Carnet de Voyage: Backgammon In Lyon

Carnet de Voyage: Backgammon In Lyon

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

I absolutely love the game of backgammon and I am very good at it. If I had been an ancient Persian King I would have been buried with my sword and my backgammon board. When I first learned the game in the ‘70s it was wildly popular with everyone from the rich and famous (Mick Jagger, Omar Sharif, Tina Turner) to factory guys killing time during their lunch break (me). The game’s popularity has waned over the decades and finding good backgammon partners has gotten harder. So, when I discovered that one of the most prestigious backgammon clubs in the European network was in Lyon, I pleaded with my wife to add an extra week to an already long vacation so that I could try my hand against the French. 

As luck would have it, le Club Lyon Backgammon of the Federation Française de Backgammon was hosting a tournament during the week we were going to be in l’Hexagone’s third largest city. Just before departing on our trip, with my wife as interpreter, I was able to get the club president to extend an invitation to play in the tournament. Obviously, I wouldn’t know any of members of the club, plus I can’t cobble together a coherent sentence in French, but I was determined to forge ahead and let the “pips” fall where they may. 

© Michael Harrelson

Lyon is an exciting city. It is filled with many beautiful fountains, a funicular to the top of Fourvière Hill; the Musée des Confluences (the best natural history museum you will find anywhere) and lots of little traboules, hidden passages between buildings in the Silk District. Even with all of that, Lyon is all about food. Great restaurants are found everywhere and down little side streets you can wander into a bouchon, a classic workman’s café, where you will find authentic Lyonnaise cuisine. Big restaurants have menus that cater to visitors’ tastes. Bouchons are a culinary minefield for the traveler. It is a common expression that the Lyonnais eat the pig from tail to snout. We discovered a rough-exterior bouchon that had branded itself as the oldest in Lyon. Men and women in suits from the nearby business district filled the tables. One after the other, platters of tête-de-veau (veal skulls), andouillette (pork intestine sausage), boudin noir (blood sausage), ris de veau (veal pancreas), grattons (deep fried pork fat) and pig’s ear salad filled the table. When the owner came to take our order we quietly said, “We’ll have the chicken.”

Food history aside, dining in the modern city of Lyon belongs to the legendary chef, Paul Bocuse. The great master chef died in 2018 but his spirit lives on in Lyon. Murals and banners with his face shine down on you everywhere you walk.  There are a number of his restaurants from which to choose but we were drawn to the big and gleaming Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, a true feast for the senses. Every kind of cheese, wine, meat, fish, vegetable, fruit, candy and pastries you could imagine. We found it hard to choose from the wide variety of counter dining options. They all looked so good.  It was as if they all knew Paul Bocuse was looking down on them and they were not about to disappoint. We were literally, figuratively and spiritually eating up Lyon.

© Michael Harrelson

As our week was ending, the evening of the backgammon tournament finally came. My wife was ready for a quiet, relaxing time alone in our apartment. I was ready for adventure. I put on my hat, took a deep breath and headed for the Metro. My stop was Bellecour Station, near the Silk Building where the club had its meetings. I was more than a bit anxious as I walked up the steps and entered what was clearly a building under renovation. I worked my way around pieces of lumber and spied a construction laborer.  He spoke no English, but his eyes opened knowingly when he heard the word “backgammon”. He led me to an elevator that I had not seen and punched the button for Floor 2. It was a short ride up and when the doors opened, I was greeted by a man who was obviously the club president. It was hard to know which was worse, his English or my French. He clasped me warmly around the shoulders and as players arrived, I was introduced. I felt at ease. Throughout the night, using a mix of basic shared words and gestures, we competed in a game we all loved. I did ok – won all of my warm-up games, won my first round and lost a close game in the semis to the eventual tournament champion. It was fun and I was glad I had come. For me, this was never about the winning, but just being there.

The tournament ran longer than expected and by the time we all said our good-byes, the Metro was closed up tight. It would take twenty minutes on foot to get back to our apartment. I knew if I got over to the Saône River and followed it north that I would eventually find our street. I did not feel the least bit concerned about walking around in a strange city late at night. The side streets were filled with young revelers standing at tall bar tables laughing and singing. I wanted to join them but I reasoned that one adventure was plenty for this night.

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here.

© Michael Harrelson

Lead photo credit : © Michael Harrelson

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Michael Harrelson, 73, is retired and has chosen to dedicate his travels to primarily France and, always, Paris. Michael and his wife, Nancy, were both “orthophonistes” who worked in the public schools of San Diego, California. They have explored most of the regions of France and love the small village of Semur-en-Auxois; quiet, beautiful and the perfect place to contemplate the slow moving Armançon River and write.

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