En route from Paris to Provence, I returned to Lyon to visit French Arnaud, who I met in Amsterdam. Lyon exhibits an intriguing mixture of architectural and cultural influences due to its location at the crossroads between Paris, the Riviera, Italy and the Alps. It was my second visit to France’s second city, but as always, the experience was very different with a local guide. Arnaud is a former junior butterly champion of France, which made my recent swimming exploits in Paris seem rather lethargic and inconsequential, and the only person I have met under the age of 30 who religiously brushes their teeth after every meal. Originally from Alsace, Arnaud migrated to Lyon for its amiable weather and small city vibe. He informed me that most of his social network are also migrants from other areas of France. Apparently the Lyonnais, like people from the South of France in general, are rather exclusive in their social interactions. Additionally, people from Paris and the West of France, are typically quite arrogant; only people from the East of France are friendly and relaxed! Unfortunately, I have been unable to verify these portrayals with another Frenchmen.
Upon arriving, I was immediately reminded of my impressions in 2013 that Lyon is an incredibly liveable city. Lyon boasts a comprehensive and user-friendly public transport system, with an efficient and modern metro integrated with an expansive tram network and two funicular railways (connecting the centre to adjacent hilly neighbourhoods); an impressive suite of infrastructure for a relatively small city. Aside from the windy streets of the medieval old town, the layout of Lyon is generally rectilinear, logical and navigable. Like most European cities, the central areas of Lyon are compact and easily traversed on foot or bicycle. Nevertheless, pedestrian boulevards, strategically located public squares, abundant parkland and two rivers cutting through the city (the Rhône and Saône) to form a confluence provide spaciousness lacking in cramped and overcrowded cities like Paris, Barcelona and Rome. Lyon is a visually appealing city of clean streets and historic Mediterranean-influenced architecture, and is illuminated beautifully in the night time (it is known in French as the “city of lights”). The city enjoys the distinction as France’s gastronomic capital and features an eclectic bar scene. Lyon’s location affords it with a climate of warm summers and mild winters and access within two hours by TGV to the Mediterranean coast, the alpine mountains and Paris. Lyon is a unique blend of Northern European orderliness and efficient urban planning with Southern Europe culture and vibe. Overall, its unfortunate that Lyon does not rank highly on the Anglo-centric “world’s most liveable city” indexes.
I arrived in Lyon on a weekend, allowing Arnaud to act as my personal tour guide. Lyon is comprised of 9 arrondissements, which are municipal subdivisions used in France’s 3 largest cities. On the first day we visited the 5th Arrondissement to the west of the Saône, which consists of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city. The old town is somewhat reminiscent of northern Italian cities, with its Renaissance architecture, narrow cobblestone streets and terracotta roofs all bathed in sunlight. We caught the funicular to the peak of the hill adjacent Vieux Lyon to admire the whimsical architecture of La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviére and magnificent views of Lyon and the Alps in the far distance. The view of Central Lyon is of a veritable sea of ochre red (from the roofing) and buildings of almost uniform height, interspersed only by 2 totally out of place modern skyscrapers. We also visited the nearby Roman ruins and excellently preserved amphitheatre, which are free to explore. Arnaud previously lived within the vicinity of the ruins, which served as a surreally beautiful location to read a book or eat lunch. In the late afternoon, we ambled through the city centre in the 1st Arrondissement, which occupies the peninsula between the Rhône and Saône. The 1st Arrondissement is the primary administrative, commercial and entertainment area in Lyon and features predominately 19th century structures. In the evenings, the banks of the Rhône are transformed into a hub of activity, with Lyonnais enjoying picnics and drinks while enjoying the city lights. Dozens of large boats are permanently moored to the eastern riverbanks and serve as bars or nightclubs in the evenings. We passed one of the most popular boats called “Ayers Rock”, which promoted Arnaud to attempt to mimic the Aussie accent while failing to drop quintessentially French sounds. Not that my efforts in the French language were any better, although everyone seemed to appreciate when I said “merci beaucoup!”
