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Trip Report, France: Lyon, Roanne, Ecole des Trois Ponts, Provence (Luberon & Vauclause)

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This is a trip report on our recent trip to France, visiting Lyon, Roanne, the Ecole des Trois Ponts, and Provence (Luberon & Vauclause). It's a continuation of my Europe Forum thread "On the road in Lyon, Ecole des Trois Ponts, and Provence", which can be found at:

I thought it better to start another thread so that the title would make it clear that it's a trip report.

I'll gradually add to this as time allows. We're still a bit jet-lagged, and stuff we unpacked is spread around the house, so it will probably take some time before to get it all down. Both Margie and I (Larry) post under the name "justretired", so we'll try to identify who wrote each entry.

If I can find the time, I'd love to write in this thread about the various places we visited, including both the towns and the restaurants. I also have comments on driving in France to add to those I've already made while "on the road". In the course of two weeks, I gradually got better and better at it, especially as I came to understand the conventions of the signage. But we did get lost a few times. One tip: always carry a compass, especially at night. I'll also post some comments about our interactions with the French, whom we found to be friendly, welcoming, and gregarious (and I'll add some theories about why this was the case).

We loved this trip, and will probably sound enthusiastic about most of the places we visited. We'll give contact information where appropriate. But be assured that we have no commercial interest in any of the places we're reporting on.

- Larry

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    L'École des Trois Ponts, part 1: the accomodations

    I may have more to say later about the city of Lyon, but let me start with l'École des Trois Ponts, as a number of Fodorites have expressed an interest in it (see

    I'll start with the accommodations, and move on to the lessons in Part 2.

    All the students live in the Château de Mâtel, and take all their meals there. There are guest rooms of various sizes. We paid a premium for a larger room, and were glad we did, as it was a very large corner room, and it turned out that some of the rooms are very small. We also had good internet access, a DSL line, and the keyboard could be switched to an English layout. You write down the time you use, and pay a nominal fee at the end, or for a ten euro premium, you get unlimited access (we did that).

    We all spoke only French at meals, eating at a communal table of ten (the nine students, and there was one staff member at each meal). Conversation was entirely in French, and the staff member helped us with any linguistic problems. Breakfasts were fairly basic "continental" breakfasts, but cereal and fruit were usually also available. Some students complained about not having fresh croissants each day; those only appeared one day of the six. Lunches were hearty, but not particularly gourmet, although there were interesting local dishes (like quenelle, a dumpling, different from others I'd had before).

    The dinners were all very good, and interesting. Two of the students were taking cooking classes in the afternoon, and they were always involved in preparation of the dinner. The cooking classes are usually given in English, but in this case, with only two students who preferred French, they were done in French. The first and main courses were uniformly very good. They were always followed by a cheese course, in which the chef, Daniel, presented five new cheeses each day, giving a bit of background on each, as well as telling us how to cut them. We thus got exposed to 30 cheeses in the course of the week. This was always followed by a great dessert, and assorted wines were served.

    There's a refrigerator from which you can get various cold drinks, and extra wine if you'd like wine beyond what is included during the meals. You write down what you take, and are charged at the end. Other than that and the internet, there are no extras. When we settled the bill at the end, all we paid for were two aprons that we had purchased, and the ten euros for the unlimited internet access. There were no other extras. A washer and dryer, including soap for the washer, are provided for free. This allowed us to easily do a laundry just before leaving, taking care of our laundry needs for the entire trip.

    - Larry

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    L'École des Trois Ponts, Part 2: The lessons

    We spent a week in their General French course. We each had 19 hours of group instruction in French: three hours on each of five mornings, and two hours on Monday and Thursday afternoon. The other afternoons were free.

    There were only nine students our week, about half the maximum capacity. The dollar is not doing well, and perhaps there is less travel to France for political reasons. Six were Americans, two Canadian, and one German. One of the students was taking private lessons, leaving only eight for the group lessons.

