovated hotel in the pedestrian zone, with helpful staff.
We loved the Jardin de Ville and the cafes that border it for an aperitif or snack.
Ibis Veille Ville: inexpensive and basic, but a wonderful location on the edge of the Old Town with a surprisingly great breakfast.
Next time: Boutik Hotel, hipster lodging on the lake.
It seems most restaurants have the same menu here, heavy on fondue, tartiflette, lake fish and Charolais beef. We were happy with The Chalet and Chez Mama Lise. Find the charming Cafe Des Arts squeezed on the Passage du L’isle for morning coffee or an evening drink.
The old town is a delight, with ancient passageways through buildings and bridges over the canals. A walk around the lake is a must, with a stop on Lover’s Bridge for a photo. Cyclists can rent a bike and make their way around the lake, a 50K route. Definitely rent a pedal boat! The options available seat up to six and some have small slides. The boat tours are a lovely way to see the small villages and chateau that line the lake. You may get lucky (as we did) and see a throng of hangliders floating around the alps.
Ifalpes. Consider renting an apart-hotel if you’re going to school. The school can provide housing, too. By mid-week, I wished I had a kitchen and could take advantage of the local markets. I heard Les Loges Annecy and Privilodges Le Royal are good ones. I’d stay in one of these if I go back.
Good to know: Annecy is a tourist destination and the French head here en masse on the weekend.
Download this app for access to all the hidden Traboules of Lyon.
Download Citymapper for fast access and location of public transport.
Cour Des Loges – five star hotel with a spa in a glorious Renaissance palace on the cobblestoned streets of Vieux Lyon.
Hotel Silky – Minimal but sweet digs in the heart of the Presqu’Isle, a perfect location for exploring Lyon.
Cour Des Loges – one star Michelin gastronomic restaurant in a Renaissance courtyard.
Au Petit Bouchon Chez Georges – classic and lively Bouchon with charming service.
Restaurant Le Musee – my favorite Bouchon. The jolly chef sits down with you to explain the menu.
Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse – expansive gourmet market with restaurants
Daniel et Denise – an elevated and elegant Bouchon experience. Three locations throughout the city.
Museum of Fine Arts Lyon – Mammoth museum in an old convent with beautiful courtyard and lovely terrace restaurant.
Maison des Canuts – silk weaving museum at the top of Croix Rousse. (eat at Daniel et Denis)
Museum of Textiles and Decorative Arts For those interested in fabric, an absolute must. Gorgeous collection of 17th through 20th century fabric and costume.
Lyon City Tour Bus