Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hello Lyon!

We departed Paris for Lyon Tuesday morning on the TGV from the incomprehensibly massive Gare de Lyon station. The TGV is France's famed high speed rail system. On a normal train it would take about five-ish hours to get from Paris to Lyon, but the TGV gets you there in just two. It's interesting to see the more modern, bleaker outskirts of Paris at the start of the journey. As if the vast views from the Montparnasse and Eiffel towers didn't already drive the point home, taking a train through the outskirts really reveals just how impossibly huge the city and its surrounding sprawl is.

The scenery on the way to Lyon didn't really start getting attractive until about an hour into the trip, when things started getting hillier and more forest-y, with picturesque old, stone villages here and there. And lots and lots of cows in hanging around in pastures.

As soon as we got off the train at Lyon's modern Part Dieu station, it was immediately clear that Lyon appears to have a similar level of ethnic diversity as Paris. And it's a pretty decent-sized city, too (France's third largest in terms of population). Yet, while there are people on the streets and there is a certain energy, it doesn't feel as crowded as Paris and the overall vibe is more laid back.

From the station we took the C3 bus across town into Vieux Lyon, the historic section where we're renting an apartment. You first ride through a thoroughly modern part of the city with glass-n-steel office buildings, but also plenty of big, drab, brutalist concrete doozies that would look right at home in Slovakia. Things start getting older when you get closer to the Rhone River, which meanders through Lyon and converges with the Saone River, just south of the city center.

Lyon's buses actually had me do a double-take because some of them look just like trams. Many of them are articulated (accordion style) and have this narrow shape with all rounded edges, much like a modern, urban tram. Apparently, the city's buses are all electric. Lyon appears to function pretty efficiently. Though its metro system is endearingly simple compared to Paris', its buses and trams seem to fill in the gaps pretty well. And Lyon had its public bike renting system in place years before Paris.

Place du Change. We're staying in that building in the middle.

Place du Change as seen when standing in front of our building. This building is an old bank that was converted into a church.

We're staying in a stunning, old medieval building right on Place du Change at the northern end of Vieux Lyon. It's got to be one of the oldest structures on the street, judging by the facade. The apartment has lots of thick walls with exposed stone, a massive old wooden door with these ancient looking iron latches, and a narrow little, curving staircase that leads to the bedroom, with a ceiling so low that my head clears it by a  mere inch. The super energetic Bohemian-esque apartment owner, Fabiene, was incredibly friendly and eager to help and answer any questions. Since we arrived at about 12:45 completely famished, she even recommended a nearby restaurant which she maintained was better than the more touristy bouchons (the Lyonaise version of a bistro) in Vieux Lyon.

The facade of the building we're staying in

Looking up from the courtyard
The super cool courtyard

The restaurant, called Les Fines Gueules, turned out to be pretty good, for the most part. Sadly, we arrived too late to take advantage of their lunchtime 'menu formule' deal, but they still had a reasonable 'menu bouchon' that included a starter, a main, and a dessert.

We both started off with a salad Lyonaise, a traditional Lyon salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, bits of bacon, and a poached egg on top. Simple, but everything was super fresh and tasty.

The main dishes were a mixed bag. Terezia ordered the quenelle, another Lyon speciality, which is essentially ground fish (but it can also be meat) that has somehow been transformed into a tender, savory soufflé, shaped like a big bun or dumpling. This one was sitting in a tasty pool of crab bisque, and it was well seasoned and totally fun to eat.

The quenelle

I ordered what wound up being this blah kind of pasta gratin: mini ravioli in a cheesy, potato-y, creamy mound with oyster mushrooms. The mushrooms seemed to get lost in the dish - they were basically just kind of there, drifting aimlessly. Terezia liked this one better than I did, and she kindly swapped dishes with me halfway through (probably so that she wouldn't have to hear me bitch about it throughout the meal).

Dessert involved a small chocolate lava cake and creme brûlée, both of which were right on the money.

After lunch we strolled Vieux Lyon's narrow, gently meandering, cobblestoned streets and gawked at the cool architecture. Vieux Lyon consists of a cluster of streets situated between a very steep hill and the Saone River. According to Rick Steves, this is one of France's biggest and best preserved Renaissance-era neighborhoods.

The style of Vieux Lyon's buildings is predominantly late Gothic/early Renaissance, and they have a very distinctive and almost uniform geometric look to them: tall, slender, and rectangular in shape, with bold rows of big rectangular windows. From a distance this may not look like anything special, but on closer inspection the thick window frames and panes are all carved out of stone, and the details on some of them are fairly intricate. Many of the facades are done in tasteful light browns and muted pastels, which reminds me quite a bit of Italy. And at street level, you see medieval arches and exposed stonework. The overall effect gives the city an interesting sort of blocky quality.

