An Exceedingly Humble Guide [Part Three]: Lyon


Lyon is an unequivocally terrible city. It is, simply put, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. You, dear reader, will have lived an enviable life if only you can boast that you never entered its miserable confines. Still, Lyon’s matchless unpleasantness deserves a review of sorts. This guide will outline exactly why it is an awful city and specifically what you should avoid if you are ever forced to visit.


 

Once the prestigious capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon is now the decrepit center of the French Rhône-Alpes region. The metropolitan area is the second largest in the country, home to some two million pitiable inhabitants. The layout of Lyon is determined by the surrounding hills and rivers. The confluence of the Rhône and Saône creates a peninsula called the Presqu’île. To the north of this peninsula is the neighborhood of La Croix-Rousse. On the left bank of the Rhône several neighborhoods are grouped together as the “Rive Gauche.” On the right bank of the Saône are Vieux Lyon—or “Old Lyon”—and the neighborhood of the Fourvière, which overlooks the entire metropolis. Travel between these areas is a continuous ordeal thanks to the sorry state of Lyon’s infrastructure: there’s only 1 international airport, 3 train stations, 4 metro lines, 5 tram lines, 123 bus lines, and 340 bicycle-hire service stations.

 

The office of tourism in Lyon has developed a clever little stylized slogan: “Only Lyon.” They would have you think that Lyon is filled with manifold attractions, but don’t be fooled dear reader—it is but a cheap trick. Lyon would be a terrible place to take people who are visiting you from America. There is nothing worth seeing, but there is indeed plenty to avoid.


Photo credit: Anne Donnelly

Definitely don't bring friends to Lyon or they'll look like this

Stay away from the Fourvière hill. There’s no point in looking out over the vast urban panorama. The Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière has an unoriginal exterior and the décor inside is terribly bland. The ancient Roman theatre and odeon are uninteresting and they certainly don’t offer a fascinating view into the lives and cultures of ancient peoples.

 

No views to be found here...

The exterior of the basilica

The interior of the basilica 

The (restored) steps of the Roman theatre 

Don’t even think about visiting the Presqu’île. The Opéra Nouvel hosts no events worthy of note. There is no pleasure to be derived from strolling along the banks of the rivers and taking in the city views. The whole neighborhood seems haphazard: the Place Bellecour, Place Carnot, Place des Jacobins, Place des Terreaux, and all of the expansive avenues connecting them seem as if they were organized by a blind person.

 

The Saône

At Place Bellecour looking up to the Fourvière

Statue of Louis XIV in the center of Place Bellecour

Rue de la République 

The Hôtel de Ville in the Place des Terreaux 


Keep away from La Croix-Rousse, dear reader, if you know what is good for you. Just walking down the streets, one can sense the oppressively bohemian and lively atmosphere. The Roman amphitheater located there is just like every other Roman amphitheater. It is a neighborhood completely bereft of history and culture (apart from it being the capital of the European silk industry for several centuries).


Graffiti in La Croix-Rousse 

Kevin from Up


Don’t waste your time with Parc de la Tête d’Or; it is one of the oldest, largest, and dullest urban green spaces in France. It has nothing to offer in any season: the gardens are lifeless in the spring, you shouldn’t bother boating on the lake in the summer, the foliage lacks any color in autumn, and it’s a miserable place to spend Christmas Day biking around with the woman you love.


Cherry blossom


Steer clear of Vieux Lyon at all costs. For some reason UNESCO has declared it a world heritage site—probably as some sort of joke. The Cathédrale Saint-Jean is just a modest little chapel of no cultural significance. The narrow pedestrian streets and Renaissance architecture throughout the neighborhood leave much to be desired. Vieux Lyon is known for its traboules (covered passageways originally used for silk transportation in wet weather), but what’s so special about a few tunnels?


Cathédrale Saint-Jean

Traboule marking


In addition to all of these places to avoid, it should be noted that Lyon offers an embarrassingly meager selection of museums. The tourist unfortunate enough to travel to Lyon can see it all in a short afternoon: the Gallo-Roman Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Confluence Museum (of science and anthropology), the African Museum, the Hôtel-Dieu (medical museum), the Center for the History of the Resistance and Deportation, the Decorative Arts Museum, the Gadagne Museum (history of Lyon), the Museum of Automated Puppets, the Lumière Museum (the birthplace of cinematography), the Miniature and Cinema Museum, the Silk Weavers’ House (museum of the Lyonnais silk industry), the Printing Museum, and the Laundry Museum.


Roman mosaic 

Roman keys

 

Regarding Lyonnais culture, there’s not much to be said. While Lyon might be lauded as the gastronomic capital of France (and sometimes the world), anyone with a sense of taste will disagree. There is a dearth of regional ingredients, excellent markets, and international restaurants. The traditional Lyonnais eatery, the inhospitable bouchon, serves minuscule dishes of a quality barely rivaling Kentucky Fried Chicken. Any culinary culture that Lyon once had has been thoroughly stamped out by the infamous chef Paul Bocuse (whose only praise comes from fringe organizations, such as the Culinary Institute of America who named him Chef of the Century). Worst of all, dear reader, you’re forced to wash this so-called food down with the obscure and tasteless wines of Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhône—too insignificant to warrant further review.

