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FEATURE French city guides: Le Tour de Force

French city guides: Le Tour de Force
9 months ago

When I wrote my book, Brothers in Arms, in 2017-18, it took all my stamina and joie de vivre to make the finish line. This sporting and gastronomic marathon took me 20 months of research, travel, dining and writing. It was a Tour de Force.

I won’t describe all the dining again, as it’s all in the book, suffice to say that many culinary experiences were long, delicious and wine-fuelled.

And readers, using my extensive knowledge bank, I have created for you a short guide to each host city’s best sights, cafes, bars and restaurants. It is your own Tour de Force.

Nearly all of these are personal recommendations or from close friends and locals. If you need any more in the regions outside of these cities (or anywhere in France), then just send me a message at the bottom – I have plenty more where these came from!

There are lots of gaps in between the matches so if you can (and you’re not too tired and hungover), I’d recommend you step outside the big cities to visit some of the regions, small towns and villages beyond. If you like great food and wine, you will find some gems there.

In my experience, when you find a good eatery in France, they are pictures of societal bliss with locals of all sizes, ages and backgrounds chatting and laughing. I have witnessed France at its best, watching the way food and wine can be such an equalising, democratising and unifying force. When I am immersed in local conviviality, I always conclude we should all be eating more, not less!

And the World Cup will just accentuate the experience further. You’ll see the spirit of rugby in all its glory.

It’s great to be alive, isn’t it? Alors, regalez-vous in France. Carpe diem. The World Cup may not come back to France in our lifetimes.

Paris: The city of light and love and (rugby)

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Culturally, Paris can seem a million miles away from the rugby-loving south where the sport’s roots are so entrenched. However, Paris is the home of the iconic stadia of Colombes, Parc des Princes and the Stade de France, all of which are steeped in French rugby glory. And Paris is home to both Racing 92 and Stade Français.

I was based for two unforgettable years in Paris in the early 1990s straight after university, and besides watching and playing rugby there, I enjoyed all of its sights and smells – the exquisite food and wine, Sundays spent chilling in those old-school Parisian cafés, the parks, tree-lined boulevards, art and culture. As TS Eliot said: ‘The chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulant’, so make sure you come back safe and sound after the matches there…

Paris has changed hugely since the early 1990s but is still a beautiful city of light and love. It is a melange of old and new, sleepy and assertive, amourous and anxious, but always infused with romance. And it loves its food, which is ubiquitous. No sooner have you finished your morning espresso, then you’re thinking about lunch. And after lunch, you’re thinking about dinner (well, this writer is).

The paradoxes in Paris are obvious too. One minute you are on a busy boulevard home to Japanese and American food; the next you’re on a tranquil side street that boasts a famous boucherie selling andouillette (with its very own appellation), boudin or escargots. These places transport you back in time to small villages in province where traditional French cooking can still reign supreme.

My favourite places to visit

  • Les Tuileries
  • Le Louvre
  • Le Marais
  • La Place de la Concorde
  • La Place des Vosges
  • Les Jardins de Luxembourg
  • Le Petit Palais
  • Le Jardin du Palais Royal
  • Ile St Louis
  • Les Invalides
  • Les Champs Elysée (although some of it at the top end is very touristy)
  • L’Arc de Triomphe

My favourite restaurants and bars

  • Juveniles, 47 Rue de Richelieu, 75001 Paris
  • Willi’s Wine Bar, 13 Rue des Petits Champs, 75001 Paris
  • Parcelles, 13 Rue Chapon, 75003 Paris
  • Terra, 21 rue des Gravilliers, 75003, Paris
  • Au Petit Fer à Cheval in Le Marais, 30 Rue Vieille-du-Temple, 75004 Paris
  • Grand Cœur, 41 rue du Temple, 75004 Paris
  • Les Enfants Rouges, 9 rue de Beauce, 75003, Paris
  • Otto, 5 rue Mouffetard, 75005 Paris
  • Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes, 106 rue de la Folie-Méricourt, 75011 Paris
  • Pierre Sang on Gambey, 6 rue Gambey, 75011 Paris
  • Septime La Cave, 3 Rue Basfroi, 75011 Paris
  • Vantre 19 Rue de la Fontaine au Roi, 75011 Paris 