And these buildings are strikingly tall: they're all about 4-5 stories high (which we would call 5-6 stories in the US). Lyon was a huge silk producer from around the 1600-1900s, and the ceilings of the buildings were made higher than normal to house the silk looms. Because of the buildings' extra height, the sunlight that enters the narrow streets has a kind of diffused quality to it that reminds me a bit Genova.

Toward the south end of Vieux Lyon is the attractive St. Jean's cathedral and a good-sized square in front of it. The cathedral is significantly smaller than many of its northern cousins, like Paris' Notre Dame. Apparently cathedrals in the south of France tend to take more cues from Italy, with less emphasis on sky-high roofs and facades. The interior is loaded with intricate Gothic detailing, although the entire choir (rear section) was walled off with scaffolding, so we couldn't see the entire thing.

Next we began the ascent up to the Notre Dame basilica, which is perched at the edge of a super steep hill overlooking the city. This basilica has lots in common with Paris' Sacre Coeur: apart from being on top of a hill, it's huge, it's made from gleaming white marble, and it was built in the late 1800s, so it's not that old. Lyon's Notre Dame is an amusing hodgepodge of styles - a bizarre but striking melding of just about every style from the last 2,000 years. But the views over the city are incredible. Apparently, on a super clear day you can see the Alps from here.

You can also get an idea of just how big Lyon is, although unlike Paris, you can actually make out where the city ends way off in the distance.

The walk up this hill is more of a workout than taking the stairs up to the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After climbing a seemingly endless series of steps that take you out of Vieux Lyon, you cross a street and enter a park to ascend an incredibly steep switchback footpath that leads to the basilica. We saw this guy who was all sinew and muscle jogging up the path.

We ambled back down the hill and checked out the Saone River and the area in that vicinity. Lyon seems to enjoy its river, as there are footpaths with benches along either side of it, and even though the streets just above those footpaths are fairly busy, the trees and facades that line that stretch keep things looking nice.

Venturing into the peninsula a bit we stumbled into the Place des Terreaux, which is home to Lyon's wildly ornate Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and the massive, almost comically melodramatic Fontaine Bartholdi, a fountain done by the guy who did the Statue of Liberty, featuring four crazed aqua-horses pulling a topless woman on a chariot. Across from the fountain is Lyon's Museum of Beaux Arts, which is supposedly one of the biggest in the country outside of Paris.

After piddling around this area a bit, it was time to find a store and get some ingredients to make salads for dinner back at the apartment.

Fortunately, Vieux Lyon isn't the grotesque and noisy tourist trap that it could be. That's largely because Lyon simply isn't a big tourist destination. But it's refreshing to see that it hasn't been turned into a tacky Place du Tertre. There are a few touristy shops, and we've been advised to avoid most of the restaurants in that area, but you can tell that lots of locals are living in the old section - it hasn't been turned into some kind of off-limits open-air museum, like Bratislava's historic section. Along the main drag of Rue St. Jean you've got not one but two comic book/graphic novel stores, both of which had a couple of crates of old LPs and used books out front. You've also got some funky book stores, and the usual bakeries, butchers, and cheese shops, which seem to be frequented by locals.

One of the cool things about Vieux Lyon are the traboules. These are hidden passageways that run through the apartment buildings which lead from one block to the next. Several of them are open to the public and are marked with signs. Traboules were originally designed to move silk products across town under cover during bad weather, and in WWII local resistance fighters took advantage of them when undermining the Nazis. Walking into one at first feels like you're intruding in someone's apartment building (and you kind of are - people are living in these buildings, and signs tell visitors to be quiet and respectful). You typically go down a dark hall that leads to a stunningly beautiful small courtyard, or in some cases a glorified air shaft, but when you look up you can see these amazingly ornate Renaissance-era balconies and stairwells (and signs that people live there - with plants, laundry hanging on lines, the occasional bicycle, cats looking down at you from balcony ledges, etc.). Then you continue on through another darkened passageway and come out on the next street over.

So far, Lyon strikes us as a livable and interesting city. It's visually attractive, but in more of a refined and subtle way, and while the streets are definitely not empty, it seems the lifestyle and overall vibe here is mellower than in Paris. Lyon may be short on tourist attractions, but it makes up for that with a unique atmosphere and picturesque streets that seem to have been made for aimless wandering.

Click here to see more photos of Lyon!

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