Posts tagged “France

Courchevel – Rappers, Hookers, Oligarchs and Lords

Review:

The biggest rip off in the French Alps.

Just don’t bother staying in Courchevel unless you are the type of person who thinks it’s cool to show off to your mates that you can afford to waste thousands of dollars in a hooker Disneyland.

Yes you can avoid the horrible restaurants and tacky nightlife by staying in some of the most gobsmacking chalets in the Alps, but there are awesome chalets in Switzerland so you’d be better going there instead.

The view from the Carlina

The reason, of course, that Courchevel 1850 has become Puerto-Banus-On-Ice is because it is very, very pretty. Some of the approach runs through the trees into the village past the old-school hotels and cafes are stunning, you do have access to the entire 3 Vallees, and it is without doubt the most beautiful of the resorts in the area.

However, in the same vein as has PB developed in the past decade,  Courchevel 1850 now attracts the most bedazzling of EuroTrash and their penchant for paying scantily clad beauties for sex.

Interestingly, like PB, Courchevel became The place to go decades ago for the moneyed and sometimes titled Brits, and so you also have the incongruity of seeing a few red-nosed, tweedy, British eccentric smoking cigars and guffawing into their Campari sodas – the only reason you don’t notice the same thing happening in Tuscany is that it’s just spread over too wide and area to make an impact.

My experience of Courchevel was thus:

Decided on last day of ski trip in the 3 Vallees that we wanted to stay longer. We wanted to see if Courchevel 1850 was worth the splurge, so we skied over after a week staying in Les Bruyeres in a very modest but well run chalet in a fantastic location, (We sent the luggage round by taxi).

We told our Coutts concierge in the morning that we wanted a room at a hotel which was ski-in, ski-out with a decent terrace – so they booked Le Courcheneige. Arrived there at around 5pm that afternoon after a wonderful day’s swooshing through snow, and drinking chocolat and vin chaud – fantastic trip over the mountains, and such a pleasure not to have to do it in a rush due to the usual impending return trip.

As soon as we saw the location we were a little worried as it is the highest up the mountain of any hotel and a long, long way from the village.

When we walked in we knew we were possibly making a bit of a blunder: huge hotel, reeked of chlorine from the swimming pool even in reception, and all the wood was so bright orange you wanted to wear sunglasses. Couple this first impression with the appearance of a pair of barrel-bellied Russian gents flip-flopping through the lobby in speedos, and we really began to wonder what our €800 (yes, that’s HK$8,000) suite was going to be able offer in recompense.

When we found our way to the room more hilarity ensued at the wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling tangerine coloured wood; orange, brown and yellow curtains; and the fret-saw madness that had taken place throughout the space. Totally dated and definitely not worth the kishty-cash.

Called lifestyle manager, told them they’d made a boo-boo and to sort it.

Thirty minutes later we were down at The Carlina which was very trad (made for the bufty Brits of old I presume), but at the centre of the village, was better value, and altogether a much better option.

We had the choice of Kilimandjaro, which is deeply trendy but again we felt it was a little bit too far to walk into the village of an evening and was €1200 (HK$12,000) a night. The Carlina was just (just?) €530 for the room, which was lovely, had a balcony and the pretty view above. The service was good (even if the concierge was a little deluded considering the restaurants he suggested), and it was quiet and refined. Definitely the right choice.

So, accommodation sorted out, now for supper.

We were recommended by the hotel concierge to visit an informal bistro, which was meant to be very good down in the village.  Oh my, how we were ripped off and treated like dirt!

The restaurant was La Saulire.

The waiters ignored us for 10mins before seating us, the maitre’d was obnoxious to the max until we ordered a bottle of Chateau Palmer ’90 and then he become so blindlingly obsequious it made me want to grind a lava-hot tartiflette into his simpering mug.

The food was breathtakingly overpriced and completely average (a dish of pasta with some truffle on it was going for €93), plus they’d stuffed far too many tables into the space available. The restaurant was chockablock with hookers and their johns making the evening all rather seedy, what the heavy stench of aftershave, cigar smoke, cheap hair-spray, and lasciviousness.

Round-Deux

Next evening we tried one of the two 2* Michelin restaurants in the village – Le Chabichou at the hotel of the same name.

Again, this was a very traditional hotel, it was all pink napkins, red roses on the table, and pastel carpets. Very nice, don’t get me wrong, but very old fashioned.