    We were interviewed on Monday morning by Valérie, and divided into two groups of four. Since there were only two groups, the spread of ability within each group might have been a bit wider than if there were four groups, but I thought it worked out pretty well in the end (there will always be some compromises in a group lesson). As expected, I was in the more Advanced group, and Margie in the Intermediate group. There were no beginners that week. One of the students in the Advanced group decided after the initial lesson to switch to private lessons. She was the most advanced student, a Canadian who had attended university classes at the Université de Laval in Quebec, and thus was nearly bilingual (but with a strong Quebec accent).

    I thought the teaching was very well done. My instructor, Pascal, questioned us in the first session to find out what our individual interests were. He referred to these notes frequently during the week, and was careful to hit the areas where we needed help. He typically went around the students systematically on each topic, giving each of us a chance to speak. I'm pretty fluent in French, but the week exposed many errors I was making, and areas in which I was using English constructions that were grammatically correct, but not particularly idiomatic. We also did comprehension exercises from a video as part of each lesson, which helped tune my ear for listening (French is a language in which it's particularly hard to separate the words in a spoken stream). It was a very worthwhile week for me.

    I think Margie will report separately on her experience, which was also good.

    We selected this school because it took care of the accommodations, the meals, and the lessons all together, and because of the immersion in French, and the communal château life. We were very happy with our choice - we thought it worked out well. Check out the school's web site at In addition to French, you can take cooking classes there in English, or a combination of both, and other events are organized from time to time (such as wine tours).

    - Larry

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    Thanks for the report, Larry. The school sounds like something I would really enjoy. I'm going to look into it for a future trip. Look forward to the rest of your report.

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    Margie's report on Ecole des Trois Ponts:

    Larry's description of 3 Ponts is accurate, but I thought some of you might like a report on my experiences at 3 Ponts. I have been studying French for several years, and have wanted to have the opportunity to become more comfortable with conversation. I am an artist and quite visual- written French is much easier for me than understanding and speaking it. My accent is decent and my grammar is good, but the spontaneity needed to have conversations has eluded me. It was with this objective that I decided to participate in an immersion program.

    I was quite nervous when we first arrived and I realized that, indeed, everyone would be speaking French. Rene, the director, gave the introductory tour in French. I don't know what he would have done if there had been a beginner in the group- I gather things are quite different when that happens.

    As Larry said, there were 9 people at the school during our week, and I had 4 students in my class. We were all at somewhat different levels, but each had our own strengths and weaknesses, and complemented each other well. Each of us had learned our French different ways. For example, one of the students had a purely conversational approach to her learning- she had a private tutor at home, and had learned her French essentially through conversation- sort of Berlitz style. She was able to speak a lot, but had poor grammar and did not know many tenses. Another student was German and French was her third language. Even with this difference in approach and experience, Valerie, our instructor was able to comfortably organize and run the class,. Truly professional, she was well prepared, patient, kind, and just plain fun. She was extremely positive and supportive, and I quickly became comfortable in class. Our class focused on speech (both oral and comprehensive) while reviewing grammar and structure. The 3 hours in the morning and the 2 hour evening classes were well paced and enjoyable. We alternated written activities, listening to tapes, and participating in class discussions. There was a little "homework" 3 nights, but it was easily managed and not difficult.

    As I said, I became increasingly comfortable in class. I began to speak more readily and understood more and more what Valerie was saying. A highlight of the week came when I realized on Thursday that I was no longer completely translating Valerie's French into English - somehow, I was understanding the French directly. It was a pleasant surprise!

    Meals were sometimes difficult for me. I am a social andoutgoing person, but I found that it was hard to be gregarious in a foreign language. I sometimes became tongue-tied and quite fatigued. I lapsed into English with the other students from my class, but really tried for the most part to "stay" in French. By the third day, it became easier for me, and a glass of wine at dinner helped. Everyone was patient and supportive and I increasingly became more comfortable. Larry was surprised one day to look over at me and see me conversing in French with a student quite animatedly. The staff member at the table during meals helped and added to the enjoyment of the meals. And the food was excellent- particularly, I thought, the entrée and dessert at dinner (remember that in France, the entrée is the appetizer). I loved the cheese course- 5 different cheeses each night! Of course, Daniel discussed the cheeses in French, so I missed a bit of the discussion, but I got the gist of it all.

