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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Lyon


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Lyon may have been our most eagerly anticipated stop of the entire trip. I've never been shy about expressing my antipathy for Paris, a city that I believe lost its identity while becoming the epicenter of shallow, guidebook-driven tourism. Mei Ling and I still love France and we are always looking to add to the list of French cities that we do love. My favorite is Toulouse and Mei Ling is partial to Bordeaux but there are many others where one can be saturated in classic French culture without the feeling of having wandered into a theme park. Lyon is the third largest city in the country and has the reputation of being the culinary heart of France. We hoped that we would be far enough from the tourist track that it would be easy to find the authentic soul of the city while enjoying some amazing markets and cuisine.
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We entered Lyon from the south with the last vestiges of daylight. It was right about the summer solstice and the darkness wasn't settling until well after nine. We drove along the west bank of the Rhône until we saw the irregular postmodern shape of the Musée des Confluences signalling the convergence of the mighty Saône with the Rhône.
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The main road crossed the Saône and continued up the eastern side of the Presqu'île peninsula formed by the two rivers. I tried to absorb as much as I could from the windows while following the confusing directions from the GPS. We hadn't been in a city this large and busy since Zurich. Eventually we were guided across the Rhône to the most modern section of Lyon where our Airbnb was located. As our host had considerately warned us the apartment building was hideous, a Brutalist monstrosity that wouldn't have been out of place in an industrial town in Siberia. The instructions to locate the apartment were labyrinthine but after a few false starts I was able to find and access it. With accommodation secured we headed back across both rivers to Vieux Lyon where we were fortunate enough to come across a parking spot on a packed street just as someone was pulling out. We only had to walk one block to reach Place Saint-Jean in the heart of the old town. There was an event going on in the large square and at first we were excited to have stumbled across another food festival. Unfortunately there were just a couple of uninteresting food trucks and the people seated at the tables were only having wine and beer. Nevertheless it was a beautiful scene in front of the illuminated Gothic facade of Cathedral Saint Jean Baptiste. On the other side we could see the glowing Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière seemingly hovering in the sky behind a row of buildings.
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There were countless restaurants in the network of streets to the north of the cathedral but we were determined to eat at our first food hall of the road trip. Food Traboule takes its name from the traboule passageways that allow pedestrians to cut through the middle of city blocks in various old neighborhoods of Lyon. We found it in a very busy intersection of old streets and there was actually a short line to enter the building. The inside was cramped and noisy but we found a table on the ground floor and then Cleo and I went to explore the restaurants. I realized pretty quickly that the selections were tipped heavily towards the fast food end of the food hall range. There were burgers, pizza, and chicken tenders among many other uninspiring choices. The few options that were more bistro oriented had very limited selections. It was no problem to feed the kids but for us it was far short of the exciting introduction to Lyonnais cuisine that we had anticipated. There was clearly an effort to use low cost ingredients and quick prep to keep prices low for a clientele that was more interested in drinking and socializing than they were in gastronomy. We've run into similar issues with food halls in other cities but Food Traboule was particularly disappointing because of its avowed goal of providing popular access to the best local specialties. Fortunately we had already had a decent meal in Vienne so we only needed to get a few small dishes to be sufficiently fueled. We soaked up the atmosphere of the old town for a few more minutes after eating but decided to postpone the full exploration for the next night.
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One of the few advantages of our Airbnb was that it wasn't difficult to find a spot on the street outside the building. From the upper level of that concrete bunker we could see the glow of the Basilica on the opposite side of the city. An ascent to the top of Fourvière was on the itinerary for the following day. The problem of the moment was that none of the stuffiness the apartment had accumulated over a day of mid-nineties temperatures had dissipated with the evening. Of course the apartment had no air conditioning and there was not even a fan in sight. I slept without covers but woke up sweating several times during the night. It was almost a mercy when daylight came and I could jump in a cold shower to prepare for a full day of exploring Lyon.
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We had an unusual stroke of luck in that I chose our Airbnb without even realizing it was exactly one block away from Lyon's most famous indoor market, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. Paul Bocuse is one of the most famous French chefs of all time and is a major reason why Lyon is often identified as the most important city of French gastronomy rather than the nation's capital Paris. An enormous, remarkably lifelike portrait of the chef graces the side of a building across the street from Les Halles. Without that and the GPS we might not have recognized the modern, glass-walled building as a market. We were greeted at the entrance by a whimsical artwork of a bicycle encrusted by oyster shells mounted high on a wall.
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Inside there was a large array of vendors displaying typical arrays of food products from Lyon and elsewhere. It was early but there weren't many people around, perhaps because it was Sunday. One of the best things about Lyon was that unlike in many other French cities the major markets were open on Sundays meaning that we could extend our run of morning markets to a fourth day. The atmosphere of the market was a little on the sterile side as well, perhaps due in part to the modern construction. There wasn't much produce and what was there was arranged more in the manner of a high-end grocery than a farmer's market. The emphasis seemed to be on charcuterie, cheese, and baked goods which would produce a higher margin for what undoubtedly were expensive booths.
