SUNSHINE ALL THE WAY FOR THIS YEAR’S VISIT TO CHASSIEU
The weather was certainly beau fixe for the Twinning Association visit to Chassieu at the end May. From the Wednesday of our arrival to the Sunday of our departure we had blue skies and temperatures in the upper 20s. The welcome from our hosts was, as ever, equally warm and the 35 of us who travelled to the beautiful Rhône-Alpes region of France enjoyed the best of hospitality.
At the official welcoming party at the Boulodrome on the evening of our arrival, the local M.P. Philippe Meunier, congratulated us on our long-standing alliance. Brexit was mentioned but all agreed that our two nations had so much in common – the shock of the recent terrorist attack in London had brought messages of sympathy from Chassieu – that the negotiations should in no way prejudice our future friendship. Malcolm Butler, our chairman, who was by now wearing a Lyon Olympique football shirt printed with his name, presented to him by the mayor, Jean-Jacques Sellès, thanked Aline Duret, his French counterpart, for inviting us again, saying that he could see from the itinerary in the welcome-pack that we were in for an interesting stay. After the ceremony there was just time for a few games of boules before supper was served.
Thursday morning we board a coach and follow l’Autoroute du Soleil down the banks of the shining river Rhône to Tain l’Hermitage, the home of Valrhona Cité du Chocolat, a place where we learn how the fruit of a rather modest tropical tree is made into one of the most tempting snacks ever nibbled. We are in two groups, French and English and are shown the process by a guide who speaks our language. (Some folks deliberately go into the wrong group, just to practice the other language). Our guide asks for a volunteer to split a coco pod with a mallet. We urge Malcom to accept the challenge. One, two, three…! And he hits the pod amidships, splitting it perfectly in two and revealing the moist green beans, close-packed inside. The beans must be dried, baked, ground, heat treated and flavoured before they are moulded into chocolate bars. The visit concludes with exhibits designed to test our senses of smell and taste. All so tempting but one mustn’t spoil one’s appetite for lunch.
We lunch at La Grappe d’Or restaurant, its name inspired by the vines that grow on the nearby slopes. It is a meal taken with leisurely French conviviality and even music when a member of the party plays the grand piano and someone sings Autumn Leaves. Before we return to Chassieu to spend the evening with our hosts, we take a long ride on Le Petit Train des Vignes. It is the sort of vehicle we usually see taking tourists around a seaside town. Here, in Tain, it collects us on the road that skirts the river, takes us on a tour of the old town and then meanders uphill, through the famous vineyards, finally coming to a standstill near the summit. ‘I stop here for 15 minutes. For you to take photographs.’ says the driver. And so we do. Beneath an azure sky, looking down the valley across row upon row of Syrah and Marsanne vines, across the pantile roofs of Tain, across the river to the mountains of the Massif Central.
Friday morning is spent at the Maison de la Photographie in Saint Bonnet de Mure, one of the many small towns that, like Chassieu, encircle Lyon. Here François Boisjoly has assembled the most comprehensive collection of photographic equipment imaginable. It is a small museum, once a convent, and our two groups have to squeeze in as we pass in the narrow spaces where every wall and horizontal surface is crammed with exhibits. Certainly photography was one of the things that defined the last century but Monsieur Boisjoly reminds us that it dates back to before Galileo, to the pinhole camera obscura. He even suggests that pre-historic man’s cave drawings may have been based on an image projected by a small hole in an animal skin tent. When asked how long it took him to build his wonderful collection, he says he acquired his first camera when he was fourteen, back in the 50s, and has never stopped collecting.
We lunch at Les Voiles du Grande Large, a restaurant with a splendid view across the reservoir that feeds one of the country’s oldest hydraulic power stations at Cusset. Nowadays the lake is also used for recreation and as we dine, sailing dinghies criss-cross the water.
Two years ago we were shown Lyon’s modernistic natural history museum, sited where the Rhône and the Saône meet. This year yet another major project is completed: the Parc Olympique Lyonnais football stadium, the subject of this afternoon’s visit. Both schemes have been highly controversial: the museum had cost five times its original estimate, and local opinion polls showed a large majority against the new stadium, seeing no reason why OL should quit their old ground at Gerland. Now (rather like Morrisons) most people approve. Here are a few Parc OL statistics: cost – €415 million; capacity – 59,186; parking spaces – 16 000; refreshment stalls – 58; theatre – 300 seats; restaurant – 480 seats; lifts – 20; escalators – 19. The stadium also hosts ice hockey, the circus and concerts. Tickets for Coldplay and Céline Dione are selling, as the French say, comme des petits pains. Malcolm, who had put on his OL strip for the tour, is disappointed not to be asked for his autograph.
Our hosts organised activities for Saturday, before the evening Farewell Party at the Best Western Hôtel de Chassieu, where some 80 Twinners dined and danced until after midnight. Our chairmen made short speeches. Aline Duret says how we often share family news across the distance that separates us. She had noticed that Prince George is to go to school in September. When he comes to take his history exam, she hopes he can remember what order his royal ancestors come in. Malcolm, who was no longer wearing his OL shirt, thanked the Chasseulands and congratulated the organisers for including two of his favourite things: chocolate and soccer. He concluded with an invitation for Chassieu Twinning to come to Coleshill in 2018.
Sunday afternoon, we board the Embrayer 175 for Birmingham and a change in the weather.
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