This is the restaurant where I learnt how not to order French food. When I know the chef is good (either by reputation or from a Michelin guide), I will usually order a tasting menu on the assumption that chef knows best. However, these are usually many courses long with at least three hidden extras, and as I felt as though I’d been stuffed like a Toulouse goose all week at the previous chalet I thought I’d order just a starter and main.

My God, the food was stodgy, I barely made it out alive! It was all foie-gras, pigs trotters, dauphinoise potatoes, grease, cheese, cream and hunks of meat. Maybe on another day I would have loved it, but I had to stop half way though as my liver was screaming and I’m pretty sure my pancreas had blown a gasket. So much for 2 Michelin stars, and so much for our romantic sojourn in Courchevel…

As you can see then, things weren’t going well.

For our final evening (which was rather earlier than first envisaged) we were pointed in the direction of another more informal dining location which I cannot even begin to remember the name of. I recollect that my beau wanted to eat pizza and we ended up in some stone-walled, velvet curtained gothic bar which served food as well. All very strange, and obviously unremarkable.

Safe to say I was done with Courchevel at this stage and was looking forward to a week in Paris.

I would never go back to stay in Courchevel 1850.  I love the skiing there, but now I’m actually competent I can ski there and back in a day, enjoy the runs and the lovely sun terraces, and then bounce back to the far more reasonable, honest and simple location of Reberty and Les Bruyeres (which is also close to one of my favourite restaurants in the whole, wide world - La Bouitte, and an order of magnitude better than Chabichou).

If I want to splurge I’ll return to St Moritz or Gstaad. At least you can hang with the old schoolers who teach you how to chop the top off a bottle of champagne with a sword and wear the same kit they did in the 60s, rather than these arrivistes who think class is a pair of Chanel skis, and fun is all about who can tell the worst story about what they paid their Belarusian hookers to do to each other when they were on their mega-yacht in Puerto Banus the previous summer…

No, no no. Done, done done.

Lyon, France: a few tips for this gastronomic heaven.

Lyon in January

There are two things I never realised about Lyon before I found myself there earlier this year.

1) The old city (Vieux Lyon) is a UNESCO heritage site.

2) It is the culinary capital of France.

These two facts together mean that Lyon is a great place to visit for a few days of eating, drinking and walking off the effects of said eating and drinking so that you can carry on eating and drinking.

The third lesser known fact about Lyon is that its hospitality industry workers run a close 2nd to those of Paris in the brusqueness stakes… Sheer, barefaced abuse in some cases. Pretty hilarious.

Being British, previously when I’d thought of France’s second city, images and emotions of Birmingham had sprung to mind, so it was a wonderful surprise to turn up and find such a pretty place.

Lyon again

So, here are some tips on where to stay, stuff-face and visit if you are in Lyon on a long weekend.

lyon basilica_causticcandyHotels:

There are really only two luxury/ boutique hotels in Vieux Lyon, and very few in the whole city which is a real surprise, and frankly this lack of choice is severely irritating.

We stayed in Villa Florentine, which I would quite happily blow off the face of the earth, massively overpriced and the rudest general manager I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The other is Hotel Cour des Loges.

In summary, Villa Florentine is in massive need of an upgrade, all rooms are desperately 80′s including suites, so not one room is value for money there.

In Cour des Loges, the lowest level of room you should even think of staying in is a Piazzetta room (lower than that and you are basically staying in a monk’s cell) and the standard rates for those start at €485.

If I were to go back to Lyon I probably stay at the Sofitel Bellecour, which is modern, comfortable and on the banks of the river in Vieux Lyon. It’s much less expensive than either of the two “boutique hotels” mentioned above, and sometimes that style vs cost equation comes out on the side of the established hotel chains.

Take my advice and give both Villa Florentine and Hotel Cour des Loges a wide birth.

Wherever you do end up, don’t opt to include breakfast. The point of holidaying in France is to eat that in cafés.

Pottering:

Just idly wandering around Vieux Lyon and the peninsula of Presqu’île is a very pleasant pasttime. There are lots of shops, galleries and countless cafes and bouchons. Even just strolling up and down the two river banks of the Rhône and Saône for a couple of hours is time well spent.

There is a fantastic street market along the riverbank of Quai St-Antoine every morning save Monday, selling everything from cheese to cider, chacuterie to snacks, Bresse chickens, truffles, vegetables, flowers and bread (closes by lunchtime). All from independent producers and farmers.  Quintessential French. Wonderful.

basilica-lyon2_causticcandyOne of the first stop-offs should be to take the fenicular to the top of Fouvière to see the Notre-Dame de Fouvière basilica. It’s a bit of an odd place, built close to the end of the 19th Century, so not even particularly old. It was privately funded, and is a great strapping piece of architecture built by some fervent Christians to put two fingers up to the socialists or something. Anyway it’s an amazing vantage point from which to see Lyon, and that view is great for informing you on where you fancy exploring next.