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There was only one restaurant open inside the market and we were happy to learn that they had the whole menu available at the early hour. The traditional Lyonnais tête de veau was hard to stomach which appears to be a common reaction for those unfamiliar with the gelatinous boiled meat. Fortunately we had escargots, freshly baked bread, and some other reasonable dishes. The dirty concrete patio in an alley outside the market was also not the most uplifting place to enjoy breakfast.
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We didn't have much time to dwell on the surprising banality of the Bocuse market as there was another in the hilltop Croix-Rousse neighborhood north of Presqu'île. I toyed with the idea of using buses for the day but abandoned it after briefly trying to study the routes on my phone. With three kids and possibly some shopping bags the convenience of the car would be worth the trouble of finding parking. As expected parking was pretty tight but eventually we found a space four blocks away from our destination that I was only able to squeeze into because of the car's cameras and sensors. The market extended along several blocks of the main boulevard of the neighborhood without any spread into the side streets. It was a reasonably busy market with good produce and a local vibe but it didn't quite match our experiences in Grenoble, Annecy, or even Thonon.
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Since we'd already eaten at Bocuse we just walked the length of the market and back without buying anything. A block to the south roads and staircases began to lead downward from the summit of the hill. We had expansive views of the old town from here with the cathedral and the distinguished buildings on the east bank of the Saône prominently featured. The staircases and the walls alongside them were a popular medium for the local street artists.
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The street art continued in the funky residential neighborhood on the side of the hill. There were a lot of cafes and bars here although they were all closed on a Sunday morning. This seemed like it would probably be a much more interesting and authentic place to hang out than the touristy area we had visited the previous night but it was unlikely that much would be happening on a Sunday evening.
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In the sixteenth century the king of France centralized the national production of silk in Lyon by granting the city a monopoly on silk imports. At that time most of the weaving was concentrated in the center of town on the banks of the Saône, but by the nineteenth century the industry had largely moved to the hill of La Croix-Rousse. In modern times increasing labor costs in Europe have reduced the silk manufacture in Lyon to just a few boutique enterprises but the history of the industry is preserved in the old buildings of the neighborhood. The most famous of these relics are the countless traboules that provide shortcuts between the long city blocks of the old neighborhoods. Halfway down the hill we arrived at the northern end of the most well-known traboule in La Croix-Rousse. A narrow hallway led us into an atrium surrounded on every side by tall, depressing apartment buildings tagged with graffiti and one of the ugliest Soviet-style outdoor staircases I've ever seen. It was quite an unpleasant-looking place that resembled a set from a post-apocalyptic zombie movie and I would have been uncomfortable descending into the bowels of the building if it wasn't for the constant stream of tourists passing us going the other direction. After some more graffiti covered walls the traboule ejected us into a rather featureless alley. I'm not quite sure what exactly makes this decidedly unhistoric, unatmospheric passageway a tourist attraction but I suspect that we would have found better traboules if we had more energy to explore the neighborhood. The reality was that once again the temperatures had climbed into the mid nineties which was putting a significant damper on our desire to continue walking.
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We took a much-needed ice cream break after climbing back up to the top of the hill. There was one final sight for us in La Croix-Rousse, an enormous mural called La Mur des Canuts. The original version was painted on a blank facade facing the Boulevard des Canuts in 1987. The concept was a trompe de l'oeil, a realistic painting that created the impression of a three dimensional scene with lifelike characters. The painting was updated in 1997 and again in 2013 to make it even more detailed and realistic and advance the ages of some of the people that populated the original. The technical perfection of the painting is such that it is difficult to distinguish people standing against the wall from the characters within it.
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We needed to figure out something to do during the hottest part of a very hot day in Lyon. The best idea I could come up with was to play miniature golf in the Parc de la Tête d'Or, a large city park on the opposite side of the Rhône from La Croix-Rousse. I had hoped the park might afford us a little shade and coolness but it turned out to be even hotter than the city streets. It was the kids' first experience with miniature golf and they loved it but I found the course very uninspired compared to the elaborate versions I've played on in the United States. I also could not seem to make the kids understand the principle of putting so I was constantly yelling that them about backswinging their clubs and nearly braining each other. I was rather relieved when we finished the course and laughed out loud when they begged for a second game.
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It was now late enough in the day to return to Vieux Lyon from where we planned to ascend Fourvière before returning to the old town for dinner. Parking was much more difficult than it had been the previous night but once again we were able to find a tight spot that I was able to wedge into on the third or fourth try. The funicular up to the basilica left from a part of the old town we hadn't seen the previous night. There were far fewer tourists here which gave the narrow alleys an atmosphere of intimacy and authenticity.
