The First Impression
I saw Lyon for the first time in a sunny afternoon of April and immediately fell in love. Lyon welcomed me with a long, scenic ride along a tree-lined boulevard with the Rhône on one side and French architecture on the other. Situated midway between Paris and Marseille – the biggest cities in France – Lyon offers a pleasant mix of the classical charm of Paris and the youthfulness of Marseille. Lyon has the places (squares) with fountains and old stone buildings classy like the Hotel de Ville in Paris, the plane tree boulevards stretching along the river bank romantic like the Seine, the narrow cobbled stone paths leading uphill nostalgic like those in Montmartre. What’s lacking in Lyon is the intimidating grandeur and conservative sophistication of Paris. Instead, nesting under those old stone buildings are up-and-coming designer’s studios, start-ups, banks, and shared apartments of hopeful students. In essence, Lyon carries a bubbling energy similar to Marseille, minus the infamous edginess that makes many people from the North uncomfortable in that Southern hotpot.
My husband and I made our first stop for apero and dinner at a friend. From his private garden on the rooftop with a view of the park across the river, we sipped on wine and watched the city below springing into life in the warm sun before switching into a magnificent night mode with smart lighting design enunciating every bridge, every stone building along the river. In my own experience, spending time with a local at the beginning of any trip always brings not only a lot of useful tips but also a unique understanding of the soul of a city. And while in Lyon, one must dine like a Lyonnaise – which means charcuterie (cold cuts), pâté and wine from the Rhône.
If you are planning your travel to France, hold this piece of advice close to your heart – don’t get out of the house until at least 10am especially during the weekend. The French shopkeepers would still be in bed, drunk from last night’s incredibly good and cheap local wine and dissatisfied with the fact that they have to work during the weekend. That being said, our quest to discover Lyon (and for my husband, rediscover, because he used to live here) started around noon on Friday.
A former weaving city with a gastronomic reputation, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home of the famous Olympic Lyon football team and motherland of the Lumière brothers, Lyon has recently renewed itself as the destination for design and innovation. A thriving population of youngsters have occupied the center city, opening design shops and founding start-ups under the roof of hundred-year-old weaving ateliers. At noon, cafes surrounding the city’s many places are filled with students dwelling into books in between classes or young employees in jeans and polo taking a lunch break. The scene and the atmosphere reminded me of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, only that the architecture was purely and gracefully French.
The cobble stone path leading up the top of the Croix-Rousse hill unfolds a stunning view of the city. First prospered under the Romans, the city still carries a taste of the Mediterranean in its architecture and urban planning. The landscape is shaped by two main hills – the Croix-Rousse to the North and the Fourviere to the East. Houses and trees occupied the sloped hillside, the whole scene overlooked by the graceful white basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere. The Rhône and the Saone rivers join at Presqu’ile (peninsula) – the only flat piece of land and also the center of modern Lyon. Boats and bridges connect the busy city that was once a major hub for silk trade and is now a thriving commercial center of the Rhône-Alps region.
If you have trotted up the Croix-Rousse by the scenic cobbled stone path, you should descend through the traboules like a true Lyonnaise. Lyon has one of the most famous systems of traboules – passageways running between and under buildings. Originally used by local inhabitants and canuts (silk workers) as shortcuts to the commercial and transportation hubs down the hill, this complex system had not only played a critical role in the city’s prosperity through silk trade but also helped the locals juggle the invasion of outsiders.
If you want to try Lyonnaise food, leave the hustle of Presqu’ile behind and cross the bridge into Vieux Lyon. The bottom of Fourviere is indeed a charming area, although filled with tourists much like the Île de la Cité that housed the Notre Dame de Paris. Bouchons after bouchons (the traditional restaurant concept of Lyon) offer the most well-known Lyonnaise dishes – from local charcuterie to audaciously tasted sausages and the oddly named soft white cheese spread cervelle de canuts (silk worker’s brain). Throw your diet into the Saone and dwell into the renowned rich and heavy gastronomy of the region. In the true custom of a tourist, I walked my husband around the busy place Saint-Jean comparing menus and the crowdedness of restaurants. By the time I was ready, lunchtime was already over (yep, if you haven’t heard of the notoriously strict hour of service in French restaurants, better take note now). Among the few restaurants that accepted us for a late lunch, we settled in Les Ventres Jaunes – a chic bistro with yellow checkered tablecloth whose set menus provide the principle Lyonnaise dishes. My appetizer, a salad Lyonnais with bacon and poached eggs, was twice the size and probably three times the calories of my typical lunch salad in New York. My main course – sauccison chaud (cooked dried sausage) with potato – is dieter and vegetarian’s nightmare but, as meat lover, I approve this. The English-speaking patron sitting next to me awkwardly cut and turned the anduillette (cow stomach sausage) that he just ordered, trying to decide if he could handle this gastronomic extreme. To have lunch like a French, pair your dish with a glass of wine. While in Lyon, do not miss a Beaujolais or aCôtes du Rhône. Tip for French-wine newbies like myself: you can never go wrong with a Côtes du Rhône. Place Saint-Jean may not house the most authentic Lyonnaise restaurants but the atmosphere and the convenience of this area is surely a plus.
In this medieval part of town, the street is small and busy like the boulevard Saint Michele leading to the Notre-Dame in Paris, although the architecture is more rustic. I followed the stream of people along the narrow path flanked by Medieval-style architecture and all of a sudden the set of Game of Thrones became realistic. The streets do not have sidewalks and are tilted sideway. The tale has it that, before the sewage system existed, families would flush waste water directly on the street; sometimes from the second or third floor’s window. Therefore, the tilted path existed to let the rich walk on the higher, cleaner side and leave the poor on the filthy lower side. Somebody says – stone remembers. I wonder what the stones on those paths have seen and, if they could speak, what stories they would tell.
We concluded a beautiful day in Lyon with a walk on the newly-built park along the Rhône and a happy-hour drink on the dock of Ayer’s Rock. Plane trees come back to life this time of the year; the bright and youthful shade of green popping out of the wet, deep dark brown trunks brings enthusiasm and optimism. We were certainly not the only ones to gratefully embrace the sign of spring spouting out everywhere in this city. In the company of friends and good beer, I happily watch the sunset falling on Lyon yet again. This time, although from a very different point of view, this charming city struck me the same.