There is a lovely park cascading down the hill from the basilica and walking down to river level you get to see all sorts of nooks and crannies of the old town.

Don’t bother with the Museum of Automatons in Saint Georges – just not what I was hoping for. The Museum of Contemporary Art is definitely worth a looksee though.

Eating:

causticcandy_lyonNow we really get down to business.  The Bouchon is a particular type of brasserie that serves Lyonnais food. According to the Wiki entry there are authentic and non-authentic ones, with the authentic ones deemed to serve the most traditional Lyonnais cuisine with the correct atmosphere i.e. a Bouchon does not serve haute cuisine, in stuffy surroundings, it is more robust fare served in a congenial, simpler atmosphere. Not sure you really need to seek out all the authentic ones though, generally the ones we found were all really good.

I would heartily advise you to book ahead if you want to stand a chance of eating dinner out at the weekend in any half decent restaurant.

Auberge Rabelais- We (finally) ate on the Saturday night at this restaurant, apparently one of the oldest in Lyon, that we stumbled on after being turned away from a dozen others.

It’s very trad and a bit worn, but you couldn’t fault the food or wine, and there were groups of 10 turning up at 11pm at night and the proprietress was happy to keep on serving.

Paul Bocuse -This most eminent of chefs has a number of eateries around Lyon, his 3* Michelin restaurant is in the burbs, but he has a chain of 4 brasseries in Lyon itself Le Nord, l’Est, Le Sud, and l’Ouest, each serving a different type of French cuisine (food reasonably priced, but wine expensive).

Brasseries Georges- This seems like a popular and well regarded (if touristy) restaurant in Lyon. We were sent by our concierge who had apparently phoned ahead and ascertained that we wouldn’t need to wait more than 15mins for a table (you can’t book). When we arrived, we discovered that the wait would be at least 1.5hours, so hungry and pissed off, we caught a cab back into Vieux Lyon to try and find somewhere else, as there isn’t anywhere else around it to eat.

It was a huge venue though, very art deco and really bustling. I would not suggest this for couples, go if you are in a big group and fancy a raucous meal out.

Rue Mercière – one of the oldest streets in Lyon, has seen it’s ups and downs over the years, but since the 80s has become well known for it’s restaurants, especially a number of Bouchons.

Scoot along earlier in the day and maybe book for later that night at the one that takes your fancy.  There are a number of really beautiful venues, with Le Merciere being one of the top bouchons in all Lyon (we couldn’t get a table on a Sunday afternoon, which was a great shame).

bouchonauxvins_causticcandy_lyonLe Bouchon aux Vins- We spent a couple of lovely hours at this restaurant on a Sunday afternoon, part of Jean-Paul Lacombe’s clutch of 6 venues in Lyon, another of which is also on Rue Mercière - the rather splendid Bistro de Lyon. His Micheln 2* Leon de Lyon is in rue Plenèy not far away.

Bernachon – Maurice Bernachon is a very well respected chocolatier, and he has a tea-room alongside his shop. Nice place to rest up for 30mins.

Les Lyonnais Bouchon – Couple of nice venues in Vieux Lyon. I felt the food is a little on the pricey side, nice surroundings though and good place to sit and chill whether it’s brunchtime through to post dinners drinks.

Le 110 Vins – originally a wine bar set up by a guy who had recently trained as a sommelier. Pierre Many turned his bar into a restaurant a couple of years ago. It’s buried in Saint George, and he loves to introduce wine to his customers (he now has over 350 types in his cellar) and pair it with his dishes (which he experiments with a lot in his open kitchen).  I like it because it’s a place with a story, and Pierre was the friendliest guy we met in Lyon!

Sandwiched in between two of France’s most important wine regions (Beaujolais to the north and the Côtes du Rhône to the south), the city is stuffed with wineshops, and every restaurant has its favourite local producers, with everything served by carafe as well as by bottle.

The surrounding wine country means that you can spend many happy days roaming the area visiting wineries, and there are many, many fabulous restaurants out in the countryside too.

Lyonnais cuisine is really good, my favourite specialities were the St Marcellin cheese, which was a revelation as a dessert, and the Lyonnais sausage which has that slightly fermented taste rather like Laotian sausage. I also enjoyed the pike quenelles, and it was great to have puy lentils with lots of dishes, kind of old fashioned but scrumptious.