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We bought a round trip ticket for the funicular and ascended in a packed car. We had long ago given up any concerns about COVID or the anxiety would have been overwhelming in many places. The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière at the top of the hill has a fairytale appearance somewhat reminiscent of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. Both churches were built in a Romanesque and Byzantine style in the late nineteenth century as a triumphalist reaction to the ultimate victory of the French in the Franco-Prussian war. The interior was incredibly colorful and ornate with an unusual green and gold ceiling. The esplanade outside provided views of the farthest reaches of the modern city east of the Rhône, although the old town was blocked by the foliage. We were even able to pick out the unpleasant hulk of our Airbnb bloc.
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We descended from the esplanade into the Parc des Hauteurs and eventually decided to forfeit the return portion of our funicular ticket since the walking route seemed more interesting. One final staircase deposited us at the point where we had parked the previous evening and a few moments later we were back in Place Saint-Jean. The previous day's festival was continuing and we were able to figure out it was a cultural event sponsored by a local guide book called Le Petit Paumé. There were several tents set up near the cathedral providing samples of cheese, wine, and other local products.
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We had some time left before the first restaurants opened at seven so we walked the length of the old town a couple of times. The further we got from the cathedral the more quiet and pleasant the atmosphere became. There was still a heavy concentration of touristy cafes, ice cream parlors, and candy shops that catered to visitors. It required a good deal of research to find a restaurant in the old town that didn't have mediocre reviews but our eventual selection did not fail us. The Lyonnais food at Le Vieux Lyon was better than what we had had in the market restaurant that morning and the people-watching couldn't have been better. I was very grateful for the review sites because there was nothing otherwise to distinguish our choice from the countless other al fresco bistros that surrounded Place Saint-Jean.
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The apartment was no less humid than it had been the previous night but fortunately this time round our host had advised me where to locate a fan among the junk in the living room. This rendered the night at least bearable if not comfortable. We didn't have much reason to hang around Lyon the next morning so we packed up and headed straight for Les Halles Grand Hôtel-Dieu in Presqu'île. Up to this point we had only driven through Presqu'île so this was a good opportunity to have at least set foot in all of Lyon's major central neighborhoods. This time we parked in a garage from which we emerged directly onto Place de la République, a historic square with a large central water basin. From here a narrow lane brought us directly to the front door of Grand Hôtel Dieu, an ancient hospital that has been reimagined and renovated as an enormous upscale mall containing a hotel, convention center, restaurants, boutiques, and an indoor food market. Only the last of these was of interest to us and we passed right by the high end outlets, most of which hadn't opened yet anyway. What we eventually found was surprisingly minimal, a tiny seafood market and a couple of grocers. Upstairs was a little better with the basic ingredients of breakfast such as loaves of fresh bread, fruit yogurt, and coffee. We were the only customers in the place and the bemused attendants didn't seem particularly excited to see us. Perhaps business typically gets started a little later on Mondays, or perhaps it never gets started at all. It didn't seem like a concept with a particularly bright future.
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From Grand Hôtel Dieu it was a short walk to another of Lyon's small curiosities. The Flower Tree is a sculpture that was created for an art festival in Lyon twenty years ago. After the festival the sculpture was moved to the median of the main road that carries traffic alongside the east bank of the Rhône. We had caught a few glimpses of the tree while driving but it was nice to get a closer look and add it to the list of minor oddities we've encountered in major cities throughout the world. Across the road we relaxed for a few moments in a pedestrian mall called Place Antonin Poncet with another fountain and some open grassy spaces. At the far end of the mall was the solitary clock tower of a building that had long ago been razed, and beyond that were the lower levels of Fourvière hill. It didn't appear that Presqu'île had any neighborhoods that were particularly ancient or charming so we decided this would be a good time to call an end to our exploration fo the city.
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On the western outskirts of Lyon we stopped at Les Halles de l'Ouest, a gourmet food market in an imposing modern building. It looked promising but despite the market being ostensibly open almost every vendor was shuttered. It was a disappointing but we've grown accustomed to these types of experiences in Europe on Sundays and Mondays. Any positive market encounter on these days should be seen as a bonus to what is achieved during the rest of the week. I've told Mei Ling countless times that the only way we could improve our European road trips would be to make every single day a Saturday.
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We departed Lyon with mixed feelings. The city had certainly had its share of vitality and beautiful streets but we had more disappointments than is typical for such a highly anticipated stop. I think that our experience was affected to some extent by the unfortunate early heat wave and the timing of our visit. We might return some day and focus more on discovering less famous and more intimate neighborhoods lower down on La Croix-Rousse and in Presqu'île. For now though I can't say that Lyon would compete with Toulouse, Bordeaux, or even Grenoble as one of our favorite French cities. We still had a good amount of ground to cover in the first France leg of the trip and that evening we would be another gastronomic nirvana. It was still too early to think about our dinner in Dijon because we had several interesting towns on the way which would put us on a tight schedule.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:34 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family family_travel saone travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog perouge croix_rousse traboules Comments (0)

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