    Rene encourages the students to explore and appreciate the area. He has several printed "tours" depending on time and interest. We enjoyed exploring the area and the town. The small art museum is quite good. There was an interesting and attractive show on ceramic animals while we were there. The director of the school arranged an afternoon for Larry and me to visit a local artist at her studio. We sat in her garden under her blooming wisteria, drank tea, and talked about art and politics. The French love to talk politics- especially, these days, US policy and the up-coming elections. Her art was delightful and interesting, and we passed a truly lovely afternoon there.

    The week at 3 Ponts served to energize my interest in French and my capability to speak it. I would recommend the program whole-heartedly. It was a wonderful way to become immersed in French in a safe and comfortable way.

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    Provence: The Luberon

    Continuing the trip report: After leaving l'Ecole des Trois Ponts, we drove south into Provence. It didn't seem reasonable to return to Lyon to pick up the highway (the A7). Instead, we took a diagonal down to St. Etienne to pick up the highway further south. Driving southeast from St. Etienne on the N82 took us up over the "Col de la République", which hits an altitude of 1162 meters. Essentially, we drove up into the clouds. What had been just a partly cloudy day became dense fog, which left us creeping along the narrow road at about 30 km/hr. This continued for about half an hour, until we dropped down the other side. We stopped for lunch in a totally random restaurant in Bourg Argental. It was quite good, at 20 euros.

    We stayed four days each at two B&Bs in Provence, and enjoyed them both. The first, in the Luberon region, was Le Clos du Buis, in Bonnieux, in the town, part way up the hill. Our room had a fabulous view for miles around, including the ruined castle of the Marquis de Sade in Lacoste, lit up at night. Our host, Pierre Maurin, was very accommodating. Strangely, I never met Lydia Maurin, although I spoke to her several times on the phone. Her English is excellent. I don't know about Pierre - I always spoke to him in French.

    Our dinners in Bonnieux on successive nights were at Le Tinel, La Cavette, at the B&B, and at Le Fournil. Le Fournil is reputed to be the best restaurant in Bonnieux, and we had phoned from Roanne and made reservations there well in advance. I could go into more detail on the meals if people are interested (I recorded what we ate at the restaurants). The meal at the B&B was very good, and the meals at all three restaurants were excellent. Le Tinel was the best value of the three. I think the meals at La Cavette and Le Fournil were a bit better, but they were both quite expensive. In particular, Le Fournil cost more than reported by Fodor's: it was 36 euros for a 3-course dinner.

    We spent our days visiting various local villages. On Sunday, we went to the market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, had lunch there, and then took the tour at the Abbaye de Senanque (the only place on the trip where we had no cell phone coverage with our Orange "Mobicarte"). Then back a short way to Gordes. On Monday, we tried to visit the Roman ruins in Glanum, but it is closed on Mondays, something which seemed to have escaped our guidebooks. Instead, we visited the nearby hospital where Vincent Van Gogh stayed shortly before his death, which was quite interesting. Then into St. Rémy de Provence, where we drove completely around the town three times following circular signs to the Tourist Office. It turned out that the tourist office was under construction, and had been temporarily relocated, but not all the signs had caught up with this. Lunch at L'Apostrophe, which had been recommended by Fodorites (nice salads). We then drove into Avignon to pick up a friend who now lives in England, so now we were three people.

    Tuesday to Lacoste, to climb up to the castle. Then on to Roussillon, a very picturesque perched village, including the fascinating and visually stunning "Sentier des Ocres", a walk that shows the various red, orange, and yellow stone formations the village is built upon.

    A minor disaster occurred there: the SD Memory card in Margie's camera suddenly failed - the camera reported the card to be "not formatted", when in fact it had over 100 pictures on it, mostly from our week in Roanne. We pulled it and plugged in a new card which we had bought in France (for twice the price we paid for the same card at Costco before leaving). Later, a camera store in France was also unable to read the card ("Not formatted"). Skipping to the end of the story, though: after returning, we brought the card into our local photo store here in Wayland, MA, and using special software for this purpose, they were able to recover most of the photos.

    To be continued below.