Gifts to take home to the family

  • Designer handbag/man-bag
  • Mariage Frères tea (yes, France does tea and this one is very exclusive)
  • Perfume/aftershave
  • Meat and cheese from a reputed local delicatessen

Bordeaux: Majestic and regal, a gastronomic and vinous metropolis       

I always think of Bordeaux as a smaller version of Paris, where Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s influence on the architecture is ubiquitous. In fact, it is the other way around; Paris is a larger version of Bordeaux because it was Bordeaux which inspired Haussman’s design for Paris.

Bordeaux’s limestone buildings soak up pollution, which meant that Bordelais buildings were completely blackened by the 1990s. In 1995, Mayor Alain Juppé began a program of renewal and the buildings were cleaned so the beautiful blond limestone is visible again.

It really has been transformed since I lived there back in 1988. The riverside is unrecognisable from when I was a student ploughing my trade with the B.E.C.

Modern day Bordeaux has been a favourite of mine for years with its stunning architecture, terrific cuisine and superb position next to the impressive Garonne River. There are many ways to arrive into the city but perhaps my favourite is to drive north on Quai Richelieu with the Garonne on your right and Bordeaux on your left, passed the Porte Cailhou and the wonderfully named Fontaine des Trois Grâces on your left also. On a sunny day, Bordeaux glistens like a pearl and there isn’t a more beautiful city in the world.

As for the wines, by all means visit the large châteaux, but I would also visit the smaller ones, just knocking on doors to see whether I could do a tasting. The human challenge of building a relationship and gaining the confidence of someone in the first few sentences is as much fun as drinking the wine.

For great food and wine, visit authentic laces like La Tupina, a fabulous restaurant in downtown Bordeaux, which serves some of the best Gascon home-cooked food I have ever tasted, plus a stellar carte des vins.

My favourite places to visit

  • La Place de la Bourse, probably Bordeaux’s most beautiful square
  • Le Pont de Pierre (The Stone Bridge) that connects the left and right banks of the Garonne
  • Le Grand Theatre
  • Le Fontaine des Trois Grâces
  • The Bordeaux Wine and (wine) trade museum
Aerial view of Bordeaux at sunset – France

My favourite bars and restaurants

  • La Tupina, 6 Rue Porte de la Monnaie, 33000 Bordeaux
  • La Brasserie Bordelaise, 50 Rue Saint-Rémi, 33000 Bordeaux
  • Symbiose, 4 Quai des Chartrons, 33000 Bordeaux
  • l’Alchimiste, 12 Rue de la Vieille Tour, 33000 Bordeaux
  • Halles de Bacalan, 15 Quai du Maroc, 33300 Bordeaux

Gifts to take home to the family

  • Wine
  • Confit de vin de Sauternes au safran
  • Sel de Château
  • Puits d’amour
  • Canelé
  • Lillet
  • Eden Park, Blagnac and Bègles

Toulouse: Cassoulet, fiesta and rugby

Toulouse, la Ville Rose, is HQ to European rugby royalty, the magnificent Stade Toulousain. Toulouse is also the home to rugby de terroir (as oppose to rugby de tradition – see my last article ‘The French rugby paradox’) and is the epitome of what French rugby represents – heart and soul, physicality and force, colour and flair. The whole city pulsates with rugby, hearty food, wine and warmth. Its rugby supremacy has existed as far back as I can remember. When I first lived in France in 1986, Toulouse were already setting the standard with Denis Charvet and Eric Bonneval their superstars.

Toulouse doesn’t have the visual impact of places such as Bordeaux, Lyon, Paris or Avignon (with its Palais des Papes and Rocher des Doms), although these places set the bar very high! Toulouse is still a beauty though. It has the simple spirit of a city where people live and work and aren’t impressed by multiple adornments or big architectural flourishes (Place du Capitole perhaps being the key exception). In that sense, it reminds me of Nîmes, Montpellier and Marseilles.

