Paris can kiss my ass. There, I said it. Go ahead and report me to the French Culture Police (actually there probably is some kind of culture regulation office in France, but by the time you file the paperwork complaining about me, I’ll be long gone…ha!)
The iconic romance of “The City of Lights” persists, and it’s not undeserved. If pressed for one adjective to describe Paris, I’d choose “grand,” picturing its stone quays, golden statues, stately domes, geometrically-ordered gardens, and boulevards lined with mansard-roofed and balconied buildings in tasteful gray, blue, and cream. At every turn, a haughty and beautiful monument: Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, the Bastille, the Eiffel Tower, the Panthéon. Grand it may be, but Paris is much like its Mona Lisa. The painting looks in reality as it does in books and movies, but it’s not a work of art you can cozy up to and discover in person on a quick visit. The 30 by 21 inches of wood panel are stuck behind protective plastic and surrounded by a constant swarm of tourists, all of whom want to take a selfie with it. In much the same way, Paris remains distant and inaccessible to the visitor, cold and protected even as tourists swarm it like ants with selfie sticks. There is more there, but most of us will never get the one-on-one time we need to discover it.
I’ve been invited to a poetry reading in the attic of Shakespeare and Company, experienced peaceful moments in the deeper reaches of the Louvre, and run from one wood to the other for the Paris Marathon. Still, I have yet to “get” Paris. Maybe I’m doing it wrong and maybe I’d feel differently if I lived there for a while but, despite these fantastic experiences and many visits, I find Paris to be a bit snobby, brusque, rude, impersonal, and both literally and figuratively chilly.
In honor of revolutionary spirit, let us free ourselves from Paris and discover the rest of the country! For a start, I nominate France’s true best and most puzzlingly under-sung city: Lyon. I guess I’m a bit biased, having lived in Lyon for several years, but I’ve also visited Marseille, Toulouse, Dijon, Grenoble, Strasbourg, Montpelier, and Nice (seven of the largest and most tourist-attracting cities in France), among others, and still think Lyon outshines them all. Even a brief stop can give the visitor a sense of what makes this city so amazing.
Firstly, it’s relatively cheap.
Rents are rising but overall it’s a pretty affordable city. One ride on the metro will run you 1.80 euros, an espresso about the same amount. A good glass of wine can be had for just 4 euros, a pint for 5 (contrast that with the 9-euro beer I bitterly ordered in Paris last week). The markets (with the exception of the hoity toity Halles de Lyon) are vibrant and affordable, as are the museums. You can snag a three-course lunch for 12-15 euros (no joke), a three-course dinner for 23-26 euros. It’s all quite reasonable, and I rarely feel like I’m getting ripped off (whereas in Paris and Nice I rarely feel like I’m not getting ripped off).
It has a unique and distinct character.
Lyon is a rich, multi-layered place in many ways, historically, aesthetically, and culturally. Its pastel buildings and red tile roofs, double rivers with their mishmash of bridges, bright white basilica visible from almost anywhere in the city proper, hilly and mountainous backdrops, and the presence of both cobblestones and gleaming modern glass give it a particular look– it could never be mistaken for elsewhere. The Romans were here, the Revolution was here, the silk trade was here, the Nazis and the Resistance were here, and remnants of each period remain.
It’s also a city of local legends and modern idiosyncrasies. There’s the Festival of Lights, originally a votive-lit tribute to the Virgin Mary for deliverance from plague and now an elaborate annual event that transforms the city into a massive light installation. There are secrets: the rumor of a lost papal diamond lodged somewhere on the Fourvière hillside, and the hidden passageways called traboules that served silk workers in one era and resistance fighters in another. There’s the weird, like the Museum of Miniatures and Cinema, proud holder of such treasures as a dollhouse-sized library, barber shop, and diner as well as a robot from the movie iRobot and a mouse from Stuart little, and a myriad bizarre boutiques with indiscernible themes that somehow manage to stay open. And there are firsts and onlys. Lyon is the proud home of the first urban funicular railway, the first film, the traditional Lyonnais bouchon, server of expertly-cooked brains, stomachs, and intestines, its own set of slang words, and a local currency called the gonette.
It is perfectly, perfectly located.
Around two hours or less by train from Paris, Grenoble, Chambery, Annecy, Mâcon, Dijon, Valence, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Arles, Montpelier, Geneva, and Marseille. Less than five hours by train from Toulouse, Turin, Milan, the entire Côte d’Azur, and Lille. Also painlessly accessible to London, Belgium, Germany, and Spain via train, bus, or air. Hiking trails are easy to get to by public transport, both in the Lyon area and farther afield. Promotional deals and a plethora of other budget options make all of this exploring easy– I challenge you to find a better base for traveling the Mediterranean and parts of northern Europe.
It’s small but lively.
With a population of around 500,000 and just two small skyscrapers, Lyon, especially by American standards, barely qualifies as a metropolis. Public transport is mostly closed between 12:30 am and 5:00 am and it’s easy to walk from one end of the city to the other. Still, there’s plenty going on– music, social meet-ups, film series, major cultural events of all kinds. Events are hopping but manageable enough that they can be discovered and enjoyed organically (take, for example, the Fête de la Musique, a late spring/early summer evening of diverse musical acts set up in downtown parks, streets, and squares for open performances anyone can wander in and out of).
There’s a growing number of cute coffee shops, cocktail bars, and restaurants for every taste, and because there’s less thronging in general, there’s more opportunity to get to know the owners of these establishments, a kind of interaction I find to be in short supply in France. The atmosphere in Lyon is a rare mix of tranquility and excitement, and always personal.
All this to say that, despite its distinctiveness, Lyon is also a little bit of everything.
Lyon is cosmopolitan and global, home and host to international business and organizations like Interpol, but quaint and refreshingly un-jaded. People are working, creating, making things happen, but also drinking wine and preserving tradition (a start-up co-working space sets up shop down the block from a violin maker and a cobbler, and I walk past both on my way to a café that serves serious hipster coffee). It’s a “gateway to the South” but is decidedly not of the south. It has a profound history but is present and future-oriented. It is lovely but smoggy, and the fact that it rarely tops people’s travel lists somehow makes it even more endearing. Unlike Paris, it feels warm– and it’s only partly because of the red roofs and the mild weather. In my next post, I’ll give you the run-down of the must-sees of Lyon so you can start planning your trip!