Lyon, France’s second city, is my first choice…
Taking a train from Provence through the peaceful countryside into the bustling train station of Gare de Lyon Part Dieu can be a jolt of sorts. There’s a buzz in the country’s second-largest metropolitan area, home to over 1.6 million people…and you can feel it even as you hail a cab. At 7.30, people are already on the roads, driving to work, waiting at bus stops, opening their boulangeries and coffee shops. The laid back, relaxed atmosphere of Southern France is behind you…this is city life, busy and bustling…after all, you’re closer to Paris. Ready up to discover the country’s gastronomic capital.
The cab crosses the bridge over the Rhone river and you adore Lyon already. Along the river banks, classically styled grand buildings face a broad tree-lined avenue and a lovely waterside promenade. Peaceful green spaces, bike lanes, people strolling, chatting, reading books on wooden benches by the water. It is impossible to miss the sprawling monument with a splendid dome facing the river. A distinctive landmark, the Hotel Dieu, a historic hospital built in the 12th century, and a medical facility till today, is one of the largest monuments of Lyon. Further ahead, leaving the river and the buildings behind, you are in the heart of Lyon’s peninsula or Presqu’ile as the area between its two rivers Rhone and Saone is called. Lively and energetic, brimming with impressive buildings, fountains, squares, shops and department stores. So much like Paris…on a smaller scale.
Pick Grand Hotel Des Terreaux, one of Lyon’s oldest hotels for the warm atmosphere of an old-fashioned 19th century town house combined with a modern, innovative décor. Prime location too, just walking distance from main squares of Lyon and on the edge of the historic centre. Everything is within stone’s throw.
You don’t need to venture too far to immersing in the town’s charm…stepping out of the hotel will suffice. Let your curiosity overtake you as you sample the boulangerie opposite, where locals are buying fresh bread of different types…garlic, walnut, baguettes, croissants, beignets (French doughnuts) and round loaves. A takeaway to munch…yes, please. Amble along the Presqu’ile filled with its classical style mansions and thousands of boutiques and stores, including designer labels and all possible brands of high street shopping. Europe’s biggest pedestrian shopping area…the stretch between Rue Victor Hugo and Rue de la Republique…is huge, though compact and completely walkable…and teeming with shoppers.
The street ends at Place Bellecour, the edge of the largest pedestrian square in Europe, which is surrounded by fine 19th century buildings and has a large statue of King Louis XIV mounted on a horse right in the centre of the open space. In winters, the square becomes a centre for entertainment, when an ice skating rink and a large giant wheel are installed here. Every Friday night, Place Bellecour is also the starting point of Lyon’s roller blade ride (similar to that which takes place in Paris). Rows of cafes and bistros fills the streets crossing and running parallel to Rue de la Republique. Choices aplenty. Or in true French style, you can opt for a quicker meal of delicious french baguettes and a variety of desserts…caramel eclair, Madeline and fondant chocolate caramel beurre.
Walking back the same way, head for the other major square, the Place des Terreaux. Coffee is calling by now…so sink into a chair under one of the many canopied outdoor cafes with your cappuccino, gazing at the magnificent fountain (La Fontaine Bartholdi), designed by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the same genius who created the Statue of Liberty. The fountain (reminiscent of the Trevis in Rome), depicts France (symbolised by the woman harnessing four horses, or four major rivers of the nation). To think that this peaceful square was once the site of the guillotine during the French Revolution! Today, Lyon’s administrative and artistic hub, it is marked by the imposing the City Hall (Hotel de Ville), at the eastern end of the plaza, and the Opera with its famous eight muses.
Opposite the fountain stands the great Beaux Arts Museum, featuring works of art from ancient times to today, including Reubens, Monet, Gauguin, Degas and Picasso. Old-school tram lines run along the Museum side. Inside the museum, stroll around the lovely garden courtyard scattered with sculptures, till you reach the former abbey, where a groom in his black suit and the bride in her beautiful off-shoulder white wedding gown are holding hands endearingly, looking into each other’s eyes. Where are the guests? But the movie camera gives it all away… it is just a wedding scene being shot for a commercial. Reel, not real life romance here.
Evening descends upon Lyon, and the city changes its complexion as you look on. A short detour takes you to the Saone river banks. people browse for second hand books. People are walking, running along the river banks below, sitting on the edge of parapets, chatting, catching up before going home. A man walks home with a brown bag of baguettes, a woman buys cold cuts from the boulangerie, a girl cycles past, a car waits patiently for us to cross the road, shops close for the day. Everyday exotic life in Lyon…
The sun sets and the calm ripples of the dark water are ablaze by the reflection of thousands of lights from the buildings on the opposite bank…red, yellow, green, blue and white coloured dots on the surface of the water lend an ethereal feel. The streets and squares light up and every building morphs into a monument, bathed in soft gold. An elegant harmony everywhere. A couple makes choices from a restaurant menu, a few friends laugh over beers at a bouchon table by the pavement. On the other side, the Vieux Lyon (read my post on the Old Town here) sprawls on the hill, its grand cathedral and Eiffel-lookalike, both sparkling elegantly.
Lyon is so much like Paris, you realize…grand opera, chic shops, river cruises, world-class museums and even an Eiffel-clone. But in its own league…with its ancient Roman ruins, fine cuisine and quality of life. France’s second city is my first choice for more reasons than I can count. Which is yours?
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