Toulouse is real, loved and can be very hot in the summer. It is surrounded by the Gers to the west, the Haute Pyrenees to the south/south west, the Tarn to the east and the Tarn-et-Garonne to the north. The land is fertile in places but surrounded by rugged terroir so it is no surprise it is littered with Top 14 and former great rugby teams (Toulouse, Castres, Carcassonne, Agen, Cahors, Montauban, Pau, Lourdes, Bagneres-de-Bigorre, Tarbes, and so many more).

The people in this region are warm and expressive with their choral French accents and words. And they appreciate hearty food – you have to play rugby or work the fields to invent dishes as ample as Cassoulet et Saucisse de Toulouse. It is a haven for rugby fans and big eaters. But bring the Rennie tablets.

Toulouse has the best of everything – rugby, beauty, good airport links, the TGV, an hour or so away from both the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans, strong cultural centre and business links, great food and not far from the Pyrenees and other outdoor pursuits.

Toulouse itself is fairly compact, the centre standing between the Canal du Midi and the Garonne. The central area around La Place du Capitole is a maze of narrow streets, crossed by a few wide boulevards. With all its cafés, restaurants, bars and boutiques, old Toulouse is a great place to visit.

My favourite places to visit

  • Place du Capitole, one of the finest urban piazzas in Europe
  • Pont Neuf, which is a fine 16th/17th century bridge over the Garonne.
  • Canal du Midi. The canal winds round the east of the old city. It links the Mediterranean to the Garonne and the Atlantic.
  • Pont Saint Pierre de Toulouse

My favourite bars and restaurants

  • L’Air de Famille, 6 Rue Jules Chalande, 31000 Toulouse
  • Émile, 13 place Saint-Georges, 31000 Toulouse
  • Au Pêché Mignon, 37 Rue du Languedoc, 31000 Toulouse
  • Marché Victor Hugo

Gifts to take home to the family

  • Cassoulet or Toulouse sausages
  • Opinel folding knife & corkscrew
  • Earthenware cassoulet dish
  • Fleur de sel de Gruissan (Guissan is where Didier Codorniou is from, just down the road from Narbonne)
  • Anything from Toulouse Rugby Club
  • Clothes from Eden Park

Marseille: France’s enfant terrible, a city of colour, Pastis and bouillabaisse

‘Unruly’ is a narrative that runs through its history. The rest of France often mocks the country’s second-largest city – it is rebellious, antagonistic and home to a mix of languages and cultures. As a result, it has developed a funny dialect and an even funnier accent. It is France’s version of Liverpool, only hotter and more exotic.

It is France’s oldest city, which has occupied its coastal position since 600BC when Greek settlers from Phocaea (modern-day Anatolia, Turkey) founded it. Back then, it was called Massalia. Immigration runs through Marseille’s history – the Greeks, Romans, Armenians and North Africans are all part of the city’s mix.

For much of France, it is an outsider. Marseille sits 500 miles to the south of Paris although culturally it is much further. Paris is ordered and chic with elegant avenues and fashionable boutiques, which are beautifully manicured for the bankers, businessmen and government officials who live there. Conversely, Marseille is scruffier in the way that a Mediterranean port should be. It is a working man’s/woman’s city and a gateway to the south, east and west. It gazes across the Mediterranean and looks out towards Africa.

But these characteristics make for an exhilarating, exotic city, where the sun and heat are intense and stretch out the days into the warm nights.

So don’t believe some of the derogatory comments and clichés about Marseille. I love this place. It is a cultural melting pot and refuses to be tamed. It receives over 4m visitors every year who clearly appreciate it too. I even hear the Parisians have started to leave the capital to live in Marseille, attracted by its light, sun and heat!

The great French writer Flaubert spent some time here in 1840 and wrote: ‘You feel something oriental there, you walk there with ease, you breathe happy, the skin expands and inhales the sun like a great bath of light.’