I’d go back to Lyon in a heartbeat, but I would definitely book ahead on the restaurant front, as it was frustrating not being able to eat at the places we wanted to.

I think also that I’d try and go for 4-5 days and split my trip between staying in Lyon and staying out somewhere in wine country, because there are some fabulous hotels with great restaurants of their own (or should that be fabulous restaurants with hotels of their own?) – not least George Blanc in Vonnas, and Troisgros in Roanne, both run by 3* Michelin chefs.

Lyon is a really exciting place to visit if you are a foodie, it was a huge surprise for me and I’d definitely recommend it as somewhere a bit different to go for a weekend away.

Skiing in France’s 3 Valleés – Courchevel vs Les Menuires

Review:

I’ve been skiing in the 3 Valleés for three years now, and so far out of my limited experience of other ski-areas (Crans Montana and surrounding area of Valais, and St Moritz both in Switzerland being the only other places I’ve been), I really do enjoy the vast number of runs and different locations I can ski to in this area of the French Alps.

I should also point out that I am very much a recreational skier – Sunshine Club rather than Extreme Team if you catch my drift. Blue runs are my favourite, but I’m happy to go on reds if it means getting to a great restaurant, but I’m not happy on blacks at all.  And that is what is so great about the 3 Valleés: I can get to all the same places a my Extreme Team mates, but I can go on Blues and Reds instead of Blacks.

Here are the other things I really appreciate about the 3 Valleés:

1) It’s bloody huge.

2) If the weather or snow is bad in one valley, it’s often better in another and you can get there easily.

3) Different valleys suit different pockets, so you can stay in cheaper resorts (Les Menuires/Val Thorens) but enjoy the facilities, restaurants and pistes in the upmarket resorts (Meribel/Courchevel).

4) It’s easy to get to from a number of airports – Geneva, Lyon, Chambery or Grenoble, and it’s also very accessible by train at Bourg St Maurice.

5) It’s great for all levels of skier.

Where to stay:

I’ve stayed in Courchevel and Les Menuires which are as opposite as you can get. Courchevel is Eurotrashtastic and ludicrously overpriced, but 1850 where we stayed is very, very pretty.

Courcheval - pretty, but dumb expensive

Courchevel - pretty, but dumb expensive

Les Menuires is very 18/30, it’s the cheapest of the resorts and not pretty at all.

Les Menuires - not very pretty but reasonably priced and convenient

Les Menuires - not very pretty but reasonably priced and convenient

However, I would stay in the Les Bruyeres end of Les Menuires over Courchevel every time unless money was really no object and I could stay in Hotel Kilimandjaro or one of it’s affiliated chalets and have my own chef.

Some of the best skiing in the 3 Valleés is in Val Thorens, the highest of the resorts, and Les Menuires is next door to it, whereas Courchevel is 3 valleys away.

Les Menuires’s pistes stay sunnier later into the day than either Courchevel or Meribel (in fact Meribel’s slopes dip into shadow fairly early), Les Menuires is cheap to stay in and has easy access to what I think is the best restaurant in the whole 3 Valleés – La Bouitte.

Plus, if you stay in either Reberty or Les Bruyeres, not only are you in the quietest and low-rise part of the resort, you also have access to the best restaurants and you are also on the doorstep of the best lift in the Valley – Les Bruyeres for the quickest and easiest access to both Val Thorens and Meribel.

Here are my picks of Cafes/Restaurants:

In and around Les Menuires:

La Croisette:  L’Oisans in the Croisette is very reasonably priced for lunch (self service, no faff, Savoyarde food), it’s right at the bottom of the slope in La Croisette and has a big outside terrace, so it’s good for a meeting spot.

Reberty: La Ferme – very much the place to go for the end of day Vin Chaud. Very large terrace and friendly waiters – although as it gets very busy you do have to grab waiters when you can (tip em big the first round of drinks and tell them to keep em coming). A lot of the chalet hosts and ski instructors come down here, I think mainly because they serve Vin Chaud in pint glasses for €4 or €5 a pop. Also does very good lunches, and is nice and sunny at that time of day.

Les Bruyeres: Both Marmite de Geant and Les Marmottes either side of the ice rink are good value for lunch or dinner, one of them has a terrace as well.  Both serve traditional savoyarde food – it’s all tartiflette, big salads, raclettes and fondues.