 

quenelle, just try it


Lyon is widely known for its annual lights show, the Fête des Lumières—although it’s difficult to understand why. The Fête des Lumières is one of the top three biggest festive gatherings in the world in terms of attendance (after Rio Carnival and Munich Oktoberfest). Three to four million people come to see the hackneyed train wreck each year. It is a truly pedestrian event in both senses of the word: every road closes to traffic and swells with spectators. The entire city of Lyon is lit up by dozens of unimaginative installations, ranging from run-of-the-mill psychedelic animations projected on the cathedral to giant, bromidic puppet shows. You will see more originality, dear reader, by driving around your neighborhood in Christmastime. 


Cathédrale Saint-Jean 

Giant puppets and interpretive dance 

The Hôtel de Ville

The festival is actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary


Sure, Lyon may have ranked as the second best city in France by the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, but anyone who visits can observe otherwise. As you can discern from this guide, dear reader, there is nothing to see or do in Lyon. Its only redeeming features are six Starbucks locations and transportation to other destinations. It is utterly devoid of vitality, diversity, and culture. You will lose a fragment of your soul for every second you spend in such a miserable place, just ask any of two million people who reluctantly call Lyon home.

An Exceedingly Humble Guide [Part Two]: Grenoble

 

Grenoble has much in common with Annecy: they are both cities, they are both located in France, and they both contain people. Grenoble is a truly majestic city, nestled beneath the Vercors, Belledonne, and Chartreuse mountains. It is so nestled that the amalgam of concrete buildings stretches all the way up to the slopes of its geographic confines. If you, dear reader, ever have the chance to visit, you too might feel nestled—suffocated in a beautiful way.

 


If you are working as an English teaching assistant in Savoy, Grenoble will probably be the nearest real city. With the resources to sustain and entertain 600,000 people, you will frequent it in an attempt to satisfy your cosmopolitan inclinations. It is to this metropolis that you will voyage in search of important government offices, a movie theatre showing Interstellar in English, and a Mexican restaurant that you will have convinced yourself is the best in all of France (your desperation for margaritas having clouded your judgment).



Grenoble has the air of an old capital. Evidence of the city’s former political clout remains: expansive boulevards, elegant apartments, and—most notably—an immense prison-fort looming over the entire city from atop its hill. This last item, the Bastille (a note to the debutant: not the infamous Bastille of the French Revolution), has become a considerable attraction. Instead of serving as a bastion of punishment, it is now a citadel of tourism—a citadel whose import is readily apparent in the volume of Asian visitors it attracts. If someone from the Orient is on vacation in Europe, it means they have travelled a great distance and their destination is a worthy one. Millions, if not billions, of Asians visit the Bastille every year. They summit the fortress by way of the téléphérique: a system reminiscent of a ski lift, but with magical glass space globes. This is, of course, a destination that you do not want to spoil by physical exertion: from the Bastille you can see the glorious mountains, the winding river, the expansive city, the marvelous high-rises, and an enchanting haze of pollution that renders the whole landscape mysterious and ethereal—if a little obscured. 



But dear reader, someone as cultured as you will not be contented so easily with the main attraction. Grenoble has so much more to offer: rapid public transportation, modern shopping centers, a myriad of ethnic food, and an abundance of bars and dance clubs in which you can completely redefine your previous notions of personal space. The Museum of Grenoble is like a miniature Louvre. The iron-lined balconies and mansard roofs near the Place Hubert Dubedout are reminiscent of Haussmann apartments in Paris. Notre-Dame de Grenoble is just like Notre Dame de Paris, in that they have the words Notre-Dame in their name. Why would you go anywhere else (for example Paris), if you could go to Grenoble? 


A Haussmann apartment building in Paris

As you probably know, dear reader, a city is so much more than its attractions. Grenoble is a rich tapestry woven of beautiful and diverse neighborhoods. Take, for example, Arlequin. It was here in 2010 that, after a robbery suspect was killed in a shoot-out with the police, massive riots erupted throughout the housing projects. In the following days gunmen fired upon police, SWAT teams sieged apartment complexes, and protestors burned dozens of cars. Such culture! On your visit to Grenoble, it is likely that a friend of a friend will invite you over for a raclette party at his hippy commune located in a condemned house in the middle of Arlequin. You will probably attend this event with your friend (a local) after you (not a local) assure her that the neighborhood is probably just fine. It is not, you will emphasize, one of the most dangerous in all of France. As if the universe seeks to prove your point, you will certainly not find a knife just lying on the ground as you approach the commune, and your perception of Grenoble will certainly not be thus undermined.

 

The knife that was not found

 

Overall Grenoble is splendidly existent, magnificently populated, and lavishly urban. You, dear reader, will almost certainly visit at some point. It might be that you don’t have many choices for real cities, but there’s no need for other choices when you have a metropolitan paradise like Grenoble.