The picturesque Marseille Vieux Port is awash with restaurants, bars and boats, as well as traders selling their freshly caught fish on the eastern side (called Quai des Belges). If you have time, Marseille is a great base to visit other areas nearby: Cassis, Bandol, Toulon, Ile de Porquerolles, Port Cros, Saint Tropez, Cannes, to name but a few.

My favourite places to visit

  • Le Vieux Port (this is where the rugby festivities will happen)
  • Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the city’s best-known symbol overlooking the port from the south side
  • Parc National des Calanques(a splendid nature site where the Mediterranean meets the Massif des Calanques mountain range)
  • The colourful street of Le Panier
  • Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée
  • Fort St Jean next to the Vieux Port
  • Marseille’s soap museum

My favourite bars and restaurants

  • Tuba, 2 Bd Alexandre Delabre, 13008 Marseille
  • Maison Vauban, 109 Bd Vauban, 13006 Marseille
  • Au Bord de l’Eau, 15 Rue des Arapedes, 13008 Marseille
  • Café Cougee, 100 Boulevard Baille, 13005 Marseille
  • Les Grandes Halles du Vieux Port 

Gifts for partners at home

  • Marseille soap (savon de Marseille)
  • Bouillabaise or recipe book
  • Bandol wine
  • L’Espérentines chocolates
  • Pastis
  • A Pétanque Boules Set
  • Madeleines
  • Navettes

Nice: Chic with shimmering sea and piercing light

Nice is different from Marseille. It is orderly, polished and stylish but still diverse and you can see its Italian influences in the old city. The air is clean and the light piercing so it has attracted its fair share of artists over the years, such as Matisse.

In the narrow streets of old Nice you will be transported to Italy in squares such as Place Garibaldi, built at a time when Nice belonged to Italy. Entirely enclosed and pedestrianised, Place Rossetti is located in the heart of the old town too, its colours rich in red and yellow ochres. The wonderful Saint Reparata Cathedral is in the square.

Walk around to the Parc de la Colline du Chateau near the old port. The 92m high hill offers views from all sides.

Nice only became French in 1860. So in 1794 when an unknown French general called Napoleon Bonaparte came to Nice, he actually settled in Italy. Today Bonaparte Street is one of the major streets of the town in an area with a vibrant vibe and fashionable shops. Then a major of the ‘Armée d’Italie’ (and notoriously deprived of means), he joined his troops in Nice and settled at N° 6 rue de Villefranche near Place Garibaldi.

If it’s more exercise that you’re after then the Promenade des Anglais in 7km long. If time is limited, you could walk the first part through the old town and through the Jardin Albert 1er and Palais de la Méditerranée.

My favourite places to visit are

  • La Colline du Château, located on the hill overlooking Nice Old Town
  • Rue Bonaparte
  • Place Garibaldi
  • Place Rossetti
  • Place Masséna
  • Cours Saleya
  • Old port
  • Promenade des Anglais
  • Visits near Nice – head to Villefranche sur mer or Eze village, Saint Paul de Vence 

My favourite bars and restaurants

  • Bistrot Marin, 11 bis rue Grimaldi, Nice, 06000,
  • Chez Davia, 11 bis rue Grimaldi, Nice, 06000
  • Eau de Vie, 11 rue Delille, Nice, 06000
  • L’Atelier, 17 rue Gioffredo, Nice, 06000
  • Fine Gueule, 2 rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, Nice, 06300
  • La Merenda, 4 rue Raoul-Bosio, Nice, 06000
  • Bistrot d’Antoine, 27 rue de la Préfecture, Nice, 06300

Gifts for partners at home

  • Lavender
  • Bellet wine
  • Olive oil
  • Herbes de Provence
  • Linen (my wife loves it)

Loire Atlantique: Nantes

If you like fish and especially oysters and shellfish, then head here. It is a shucking pescatarian’s paradise.

