Outside the Boulangerie du Palais on the corner of rue St-Jean and the rue du Palais de Justice a queue is forming, an alien concept in contemporary France where queuing ranks alongside a rugby maul in terms of finesse. My situation is not at ease with the sight of so much patience and order, and my train of thought rebounds for a moment on the knowledge that the word 'queue' is also a mot argot reference to an intimate and size-variable item of a man's anatomy.
It's all very disconcerting.
Divided into three – St Paul to the north, St Jean in the centre and St Georges in the south – Vieux Lyon was once the seat of government and commerce, a place where those of wealth – traders, bankers and minor royalty – rubbed shoulders (or cocked a snook) as they to-and-fro'd between their elegant 15th-17th-century town houses. More than 300 such mansions are still to be found – including one that today sees service as an Indian restaurant! – scattered about this enclave of very narrow passageways, known as traboules, wherein anyone not on intimate terms with the Fat Pill will have difficulty manoeuvring. The same holds true for cars, especially anything larger than a Twingo that tries to negotiate the tight corners made all the more hazardous by adherents of that popular and widespread French contact sport called 'Parking the car'.
The traboules, hazards notwithstanding, are a fascination not to be missed, incontournables in the local parlance. Built perpendicular to the Saône, they were the solution to lack of sufficient space in which to develop a conventional network of streets, by linking the various buildings together. No visit to Lyon would be complete without a journey into Vieux Lyon, approaching, preferably, from the north-east, past the Marché des Bouquinistes along the quai de la Pêcherie, over the pont La Feuille and then either forward to place Saint Paul or down along the true right bank of the river, where artisanal stallholders offer fine jewellery, paintings, sculptures, fabrics, knitwear and boundless opportunities to improve your colloquial French with a bit of eavesdropping or stallholder banter.
Numerous street corner cafés do a roaring trade in coffee and croissants, and provide refuge for those who come in to read the free daily newspapers while surreptitiously eating their own food when 'Madame' is not looking. At every turn, the alleyways break into little squares where ageing buildings lean companionably on one another like old friends, which, of course, they are. From a distant corner the sound of an accordion squeezing 'The Girl from Ipanima' from its bellows flows around the buildings, giving voice to the gentle breeze rising from the river. And the sudden smell of waffles interrupts the comforting dreaminess places like this instil in me; places that so emphatically proclaim that 'This is France'.
Having zigzagged back to rue St-Jean over the course of an hour, I found the baker's queue still much in evidence. It was very disturbing; not at all French-like. Either the baker was on a go slow and it was the same people still waiting, or there was a rapid turnover in sugary beignet soufflé et sucré de pâte à choux frite (doughnuts), known very colloquially as pet de nonne, or nun's fart...but don't ask for them by that name.
Perhaps it was the aroma drifting from the boulangerie, or the chiming of stomach o'clock, but I was overcome by a sudden longing for lunch. Thankfully, among many well-appointed and pricey looking establishments round about, I found 'Un, Deux, Trois' on place Neuve Saint-Jean, a 20-cover Bouchon Lyonnais, a delightful little place offering, as the name suggests, three set menus, the most of which I most definitely made in spite of being reprimanded for not eating all my Salade Lyonnaise. There was about it that quintessential atmosphere that brings you to Hidden France, embracing simplicity, authenticity and good food; it doesn't say that anywhere, but it should, and from the barrage of air kisses that flowed every time the door opened it was clear that this was a popular place with locals in the know. So much so, that – and I don't think I've witnessed this anywhere else – a queue started forming outside the door, as people waited for others to vacate their tables.
But, to the 'Un, Deux, Trois' background of 1950s and 1960s music – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochrane, Little Eva, the Everly Brothers and Chubby Checker getting himself in a twist – I had a destiny, with Iles Flottantes, the calorie-free version, of course.
Back at the boulangerie the queue was still there, coming up to three hours since I first passed. Order was restored, mercifully, when I reached the funiculaire for Fourvièvre, and the 'queue' for these little trains reverted to type: baguette-wielding Ninja-grannies, arms and elbows akimbo, stern faces and trampled toes...that's more like it!
But that's quite another story.