 

An Exceedingly Humble Guide [Part One]: Annecy

Dear reader, it is to you, the curious and enlightened, that these exceedingly humble guides are addressed. Truly they are intended to be amicable, for in the wake of such novelties as the Internet and television this culture finds itself lacking in goodwill and classical sensibilities. Surely there is no better way to restore them than to become acquainted with France—that heart of classical beauty. France is a country rich in history, culture, and diversity. Therefore, it would behoove you to explore it a little, either in person or in contemplation.

Furthermore, dear reader, if you ever happen to find yourself working in the French Alps as an English teaching assistant, you shall find the following guides to be of especially great utility (and they may mirror your experiences). In such a circumstance, you will be working only twelve hours a week in a tiny city, and you will have both the time and the desire to organize some excursions; your only hindrance shall be your pocketbook. Without further ado, here is the first episode.


Annecy is the most beautiful city in France.

Actually, upon further reflection, Annecy is the most beautiful city on planet earth.

Actually this second claim could be considered modest: while science has yet to explore extrasolar planets and the potential civilizations thereupon, it seems probable that Annecy is a significant contender for the most beautiful city in the observable universe.

If you, dear reader, are in the region of Savoy someday, you will be humbled by the mere thought of your proximity to Annecy. As it is only a short train ride away from where you might reside, you will no doubt make multiple pilgrimages to adore this crown jewel of a city. Truly you will be a pilgrim, for there are no tourists in a settlement as glorious and hallowed as Annecy.

If you arrive by train and intend to make your way into the town center, you will be greeted shortly by Annecy’s picturesque canals, the first of many gifts this place will bestow on you. These waterways of the Thiou River, while few, form the vital arteries of this city of fifty thousand. The pristine alpine currents of the canals put to shame the matrices of lagoon and rubbish found in Stockholm, Amsterdam, or Venice. 

 

The Thiou River

 

These arteries are lined not with flesh but with benevolent walkways and delightful houses, whose walls of windows sometimes push right up to the water. It is common to see these paths and bridges filled with booths from which locals sell their foods and wares. There is one particular booth that traffics in Native American flute covers of such classics as, My Heart Will Go On. The vendor is generous enough to project this music, filling the air with a soundtrack perfectly suited to a French mountain town.

 

Street markets

 

Follow the current upstream, and you will eventually arrive at the Lac d’Annecy. If the canals are the arteries of Annecy, the lake is its heart. What was one of the most polluted bodies of water in France fifty years ago is now crystal clear and exceptionally pure. The lake is hemmed in by Annecy on one side and a crown of mountains on the other. On a calm day, you can witness the breathtaking marriage of peak and heaven numinously mirrored on the surface of the water. Truthfully, the allure of Annecy does depend largely on the weather. There is, however, only one imaginable reason that the Fates could deliver anything but beautiful conditions to Annecy’s shores: jealousy.

 

Lac d'Annecy

 

Dear reader, there is no greater temporal pleasure than to stroll along the edge of the Lac d’Annecy. If you follow the path northward, you will encounter the Pont des Amours: the Lovers’ Bridge. It arches over the tree-bordered Canal du Vassé, simultaneously dramatic and humble. Here, like on all of Annecy’s waters, pairs of swans pass the time together. Of course, they are not the only ones! Any place called the Lovers’ Something is bound to attract lovers; it is not so much descriptive as prophetic. These couples are frequently seen gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, and (even!) kissing. It is also common for lovers to take self-portraits with their portable telephones—framed by a flawless backdrop worthy of their everlasting commitment.

 

Canal du Vassé

 

If you have the good fortune of making a pilgrimage to Annecy, you will encounter no shortage of attractions. After all, such a destination is certain to have many other pilgrims, each demanding as much entertainment as the last. Go visit the Château d’Annecy: the previous residence of Geneva’s nobility is filled with historical objects, as well as windows so clean that American girls are prone to collide into them with great force in their haste to take a picture of the view. Explore the Palais de l’Île: a really really old building whose purpose is difficult to understand but whose charm is not. Absorb one of the most transcendent sunsets of your entire life while resting in a field of perfect grass.

 

Palais de l'Île

Dear reader! There is one last attraction that absolutely necessitates your attention. It could only be the last subject of this humble guide, for it dwarfs all other natural and cultural treasures found in Annecy. In the old quarter, past the clock tower, nestled on the first floor of a building from the seventeenth century, is a boulangerie. This bakery is unlike any other bakery anywhere, because it produces what can only be described as the apex of the culinary arts and the human experience of taste: the maxi pain au chocolat. Not only is this French pastry infinitely superior to its bumbling Anglophone cousin, the chocolate croissant, its dimensions are unparalleled in the history of mankind. The maxi pain au chocolat alone, dear reader, justifies any amount of effort required to visit this corner of our planet!

 

The Supreme Maxi Pain au Chocolat


An apology is warranted here: perhaps it was imprudent to begin the series with this installment. It is likely that now every successive guide will pale in comparison to Annecy, the most beautiful city in the observable universe. 

Panorama at sunset