Nantes may not be known as a big rugby centre, but some big, mythical matches have taken place here, notably the infamous Battle of Nantes at the Stade de Beaujoire back in 1986 when Buck Shelford had his scrotum torn open by a stray Frenchman’s boot. The French won and it went down in history as a violent but key victory just a few months out from selection for the first RWC in New Zealand in 1987.

Sean Fitzpatrick played in that match and told me: “It was a watershed moment for the All Blacks team as it ushered in some new players. We used the loss by bottling up that awful feeling of failure, and we made sure it didn’t happen again for many years. We talked about it a lot in the following few months and used it as motivation for beating them at the RWC final in 1987. ‘Remember Nantes’ was the team moto.”

Nantes is a beautiful city and regularly voted the most desirable place to live in France. It is arty, clean and prosperous with a cool, leafy centre of tech and design. Along with the Ile-de-Re and Basque Country, this is where Parisians want to live.

My favourite places to visit

  • Château des Ducs de Bretagne
  • The Medieval quarter
  • The covered market on Rue Talensac
  • Jardin des Plantes
  • Trentemoult, a former fishing village on the Loire River, known for colorful 3-story houses with red-tiled roofs, and gardens filled with palm trees

My favourite restaurant and bars

  • Lamaccotte, 7 Rue Saint-Denis, 44000 Nantes
  • Le Lion et L’agneau, 40 Rue Fouré, 44000 Nantes
  • Les Bouteilles, Rue de Bel Air, Nantes
  • Restaurant Art’N Blum, 10 Rue Léon Blum, 44000 Nantes

Gifts to take home to the family

  • Petit-Beurre Nantais
  • Gateau Nantais
  • Muscadet wine
  • A dozen oysters…
  • Les Bottereaux (sugary doughnuts)
  • Les rigolettes nantaises (sugar-coated jam-based sweets)

Lyon: France’s gastronomic capital

If I lived in Lyon for a month, I think I’d gain 10kg. No problem. Even if I exercised every day.

This is a beautiful, vibrant city which offers you more restaurants than your required daily calorie intake. Lyon has 4000 (and 21 certified bouchons or bistros). It is a hive of business, conviviality and gastronomic temptation. And I can resist everything but gastronomic temptation. Pack some larger jeans for the return home.

Not only is the city itself lovely, it is sandwiched at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône rivers, and is surrounded by some of the world’s greatest vineyards and wines. To the south lies the magnificent Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, St Joseph and others. To the north are the vineyards of Beaujolais.

As if that isn’t enough, you have the Alps to the east, the rivers and ravines of the Ardèche to the west, and the Mediterranean further south.

My favourite places to visit

  • Climb to the top of Fourvière Hill for the best views of the city from the spectacular Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière
  • St Antoine market
  • Old Lyon
  • Les Halles

My favourite restaurants and bars

  • Le Poivron Bleu, 12 Rue Professeur Weill, 69006 Lyon
  • Bouchon Les Lyonnais, 19 Rue de la Bombarde, 69005 Lyon
  • Café Comptoir Abel, Le Café Comptoir ABEL, 25, rue Guynemer, 69002 Lyon
  • Les Fines Gueules, 16 Rue Lainerie, 69005 Lyon, France
  • Le Bouchon des Filles, 20 Rue Sergent Blandan, 69001 Lyon
  • Café des Fédérations, 8-9-10 rue Major Martin – 69001 Lyon
  • Le Bouchon des Cordeliers, 15 RUE CLAUDIA 69002 LYON
  • Daniel et Denise Créqui, 156 rue de Créqui 69003 Lyon
  • Bulle – Restaurant de Fourvière – Guy Lassausaie, 9 Pl. de Fourvière, 69005 Lyon
  • Food Traboule, 22 Rue du Bœuf, 69005 Lyon

Gifts to take home to the family

  • Andouillette
  • Wine
  • Sausages
  • Saucisson

Saint-Etienne

I would love Le Stade Marcel-Michelin (Clermont Auvergne’s ground) to stage a World Cup match. It is the epicentre of rugby in the centre of France, so beloved by the people of the Massif Central. But capacity (and probably accessibility) meant that Saint Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was chosen instead.

