LYON, OCTOBER 2009
One of my favourite films is La Bete Humaine, the story of a French train driver who goes mad, embarks on a homicidal spree, and crashes his train after committing suicide. So when the idea of spending a few days in Lyon came up, it seemed natural to go by train and see if this is what French railways are really like. Nothing could be more different. We were whisked from Southport to France’s second largest city (800 miles away) in less than ten hours door to door, thanks mainly to the astonishing TGVs – which belt along at speeds pushing 200 mph.
Lyon is not a major tourist destination, which is surprising in a way as it’s a fascinating city with loads to do. The basic geography is similar to New York. It lies at the confluence of the Soane and Rhone rivers (aka Hudson and East River). To the west of the Soane is Vieux Lyon (Newark, New Jersey), on the peninsula between the rivers is Presqu’ile (Manhattan) which is where the city expanded to in the middle ages, to the north of which is the silk weaving area of Croix-Rousse (The Bronx). To the east of the Rhone is the modern commercial centre (Brooklyn and Queens). There the similarities end.
At the top of the hill above Vieux Lyon lie the remains of the major Roman city of Lugdunum. There is a large amphitheatre (still in use), and Odeon (a smaller Roman theatre not a flea pit) and a typically bizarre 1970s concrete museum full of antiquities.
Next door and overlooking the new city is the extraordinary Fourviere Basilica. This was built mainly between 1870 and 1896 to give thanks for being spared from invasion by the Prussians. On the outside it looks like a gigantic oblong wedding cake, and inside the decoration is as elaborate and overdone as it is possible to imagine. Nevertheless a visit is a must, not least for the stunning view from the promenade outside.
Below lies Vieux Lyon itself, a charming area of closely packed medieval buildings that came perilously close to being knocked down in the 1960s. Among its delights are lovely cafes, a Sunday market by the river, and several unusual museums, one of which is a collection of dozens of miniature scenes – the dining room at Maxims in Paris at 1/12th scale, the interior of a bomb damaged theatre, a school classroom – all with astonishing amounts of detail.
Presqu’ile was rebuilt from the 1850s and boasts handsome buildings, fine squares and lots and lots and lots of clothes shops – the Lyonnais looked a well turned-out lot. The Musee des Beaux Arts boasts plenty of Picassos, Matisses, etc as well as one of the best collections of Impressionist paintings outside Paris – amassed by a 1930s film actress who knew what to do with her money.
In the south eastern suburbs is the home of cinema – the Lumier Villa – where the brothers invented cinematography in 1895. It’s well worth a visit, the more so during our trip as the Lyon Lumier film festival was in full swing and Clint Eastwood was in town (didn’t see him).
Some of the early work the Lumieres did is amazing – they sent film reporters round the world to give people their first animated views of places like Morocco and China, as well as producing vibrant colour photos well before the first World War.
Not far away is the Musee Tony Garnier – dedicated to the pioneering city planner and architect. The museum actually consists of several small blocks of flats he designed, with large murals describing his works on the end walls. One hopes the tenants get a bit of discount on their rent to compensate for lots of annoying architecture buffs nosing about.
A gigantic abattoir he designed for the city is now the second largest indoor performance venue in France, hosting the likes of Johnny Hallyday (France’s Elvis), Depeche Mode and Holiday on Ice. I hope it’s not haunted by bovine ghosts – eating a burger at a concert there might send a chill down your spine.
On the Sunday we thought we’d try the Contemporary Art museum, also in the suburbs and hosting the biennial art show. It was a disappointment – I like my contemporary art to either make me laugh or recoil in disgust – and this dull stuff, complete with pompous and confused labelling, did neither. So we crossed the road and, like everyone in France of a Sunday afternoon, strolled around the park – in this case the Tete d’Or. This park had the lot, lake, boats, zoo (proper zoo: lions, elephants, giraffes), miniature railway, botanical gardens, palm houses, rose gardens, deer compound, grass – it went on and on.
And then of course there is the food. Lyon regards itself as the gastronomic capital of France. Our experience was mixed, it has to be said. On a recommendation in an old easyJet magazine (always a good source I’ve found) we went to Restaurant Magelle et Martin on the first night. Frankly it was fabulous. A small restaurant, with restrained modern decor, friendly service, and wonderful food that made us smile.
The next evening we went to La Famille, an informal place up in Croix-Rousse. This was fine, with hearty portions and fresh ingredients. Perhaps the puds were a bit disappointing. On Saturday we went to Brasserie George, a Lyon institution, with seats for 500 diners in a huge gilded room. I liked my scallops in a light curry sauce, but Christine wasn’t quite so keen, saying the sauce had a certain takeaway quality to it.
Sunday is a difficult night to eat as many places are closed, but we found somewhere that had plenty of locals in it, including a gang celebrating after their work at the film festival. The menu boasted genuine traditional Lyonnais food – but somehow I don’t think that crème caramel served with four fluorescent wine gums can be traced back over the centuries.
If you like city transport in all its forms, Lyon is the place for you. Whoever runs it all is a serious anorak. The major bus routes are operated by trolleybuses, with booms on the roof taking current from complex networks of overhead wires. But these trolleybuses would not look out of place in a Flash Gordon movie – all space age curves, tinted windows, and even spats to hide the wheels. Alas they look very out of place among the elegant buildings of Lyon.
There is a metro. Some of the trains are automatic so you can indulge in the thrill of sitting at the front or back of the train to watch as it swoops up and down over subterranean hills (the track is far from flat) and into the bright stations that start as distant spots of light.
The most extreme line is that going from the Hotel de Ville to Croix-Rousse – the old silk making district – perched on a hill several hundred feet above Presqu’ile. The Croix-Rousse station is down a few steps from its main square, and instead of taking a long looping descent of the hill as you might expect, the line just plunges straight down. It is so steep that the track has a rack and pinion arrangement to stop the trains running loose and it is very hard to sit on a seat without sliding off.
Then there are the funiculars. These cable-hauled trains run from Vieux Lyon up to the Basilica and Roman areas – again straight up and very steep. And lastly, a fleet of uber-groovy white trams built up of five short segments that snake around the city like caterpillars.
So if there is no other reason to visit Lyon (and there are lots) it truly is a transport of delights – but steer clear of crème caramel a la wine gums.
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