    - Larry

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    Provence: the Vaucluse

    After four nights in Bonnieux, on Wednesday, we drove a bit north to Mazan in the Vaucluse region, where we stayed at Le Mas de Cante-Perdrix, run by Laraine and Sean Dunn (she's English, he's American, but they've lived in France for years, and both speak French fluently). A "mas" is a provencale farm, which this building originally was. If you walk back to the pool, you have a great view of Mont Ventoux. After checking in, we still had the afternoon, and drove to Orange, where we saw the Gallo-Roman theater, which is very impressive. We returned to Cante-Perdrix, where the dinner, prepared by Laraine, was also impressive - one of the best dinners we had on the trip, and this trip had a lot of good dinners. The entrée (what we'd call the "appetizer" in the US) was a medley of tomato dishes, using tomatoes from their own garden: a long tomato, stuffed with herbed ricotta; baked cherry tomatoes and herbed goat cheese on toast, and a tomato-based cold soup. This was followed by Rouget (red mullet) with tapenade (an olive paste) in a puff pastry shell (it's a mystery how the fish and the shell manage to each get cooked properly). The desert was figs from their own tree, in a crème fraiche. We chatted with Laraine and Sean into the evening.

    Thursday: drove to Vaison-la-Romaine, and walked up into the old city, eating lunch at a crêperie on the way down. We saw some interesting stuff in shops on the way up into the old (upper) city, but figured it made no sense to carry stuff up that we could buy on the way down. Oops, pretty much all the shops closed between 12:30 and 2:30 or even 3:00.

    We then backtracked a bit to Le Crestet, another perched village, where we also walked to the top (Provence builds the legs). From there we set out on really small gravel roads towards Seguret, to get a closer look at the Dentelles. These are a group of striking jagged mountains. The word "dentelle" means "lace", but is derived from "little teeth" (the French for tooth is "dent", obviously related to the English word "dentist"). The derivation of "dentelle" for lace seems to be through related words referring to perforations (made by little teeth). It's not clear to me if Les Dentelles derive their name from the lacy appearance of their mistral-eroded rock, or from the toothy profile of their ridges.

    The small gravel roads between Le Crestet and Seguret are only about one car wide. This didn't matter much, since there were no other cars on them. But they did have barely perceptible intersections, in which other small gravel roads went off in various directions. These were signposted with the usual arrow signs, only they were wooden miniatures of the usual French directional signs. Descending toward Seguret, we met a tractor towing a load of grapes, coming up in the opposite direction. He pulled right up to me, making it clear that he had no intention of backing up (or more likely, he couldn't, as it's hard to back up on a narrow road when you're towing something, and he was too long to pull off the road anyway). I backed uphill to a place where I could pull off the road and let him pass. On to Gigondas and Beaume de Venise, where our English visitor bought some of the local wines.

    Friday: drove to the market in Carpentras, following Sean's detailed directions to find parking. Side note: the "s" in Gigondas is pronounced; the "s" in Carpentras is not (go figure). The Carpentras market is probably as big as the market in Ile-sur-la-Sorgue, although it lacks the antiques. We met vendors we'd bought stuff from at Ile-sur-la-Sorgue the previous Sunday. We then returned to tour Avignon. Since we had to drop our friend at the station for his return to the UK, and we'd chosen to spend time at the Carpentras market, we had limited time. We had a short lunch, skipped the tour of the Popes' Palace, and just took the tour of the famous bridge ("Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse", etc.)

    Now back to two people, Saturday was our final full (non-travel) day in Provence. We decided to go up to Vaison-la-Romaine for the second time, and go through the Gallo-Roman ruins which we'd missed the first time. It was a rather hot day - it hit 26 degrees Celsius, and was pretty toasty in the treeless ruins. We ate lunch at the Festival Café, where I had a great Bouillabaisse.

    Back in Mazan, we watched the trucks unloading their grapes at the vineyard a little up the road from our B&B, "Les Vins de Canteperdrix" (the B&B hyphenates it, the vineyard doesn't). There was no dinner at the B&B that night, so we had a good dinner in nearby Carpentras at "Chez Serge", a well-reviewed and excellent restaurant.

    We ultimately dropped our car in Avignon, and took the TGV back to Lyon for our return to the US.