For Sunshine Club skiers: At the top of the Roc des Trois Marche 1 lift there is a nice new cafe that has bundles of deck-chairs out front, has a great view and sunshine til late afternoon. Great for a chocolat chaud mid-morning or an espresso after lunch. Again, La Ferme at Reberty is good for a sunny stop off. In Les Bruyeres there is a new sun terrace at the restaurant right by the main Les Bruyeres lift. It’s a bit pricier than other places though.

St Marcel: La Bouitte – the best restaurant in the 3 Valleés, and only a 15 min taxi ride from Les Menuires, or if the snow is good – navigable off piste.

Val Thorens:

Funitel Peclet: Up at the top of the Funitel Peclet there is a restaurant on the right that has a couple of terraces – upstairs and downstairs.  The upstairs terrace gets the best of the sun and there is also a cosy interior (It’s also waiter service rather than downstairs which is self service and a bit sparse).  It’s pretty damn high up so it can get chilly outside, but they do serve very good goulash soup!  More importantly the Funitel Peclet lift takes you onto my favourite ski-run in the 3 Vallees: the blue run Dalles – non stop sweeping turns, can go hell for leather, it’s really wide and lovely.

Chalet du 2 Lacs: Up at the top of the 2 Lacs chair lift it’s a little further away from the madding crowds.  I really like the interior of this restaurant – puts me in mind of a viking banquet hall (animal heads, soaring ceilings, lots of wood) and there are huge windows overlooking Les Menuires and down the valley to St Martin de Belleville. Standard Savoyarde fare, but we thought very decent. The runs down into Val Thorens from here are great blues and you can also go all the way to Les Menuires from here when the snow is good, rather than having to go all the way back up to the top of Col de la Chambre.

Meribel: Les Darbollets for lunch.  Really pretty spot on the Rhodos/Dorons runs near Rond Point. Looks out over the valley on one side and down into the forest on the other and catches the midday sun wonderfully. Bit more expensive and upmarket that a lot of the other restaurants on the pistes, but very nice, and maybe because of the price, not so busy.

For my experience in Courchevel, read the dedicated post here.

La Bouitte – Best Restaurant in the 3 Vallées (with rooms to boot)

Review:

Surprisingly there aren’t that many Michelin star restaurants in France’s les 3 Vallées, but of the two that I’ve been to, La Bouitte is just gorgeous (the other one I’ve been to is the 2 star Chabichou in Courchevel and La Bouitte beats it hands down in my opinion).  It’s in the tiny hamlet of St Marcel between St Martin de Belleville and Les Menuires.

la bouitte

Father and son chef team René and Maxime Meilleur exploit the flora and fauna of the Savoie region and change their menu not only according to what’s in season, but also according to what they are experimenting with in the kitchen. There is nothing pretentious about this place, the staff want you to have a good time, even if you are a bunch of 12 Brits (which lets face it in France, you don’t always get a welcome…). It’s just lovely.

The restaurant is in a beautiful old converted farmhouse (sort of nouveau trad inside, all wood and fretwork, but not twee), the service and sommelier are impeccable, and the wine cellar a joy to behold (you can go and explore down below stairs, wandering along pebble paths – it’s very cool).  They have 8 bedrooms and a great terrace with a jacuzzi as well as a spa so, it’s a fabulous place to stay, and all a couple of km from the ski-lifts.

If you are staying in any of  3 Vallées resorts you could get here for lunch by skiing down to St Martin de Belleville and getting a taxi (bearing in mind the lifts shut at 4pm in St Martin), or if the snow and you are good enough you can ski to the door off-piste. However, the resort it’s most accessible from is Les Menuires – it’s just a 15min taxi ride.

Like a lot of good restaurants, it’s always a great idea to go for the tasting menu, and La Bouitte is no exception. Course after course of beautifully presented and exquisite food, with the odd surprise amuse bouche and palette cleanser thrown in.  This being France and a fromage producing region they have a cheese trolley to die for, and I would always suggest going for the cheese rather than a dessert option with a tasting menu, as you will be served a small sweet surprise anyway as part of it.

The meal rates in my top three of all time.  The food was excellent, the wine was excellent, the service was excellent, the location and venue are just lovely and the company was fantastic (always important!). I spent €93 (HK$1000) which I thought very reasonable as it included a very generous amount of wine, and an appreciative tip (I recall that the set menu was about €55 of that).

Location: Hotel Restaurant La Bouitte – Hameau de St Marcel – 73440 St Martin de Belleville – France. Tél. : +33 (0)4 79 08 96 77.

Open: La Bouitte is open all year round, and I would love to go and stay during the summer as the countryside is breathtaking, the air is crystal clear and the hiking fantastic. (Can I get any more superlatives in this post?!)