Thursday, 24 June 2010

Europe Part 3: Lyon

Ah, Lyon. The antidote to Paris.

Neither Chesley nor Karen had been to Lyon, and both wondered why I had selected it as a stop on our trip. It took them about 2 hrs to find out. Lyon is what people who haven't been to Paris think Paris is. It is very French, more so than Paris, yet far more accessible, historic, picturesque, with great food (except the coffee -- more on this later) and a relaxed atmosphere. This compares to the historic, brusque, bustle and noise of Paris.

The main part of Lyon (the Presqu'ile) is nestled between the Rhone and Saône rivers, and has two main hills, Fouvière and Croix-Rousse. Place Bellacouer is one of the biggest squares in all of Europe, and on the top of the Fouvière hill dominating the view are two things: Notre Dame cathedral, and (of all things) a broadast tower that is a replica of the top part of the Eiffel Tower.

On the west side is the Saône, the more elegant and relaxed of the rivers, which separates the Presque'ile from the old (Vieux Lyon) side...

...while on the east side is the more "industrial" and less picturesque Rhone.

The "new" Presqu'ile part of town ain't so new, but is everything people like about classical Paris, but without the traffic, crowds and graffiti. The Metro works well, is clean and fast, and the trams are slick. Lyon is far more walkable than Paris.

Vieux Lyon is steeped in history. Founded by the Roman empire in 43 BC, it once was the capital of Gaul, and has the Roman ruins to prove it. The amphitheaters (there are two, and they were the first Roman amphitheaters I had ever seen when I was first here) have been "renovated" and act as modern concert bowls. But the rest of the ruins around them haven't really been touched.

There's a wonderful museum of the Roman ruins and (for the engineers like me out there) contains one of only 10 surviving wooden water pumps the Romans used to pump water.

Like Sacred Cow in Paris, Notre Dame in Lyon was built in the late 1800's of Romanesque and Byzantine styles. When we first tried to visit, and we had to wait a bit because mass was going on. I'm not a religious guy, but you can't not be impressed by the sound like that in a church like this.

The hill the place is on is so steep, it is home to a funicular, which if you don't know, is a hill based tram where two cars alternate on a single cable, counterbalancing each other.

At the bottom of the hill lies yet another fantastic church, Cathedral St-Jean, a Primatiale of Gaul, built between the 12th & 15th centuries. In addition to its spectacular stained glass windows, it is known for an amazing 16th century clock that features mechanical crowing roosters and flying angels.

The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and not just for the Roman history. Being set on hills, there aren't a lot of roads that run straight up and down, so if you are a merchant working on the hills, it's a long haul to get your stuff to the rivers to ship. Enter the traboules. These are passages through the buildings, hidden to those who don't know they are there. Looking (and normally acting) like building accesses, they are in fact passages though building courtyards. Lyon basically invented them, and there are hundreds, several dozen of which are open to the public.

One or two have even been turned into restaurants.

In addition to being architecturally interesting, traboules are of historical interest. Though some started as early as the 4th century, many were built for the workers in the silk trade that flourished in Lyon in the 1800's, and they also served as the hiding place for the French resistance fighters in World War II. And on top of that, they are home to many cats.

Lyon lights up its buildings at night, and is it ever a cool place to walk around in the dark.

Like all European cities, it has its share of markets. One is on the banks of the Saône, one on the Croix-Rousse hill.

In markets, you sell what you have. Here's a guy selling wine (very good Cote du Rhone and Beaujolais) OUT OF THE BACK OF HIS CAR for between €3 and €5 a bottle.

Also being Europe, there are the "big name" churches, like the one I noted above, then there are the "no name" churches like this little one we ran across.

It also interesting to note that in every city we went, we found either a Canadian consulate or embassy, including Lyon.

Lyon is juxtaposition of old and new, peace and bustle, cared for and distressed, with freakishly good food thrown in for good measure.

Oh, did I mention the food? Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, home to world famous chef Paul Bocuse and numerous others. Yes, some of the food is strange (tête de veau, which is veal's head; blood sausage and tripe are also delicacies). In fact we were joking about how Lyon chefs must sit around thinking up strange things to cook and eat. But it's all fantastic.

Take Brassier Georges (opened in 1834) as an example. I started with a berry lentil salad with chive and sherry vinegar, followed by woodcock supreme stuffed with fresh ham and Comté cheese served with parmesan risotto, and finished with a "floating island with pink pralines", which was meringue with dried candied fruit floating in a sweet cream sauce -- accompanied by a 2007 Moulin-a-Vent. Dinner for 3 came to €90.

The next night featured salade de grenouille (frogs legs), entrêcot and a tarte due pomme with Mogon wine for €91. The food was stellar. In fact, even the baguettes we bought to make lunch with were better than the ones in Paris.

But what wasn't better was the coffee. Paris cafés have superlative coffee, almost as good as Italy. Lyon less so. We ordered a cappuccino one morning and got an espresso poured over a small cup of whipped cream. We ordered a café au lait and got an espresso in one cup and a steamed milk in a second cup, with no way to mix the two. After paying about €7 in Paris of 3 cappuccinos and 3 croissants, one place charged us €9 for just coffee in Lyon.

But around this point, Chesley had already decided that Italian food was better than French, and so had already switched. It's not that she didn't like French cuisine. But Italy was getting closer...

Also around this point, I started to get sick. I remain sick today, some 4 weeks since we left Lyon for Nice.

If you have always wanted to go to Paris, please go to Lyon as part of your trip. It's 2 hrs away by train, and worth the trip. The food is better, the people nicer, and it's a taste in every way of the France people dream about. It was one of Chesley's favourite places, and Karen's too.

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