    Margie and I have now both reported on the Ecole des Trois Ponts, and this report covers the Provence portion of our trip. Let me know if you have any particular questions, or want elaboration on any points. I might at some point also say a few words about Lyon, a charming city with lots to see, and excellent restaurants, the only portion of our trip I haven't yet talked about.

    - Larry

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    Thanks so much for all
    your information on the school!
    I too want to take french classes
    in France to learn to speak better on my
    trips. I am a beginner and have listened to tapes for years-pretty much my education. I do find that
    I have learned alot but nothing
    is like being force to speak to
    finally get it into your head.
    Merci beaucoup!

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    I've posted some other thoughts that came out of our recent trip. I put these on two separate threads, because I thought they might be of interest to people who might not be interested in my trip report. These are:

    "The Friendly French", posted as:

    "Driving in France: some tips", posted as:

    I thought these might generate some discussion independant of my trip report.

    - Larry

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    Still enjoying your report! I was in Provence last May, also staying a few days in the Luberon, and then a few more in the Vaucluse (Vaison-la -Romaine). Would love to hear more about your stay in Lyon - I will be going there in 2 weeks, after a stay in Strasbourg and the Alsace area.

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    Sue4, I'll try to get around to posting on Lyon in the next few days.

    Before we left, Margie gathered up assorted Lyon restaurant recommendations, mostly from Fodor's. She put these into a Word file, which we carried with us. If you send a request to me at "", and include your e-mail address, I'd be happy to send you a copy as an attachment. It also includes a list of Lyon Internet cafés, and short lists of what to do and what to buy in Lyon. It was cut and pasted from the forum and other sources, so it's a bit crude in places, but it contains a lot of information on Lyon. It's in Microsoft Word 2003 (PC) format.

    - Larry

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    Thanks for the great report. Glad to hear you had a good time in Provence. We took my mother for a surprise birthday trip to the Vaucluse region in March this year and had a fabulous time visiting a few of the places you mention, and we too had an excellent dinner at Chez Serge in Carpentras, where we drank a wonderful white Chateauneuf du Pape and ate quail fillets.

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    I've posted some comments on deciphering French menus, which I put in a separate thread once again, because it's general information that might be of interest to people not interested in this trip report. I recommend the Patricia Wells food glossary, which can be downloaded from the web. The thread is:

    hanl, it mentions some of the menu items we enjoyed at Chez Serge. Glad you had a good time there as well. We followed your recommendations religiously in Lyon, and were very pleased with all of them.

    - Larry

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    I'll finish my trip report with a few words about Lyon. Very few, because we really didn't spend much time there. It was not a destination for us, just a stopping point on the way to Roanne when we arrived, and a place to spend the night before our departure. We spent only one full day there, and two afternoons, the first of which we spent sleeping. In all, we ate two lunches and three dinners in Lyon. We arrived there with many restaurant suggestions, the majority from the Fodorite "hanl", who knows the city well.

    So since we weren't that focused on Lyon, we were a bit surprised to find it to be a really charming city. On our one full day there, we spent the morning in the old city touring old passages and courtyards called "traboules". We then took a funicular up to the basilica, and after touring it, walked down through gardens and parks. Then we took a boat ride down the Saône and up the Rhône.

    Clearly, there's a lot more to do in Lyon - museums, churches, etc, but we didn't get to any of it. Perhaps if we're back in the area again, we'll spend more time there.

    Lyon is a fabulous city for restaurants. There are a few pedestrian streets lined with restaurants, and people stroll around looking at menus, selecting whatever appeals to them. People were walking around at all hours of the evening, even on streets that were mostly deserted, and you got the impression that the city was very safe. Other restaurants are dotted all over the city.

    The restaurants we ate at were:

    Le Brasserie des Célestins. It's a small neighborhood brasserie. We ate lunch there on our arrival, selecting it because it is practically next door to our hotel, the Hôtel des Artistes. We were tired and hungry, and lunch time was coming to a close. Our meals were quite nice, and the service was excellent, and very friendly. I had sole meunière and tarte aux framboise, Margie had a salade niçoise and crème brulée, and the total came to under 32 euros.