If you know your sports and are of a certain age, you’ll associate St Etienne with football and the great Michel Platini. Les Verts were one of France’s finest teams in the 1960s and 70s.

St Etienne was historically a centre of mining and arms manufacture, but today it has reinvented itself as a centre of design.

I have only visited it once, about four years ago when I was en route to Clermont. I stopped off for a quick lunch before getting back on the A72 which sweeps its way across the beautiful Massif Central. It was a stunning drive.

If you have some time in Lyon and you love your wines, then I would recommend visiting Ampuis, Valence and Tain l’Hermitage all of which are fairly nearby.

My favourite places to visit

  • The Pilat Natural Regional Park
  • Rue des Martyrs de Vingre (plenty to eat and drink here)

Favourite restaurant and bars

  • A La Table des Lys, 58 Rue Saint-Simon, 42000 Saint-Étienne
  • Eclosion, 40 avenue du Château, 42740, Saint-Paul-en-Jarez
  • La Caleche, 2 place du Commandant-Marey, Saint-Bonnet-le-Château, 42380
  • Le Mangevins, Rue des Herbes 26600 Tain-l’Hermitage
  • Auberge de la Source, 70 Rue de la Mairie, 69420 Tupin-et-Semons
  • Le Bistrot à Vin de Serine, 16 Bd des Allées, 69420 Ampuis
  • Auberge de Crussol, Chemin de Beauregard, Saint-Péray, 07130
Saint-Charles-de-Borrome Cathedral in Saint-Etienne. Saint-Etienne, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes, France.

Gifts to take home to the family

  • Art and craft
  • Charcuterie
  • Wine

Lille: The Flemish jewel of France

Before I visited Lille, I always asked myself this question: why would any French person choose to live in Lille when you have an assortment of other stunning cities across France that seem much more attractive (wealthier, warmer, surrounded by wines, border the sea or boast great rugby teams). Think of Bayonne, Nantes, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Annecy, Nice, Marseille, Avignon, Perpignan, Brive, Chambery…the list goes on. But Lille?

However, when you see it, you realise preconceptions can be misconceptions. Lille is a town with a dying cloth industry to a must-see attraction for shoppers, diners and day trippers. The arrival of the Eurostar in 1994 helped revive its economic fortunes, and Lille has proven an impressive showcase of how to invest government money for the benefit of all.

French is spoken of course but there is a sort of dialect here too known as Picard. Or if that doesn’t test you, you could try Flemish, who ruled here until 1667.

You can still see Lille’s muscular industrial past which gives it some grit and urban charm. It did a stint as European capital of Culture in 2004, and it has undergone a renaissance so its centre is now a labyrinth of bars, brasseries and boutiques.

And of course, being under the influence of the Flemish in the past, there is a lot of beer here. Even on a damp, cold afternoon the pavement cafés are buzzing with drinkers and diners. 

My favourite places to visit

  • The Grand Place, showing the mix of French and Flemish classical architecture
  • Vieux Lille, where 17th and 18th-century merchants’ houses, with their fancy mouldings, are now elegant shops
  • Philippe Olivier’s cheese shop on Rue du Curé St Étienne
  • Lille Cathedral
  • Palais des Beaux-Arts
  • Saint Sauveur district

Favourite restaurant and bars

  • Paon d’Or on Rue de Béthune
  • Solange, 59 rue d’Isly, Lille, 59000
  • Sébastopol, 1 place de Sébastopol, Lille, 59000
  • Balsamique, 13 place du Général-de-Gaulle, Wambrechies, 59118
  • Barbue d’Anvers
  • Le Bloempot (restaurant from local ingredients)
  • N? (cool bar)
  • Chez la Vieille (traditional northern French brasserie)
  • La Capsule (craft beers)
  • JaJa (restaurant)

Gifts to take home to the family

  • Waffles
  • Beer

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