The Normandy village of Lyons-la-Forêt has been a happy hunting ground for royalty and artists throughout the centuries, as Alison Hughes discovers
There is a clue in the name: yes, the Plus Beau Village of Lyons-la-Forêt, to the east of Rouen in Haute-Normandie, lies in the middle of a 10,700-hectare beech forest; reputedly the largest in Europe. Take any of the roads that fan out from this village in the Eure département and you will be surrounded by delightful vistas of green.
Down the ages the forest has both protected the village from intruders and limited its growth, thereby ensuring that it has remained unspoilt. The two main streets make almost a perfect circle, tracing the line of the castle built by William the Conqueror’s youngest son Henri Beauclerc, better known to the English as Henry I.
Nothing much remains of the castle, apart from a few timbers, and the heart of the village now is les halles, a magnificent covered market dating from the 18th century. All the social activities, from concerts to craft markets, take place here; since the installation of the fountain, which has made the square more or less car-free, the café terraces have extended to create one big seating area.
The square has been used as a backdrop to two film adaptations of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary: the 1933 Jean Renoir version and the one directed by Claude Chabrol in 1991. During the filming of the latter, a stucco fountain was built in the market square and locals liked it so much they decided to ‘rescue’ a real one from Provence and install it as a permanent feature.
Christophe Poirier, chef at the Hôtel la Licorne, explained that he had returned to his home town “pour une raison de coeur”. He had learnt his trade at leading hotels in Paris and worked with such renowned chefs as Jean-Marc Boyer at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Lastours, near Carcassonne, but when a chef’s post became available in his native Normandy, he leapt at the chance. “I wanted to make my grandparents proud and to put Lyons-la-Forêt on the gastronomic map,” he said. He has certainly done that and in 2009 was one of 22 young chefs in France to be awarded the honour of ‘Jeune Talent Gault et Millau’ by the celebrated restaurant guide.
Christophe gets inspiration for his dishes from the forest. “I try to bring the flavours of the forest to the table; especially when it’s the season for cèpes. And of course there is game – although I’m not a big fan of hunting, because the animals are too beautiful.” Simplicity and local ingredients are his bywords, but sampling a wonderful menu that evening, his cuisine seemed anything but simple. Christophe takes pride in knowing his producers personally, such as the farmer where he gets his poultry, the fishmonger and vegetable growers. The shopping and sourcing of ingredients are just as important as the cooking. To sum up his philosophy: “Simplicity is the sign of perfection, and things aren’t perfect unless they taste of what they are.”
The forest is responsible in part for the village’s very existence. With Henri Beauclerc’s encouragement and patronage, a group of monks, drawn to the peaceful environment, established the abbey of Mortemer four kilometres away. They in turn attracted workmen, artisans and carpenters, and a small community began to flourish. Clog-makers, basket-weavers and woodcutters all settled here.
The village grew prosperous and the presence of a courtroom made Lyons-la-Forêt (the ‘s’ is pronounced) a chef-lieu of the canton, attracting a bourgeoisie of magistrates and councillors who built many of the attractive half-timbered houses that we see today. Added to this was the ‘sport of kings’. Royal personages have always loved to hunt and the forest’s proximity to Paris made it an ideal location.
These days Parisians still come to breathe the fresh air and soak up the relaxing atmosphere. The symbol of royalty, the lion, is represented in various guises around the village on fountain spouts and walls. You would be forgiven for thinking that these were linked to the name of the village, but its origins are more likely to lie in the medieval French ‘li hons’ meaning ‘les hommes’, so Lyons-la-Forêt literally means ‘men from the forest’.
Looking out at the swallows swooping around the covered market, listening to the birdsong and seeing the fresh green leaves on the trees that surround the village, it is easy to see why poets, writers and musicians have been drawn to this restful site. The composer Maurice Ravel is perhaps the most famous, often holidaying at Le Fresne, a half-timbered house in Rue d’Enfer. He is said to have composed the piano work Le Tombeau de Couperin there during World War I (see our Life and Times profile in the December 2012 issue, no. 171).
The forest is also present in the décor of the Bistro du Grand Cerf, where trees line the walls of the restaurant, bringing the outside in. Even the names of the two sister hotel-restaurants, La Licorne (the unicorn) and Le Grand Cerf (the stag), conjure up images of medieval royal hunting forests complete with mythical beasts. It is this sense of timelessness, of having put the rest of the world on hold, which sums up the essence of Lyons-la-Forêt and makes it such a peaceful refuge in a sea of green.
FRANCOFILE Explore the green heart of Normandy
By road: Brittany Ferries runs a service from Portsmouth to Caen, and it is then 90 minutes’ drive to Lyons-la-Forêt.
Tel: 0871 244 0744
By rail: The nearest main station is 35 kilometres away at Rouen, about a 75-minute journey from Paris Saint-Lazare.
By air: See Holiday Planner on page 90.
WHERE TO STAY and eat
Hôtel la Licorne
27 Place Isaac Benserade
Tel: (Fr) 2 32 48 24 24
Four-star hotel, doubles from €135, breakfast €18. Restaurant mains from €23.
Hôtel le Grand Cerf
20 Place Isaac Benserade
Tel. 02 32 49 50 50
Three-star hotel, doubles from €110, breakfast €18. Bistro menus from €23.
WHERE TO VISIT
L’Abbaye de Mortemer
Tel: (Fr) 2 32 49 54 34
The abbey, set beside a lake, has ghost tours and a sculpture trail in the woods. Admission €6.
Château de Vascoeuil
8 Rue Jules Michelet
Tel: (Fr) 2 35 23 62 35
Restored 12th-century château with gardens featuring sculptures and mosaics by international artists such as Georges Braque and Salvador Dalí. Admission €8.50.
Lyons-la-Forêt tourist office
20 Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville
Tel: (Fr) 2 32 49 31 65
Eure tourist board