    Le Mercière: After napping for a few hours, and then walking around a bit, we chose Le Mercière for dinner. It's an authentic bouchon lyonnais, a traditional type of Lyon restaurant that serves local specialties (there are only a small number of official bouchons, but many others claim the name as well). I had a quenelle de brochet, an unusual fish dumpling, which was delicious, and very light and fluffy. Margie had souris d'agneau. The food and service were good, but mostly not outstanding.

    Sol Café: We had lunch the next day at an outdoor table at the Sol Café. I had moules (mussels), and Margie had a salad with smoked salmon and avocado. Both were very good, and it was fun to eat outdoors and watch the people walk by.

    Le Caro de Lyon: Dinner was excellent. I had filet de rouget, and a St. Marcellin cheese. Margie had thon aux cèpes, and fraises farcies. We much preferred it to Le Mercière. Since we were both a bit jet-lagged, we actually had no wine with dinner (sacrilege!). Without wine (but Margie started with a kir cassis), it came to 60 euros for the two of us.

    Le Rond de Serviette: over two weeks later, we returned to Lyon for one evening prior to our flights home the next day, and had dinner at Le Rond de Serviette. I had a crab and leek tarte, followed by frogs' legs, and an excellent tarte aux poires. I didn't record what Margie had. We thought it was an excellent last dinner in France.

    The Hôtel des Artistes is a very pleasant, centrally located hotel, not far from the Saône river, and within very easy walking distance of all the restaurants we visited. The staff was very helpful, and our rooms looked out over a fairly quiet square. My one quibble was that I never really figured out how to control the temperature in the rooms, which tended to get either hot or cold at night. I never figured it out, and I'm an engineer. I think I should have discussed it at greater length with the staff - I didn't.

    That's about it for my trip report, unless anyone has any questions. Thank you again to all the Fodorites who answered our questions before the trip, and helped to make it so enjoyable.

    - Larry

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    Thanks for reporting on your Lyon stay. Glad to hear you were happy with the restaurant choices!

    I just walked past Le Mercière the other day and was wondering why on earth it was Le and not La, too. Just asked my French fiancé to explain and he has no idea either! Perhaps in reference to restaurant or bouchon (both masc.).
    Qui saurait déchiffrer tous les mystères de la langue française...

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    Hi, hanl.

    The gender of Le Mercière is actually explained on a plaque which was just behind the table we ate at. The trouble is, I don't remember the details. But the next time you pass by, you can find the plaque on the wall just to the left of the entrance to the long alleyway (actually an old narrow street) that runs in just to the left of the restaurant.

    It has to do with an older meaning of mercière from the 12th century, referring to a marketplace full of peddlars. It's from the vulgar Latin merciarius, from merx, merchandise (I'm using an old French etymology dictionary to jog my memory). From there, it evolved into its current meaning, haberdasher, in which mercier would be the masculine form, and mercière the feminine. Indeed, in British English, a "mercer" is a dealer in textiles (I've never heard that term used in the US).

    According to "Le Truc des Genres", 97 percent of French words ending in "ière are feminine, with the principal exceptions being arrière, derrière, and cimetière. That's why it sounds so jarring. See:

    Thanks again for all your help. Does your fiancé live in Lyon?

    - Larry

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    Hi Larry
    I'll have to go and have a look at the plaque as this is intriguing me now. Did you know that the rue Mercière used to be terribly run-down and seedy? I think it was renovated within the last fifteen years, probably around the same time that the UNESCO listed the old town as a World Heritage site. Of course, in medieval times rue Mercière was the very heart of the city.

    As regards the etymology of the word, just yesterday I stopped off at my local mercerie to buy ribbons, so it's definitely a term that's alive and kicking in French (though I've never heard mercer used in the UK in that context, other than as a surname).

    My fiancé and I live here in Lyon (he's from Paris with roots in the Charente region, I'm from Scotland but have been living in France for the last 6 years). However, we're soon going to be moving to Brussels! We'll be sad to leave this beautiful city.

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    On a different thread that I started on "Deciphering French Menus", I've posted more detail about the three restaurants we dined at in Bonnieux: Le Tinel, La Cavette, and Le Fournil. The posting is dated today, a few minutes ago, and it's at:

    - Larry

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