On the following day, we caught another funicular to Croix Rousse in the 4th Arrondissement, immediately north of the city centre. Croix Rousse is vaguely similar to Montmartre in Paris, with its hilly topography and Bohemian reputation. The area features Lyon’s most famous mural, Le Mur des Canuts. The mural occupies a formally barren wall of a multi-storey building and is a remarkable 3-dimensional illusion of a typical streetscape, replete with shopfronts, cars and landscaping. The mural is updated every decade to reflect contemporary styles. We then ventured down the hills and crossed the Rhône to the 6th Arrondissement, which Arnaud vouched for as the finest in Lyon. The arrondissement consists of Europe’s largest urban park, Parc de la Tête d’Or. We ambled through the scenic park and even visited its free zoological gardens.
Arnaud was insistent that to properly appreciate French cuisine, I needed to sample foie gras (duck or goose liver). The French are utterly obsessed by foie gras, which is a staple entrée of the traditional Christmas feast. Yet the method of production is extremely controversial, with the caged and immobile birds force-fed corn via a feeding tube multiple times a day to swell their livers to 8-10 times the natural size (if the birds are fed naturally, the liver is not considered foie gras by French law). The ethically destitute practice is thus banned from most Western countries, including Australia. Needless to say, I still feel morally compromised that I chose to eat foie gras, although it was admittedly very delicious. Foie gras is immensely richer in flavour and smoother than paté and is typically eaten with just baguette. The flavour is so overwhelming that its really not an ingredient I could consume regularly. Arnaud, like most of the French, acknowledges the cruelty associated with foie gras. But his love for the taste and its cultural significance eventually supersedes any moral imperative. I suppose every society has an intriguing ability to “turn a blind eye” from inhumane practices; Australians, for example, with our treatment of asylum seekers.
Arnaud otherwise provided excellent commentary and guidance on the culinary traditions of Lyon, which the French consider to be the country’s foodie centre. The city is particularly famed for its veneration of offal, which on my first visit I regrettably dabbled with by trying calf’s head. On this occasion, my Lyonnais culinary experiences were far less traumatic. I feasted on an incredibly rich and delicious local speciality named quenelle de brodet. The dish consists of fish and a white sauce (roux) which are mixed together, sieved and poached. The resulting forcemeat is served with a creamy crayfish sauce and rice, creating a dish that is so filling I was unable to finish it (very rare). I sampled cervelle de canut, which is a fresh cheese spread flavoured with herbs and shallots, with boiled potatoes. As possibly the only Frenchman who does not like cheese, Arnaud was utterly repulsed by the sight of this dish. I tried saucisson de Lyon, which is a large sausage made from beef and bacon and typically served in slices due to the thickness. The meat topped a very rich green lentils and a red wine stew, creating a lovely comfort food dish for the summer heat. For sweets, I indulged in two of the local sugary treats: coussins de Lyon, which are delectable bite-size pieces of chocolate coated in marzipan, and the spectacular tarte aux pralines, a tart filled with a bright red-rose paste made from crushed Lyonnaise pralines (the idiosyncratic colour is derived purely from food dye, disappointingly) and cream.
As I expressed my exasperation for the volume and richness of the food the French seemed to eat, Arnaud confirmed that a typical French household would often have 3-4 courses each evening, with obligatory sides of baguette. I have since learnt that Australians, ranked 33rd in the world for average daily calorie consumption per capita, eat approximately 10% less calories than the French, ranked 12th (Australians surprisingly consume less calories on average than every country in Western Europe except for Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands – incidentally the 3 countries with the worst cuisines in the region!). So the theory that the French “eat in moderation” to offset their diets heavy with bread, butter, pastries, cheese and charcuterie is an absolute myth. Yet the French, irritatingly, have a genetic propensity for leanness in comparison with Australia, as only 15% of the population is considered obese versus 27%. Somehow, the French can have their cake and eat it too.
Lyon lacks the iconic attractions of major European cities and is thus excluded excluded from the mass-tourist route through the continent. Yet the city is evidently very liveable and an enjoyable destination to spend a couple days exploring its intriguing neighbourhoods.
That’s all for now,