Last weekend we visited Lyon, the third largest city in France and an easy two-hour ride south of Paris on the land-rocket TGV train. I’d read in one of the local English language newspapers that Lyon is considered by many to be “the most beautiful city in France”. I’d heard from friends that it’s like a ‘mini’ Paris, with better food and a more relaxed pace of life. It also has a river, lots of bridges, very old buildings and some great shopping. By all accounts Lyon sounded beautiful and intriguing, clearly a place we should check out so…I rented us a small apartment in the middle of the old town and we bought our train tickets, even springing to ride in first class comfort!
We had chosen this particular weekend for our first visit to Lyon largely because of its Fête des Lumières or ‘Festival of Lights’, a four-day extravaganza of creative lighting displays that attracts more than three million visitors annually. Although the Fête des Lumières has grown exponentially over the last 10 years, its beginnings are humble.
In 1852 the people of Lyon were preparing a celebration to accompany the unveiling of a statue of the Virgin Mary who, they believe, had saved their city from the plague and other sicknesses over the years. But luck was not on their side. On the planned day in September the Saône River overflowed and forced the city to reschedule its celebrations. However, when that day arrived – December 8th – a huge storm broke out and once again the organizers were forced to postpone the celebrations. But, as evening fell on Lyon, the storm eased off and people began to light candles, place them in their windows and then hurry down to the street with lanterns. In this flurry of spontaneity the tradition of the Fête des Lumières was born and has continued every December 8th since.
That is, until this year. This year, with the heightened level of concern for “large planned gatherings” throughout France following the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Fête des Lumières was cancelled. There would be no extravagant creative lighting displays or throngs of people parading with candles and lanterns. However, the Lyonnaise were not going to give up their celebration so easily. Instead, they decided to simply scale back their festival to a one-day event on December 8th to pay tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks. To encourage participation among the citizens of Lyon, 200,000 lumignon candles would be handed out to schoolchildren and sold to the general public by volunteers from the city. All the money raised would be donated to the association of terrorist victims. Once again the Lyonnaise have creatively adapted their passion for candles and lights to unpredictable extenuating circumstances.
For us, the cancellation of the Fête des Lumières was disappointing but understandable. However, since we already had our travel plans in place we decided that, just like the people of Lyon, we would come up with our our own Plan B for the weekend: we would let travel karma lead the way!
For starters, as soon as we got to our apartment I couldn’t help but notice the flashing lights of the ‘Jazz Club St George’ literally 12 paces from the door of our building. In fact, the flashing blue lights kept our kitchen aglow.
Within minutes of unpacking I was knocking on the window of the Club and chatting with the owner about their current shows. He took me on a tour of his tiny, 45-seat “jazz cave” and told me that I was “in luck” as this weekend was the Club’s second year anniversary and there were special programs planned for both nights. I immediately reserved two spots for the show that was to include both Jazz and Blues vocal artists!
And then I was off to explore, camera in hand, no destination in mind.
Fortunately, Lyon is a captivating city that is easily traversed on foot. It’s nestled into the confluence of the Saône and Rhône Rivers and has a history that dates back 2000 years. The narrow cobblestone streets of the old town are dotted with small artist ateliers and Traboules – passageways hidden behind large doors that lead to other passageways, hidden staircases and, in some cases, completely different buildings. For example, I was exploring one Traboule and found myself climbing a long staircase. Halfway up the stairs I noticed an art gallery. With nothing better to do I paid my 3Euros to visit the current exhibit. I wandered through the first two rooms of the gallery. It was an old stone building that seemed to go on and on. The attendant had told me to just “keep going” and to take the narrow staircase at the end of the long hallway: so, of course, I did. At the bottom of the stairs the room suddenly opened up into the sanctuary of a very large, very old church.
The room was filled with art, mostly with a spiritual theme. It turns out that I was in Saint Polycarpe church and the art exhibit was part of the national Biennale d’art sacré (a festival of sacred art). According to a program leaflet the objective of the exhibit was to “inspire the visitor to think about sacred art in a broad sense and to question humanity”. A lofty goal indeed!
I emerged from Saint Polycarpe lower down and a good distance from where I’d first entered which confused, but did not deter, me: Onward feet! I continued my wanderings, turning my attention to street art rather than questions of humanity and sacred art.
Eventually though I got hungry. I’d heard that Lyon is considered the gastronomic capital of France so I was anxious to try a traditional Lyonnaise Bouchon or “food stop” somewhere off the beaten tourist path to find out for myself. As luck would have it I was taking photos on a small side street when I stumbled upon ‘La Manille Café’ a lunchtime-only restaurant that claims to have been in operation since 1860. The place was packed – and not with tourists: ‘Table for one, s’il vous plait!’
‘There is virtually nothing I won’t eat” – I thought to myself as I perused the menu while surreptitiously glancing around to see what other patrons had ordered. To my dismay, most of the menu items seemed to include meats described as “other” which I realized meant things like tongue, blood pudding, tripe, heart, “meats from the head” (brain!) and lungs from a variety of animals. “There is virtually nothing I won’t eat”, I reminded myself as I ordered homemade Andouille sausage, a green salad (that came with meat in it of course) and a baguette. It seemed to me to be the safest item on the menu. The sausage was covered by an extravagant amount of Dijon Ancienne (Dijon mustard with the little mustard seeds in it) that perhaps should have been a clue to what lay underneath: a sausage made largely of “extra” pieces of pork, made in-house of course! It wasn’t a bad meal – it filled me up – the mustard really improved the taste of the sausage and kept me from thinking too much about what it might be made from.
That lunch was to be my only traditional Lyonnaise food of the weekend. I can,however, confirm that Lyon is indeed a gastronomic centre; we found a great Italian restaurant as well as an excellent Brew Pub, a small Spanish Tapas bar and a number of food carts selling delicious ‘vin chaud’ (hot wine). None of them listed brain or heart on their menu.
I continued my random wanderings throughout the weekend. In addition to the Jazz Club I found a Guignol Puppet Theatre within 50 metres of our apartment. Guignol is the main character in traditional French puppet theatre, has been around since the early 1800’s and originated in Lyon. While generally thought of as children’s theatre, Guignol’s sharp wit is very appealing to adults. How could I not go to see one of the many Christmas’ shows being offered? Even though I ended up understanding only about half of the performance, I did get a few of the jokes and had fun watching the young children respond to the puppets.
While our visit to Lyon didn’t turn out as we’d originally expected, there was a sense of adventure to simply letting the weekend unfold. From enjoying live Jazz/Blues in a small cave, to a religious art exhibition and eating ‘heaven-only-knows’ what kind of meat, I got a chance to see many sides of Lyon that I might not have seen otherwise. Indeed, this weekend I learned what the Lyonnaise have known for centuries: when something happens to throw your plans into disarray, don’t let it get you down, just come up with a Plan B and keep on going – you might be surprised!
The following gallery contains a random assortment of photos from our weekend in Lyon. I hope you enjoy them.