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.

The Wealth of the Mountains

The Bauges, looking north from just under the Dent d'Arclusaz

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings

–John Muir

A few weeks ago, I went on a day hike with some of the other Anglophone assistants. Our goal was to hike from the train station in the town of Saint-Pierre d’Albigny (295 meters) to the top of the Dent d’Arclusaz (2041 meters) and return before dark. Spoiler alert: we failed. I still consider the trip a success.

Our party consisted of the Brits (Dawn, Julia, and Rose) and the Yankees (Adam, Hannah, Neal, and myself). Our motley crew assembled at the train station in Chambéry in different stages of preparedness—from hangover to headlamp. Except for Dawn and me, the group didn’t have much out-of-doors experience. 

 

 

We arrived to find Saint-Pierre shrouded in mist. As we walked up through the town, the gang became concerned: if visibility stayed so poor, would it be worth continuing? As we ascended the sun did the same, and the clouds melted away to reveal the landscape surrounding us. The Dent d’Arclusaz was directly in front of us, massive but distant. To our right, we saw the high peaks of the Belledonne range, already covered in snow. The party reacted with awe, followed by uncertainty. The space separating us from the peak was difficult to comprehend.  

 

 

Still we pushed on past the outskirts of the town, finally reaching the trailhead. The first section was muddy and steep, which only cultivated more doubt. The word impossible bounced around. It seemed silly to me, however, to undermine our chances so early, so I encouraged everyone to keep hiking as if we were aiming for the summit. If our goal turned out to be unattainable, it wouldn’t be because of our own pessimism.

The forest was a consolation. Autumn was in its fullness, and the myriad of trees enclosed us in living color. When I think back on the fall of 2014, I will remember the fiery blanket spread over the mountains.

 

The blanket

 

It’s a good thing that the woods were pleasing, because we didn’t see much else for the next several hours. The trail leveled out as it meandered up switchbacks, which made the hike easy but time-consuming. Not everyone in the group thought it was easy, however. This was Julia and Hannah’s first time ever hiking up a mountain, and a few of the others were running on inadequate sleep. Much of the challenge was mental. The trail was narrow and even though we were concealed in a forest, the steep drop directly beside us was enough to give some people vertigo. To be fair: the slender path, combined with the wet leaves and mud, gave us reason to be cautious.  

 

 

As we hiked higher and higher, the party approached physical and mental breaking points. Hannah, as always, was endearingly vocal. She frequently asked for the elevation in an attempt to judge progress, but she really meant are we there yet? It was clear that we wouldn’t reach the top, but still we pushed on towards the tree line. Although the strugglers were periodically revived by little glimpses through the forest, it was clear that we couldn’t keep going much longer.

 

A gap in the trees

 

Just when surrender was palpable, we reached a clearing below the summit. The cliffs of the Dent d’Arclusaz, which had been concealed for the past several hours, suddenly shone right above us. Gasps, then cheers. We had a clear view north into the folding range of the Bauges. The group shouted in disbelief: it was difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that the cliffs that were once so far away now lay right before us. The gravity of the scene filled us all with a sense of immense accomplishment.

 

A triumphant Dawn

 

At our highest point we reached 1440 meters, but it was apparent that we couldn’t reach the top before dark. After a late lunch and an extended break, we started our descent. It wasn’t long, however, before we reached another opening in the woods. It was even more stunning than the last. The town and the valley opened up below us, and we could trace the Isère River for miles as it snaked towards the mountainous horizon. The earth and the sky were draped in wispy clouds, and the afternoon sun illuminated the entire landscape. This is literally the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, Hannah said. The sentiment echoed in our group, albeit with more profanity.  

 

Adam looking out on the valley

 

We didn’t reach the summit, but that day I witnessed something far more rewarding than the view that would have met us there: I saw other people discover the mountains. What other place offers such rich grandeur? What other place confronts man with such an abundance of challenge? Only the mountains can pummel you into submission one moment and overwhelm you with beauty the next. The fact that this beauty is well earned makes it all the more sublime. It invigorates and enriches the spirit. This is real wealth; this is living.


Here you can read the accounts of Hannah, Julia, and Rose

Exodus; Genesis

 

It’s not until now, with my spirit hovering over the waters of the Atlantic, that my new reality starts to register. I’m not just leaving—I’m arriving. For the next seven months I’ll be working as an English teaching assistant in the city of Chambéry—cradled in the Alps. I’m going back to France. Back to another world, both alien and familiar. A different language, a different paradigm, a different life. A return to the daily adventure, sustained novelty, and real baguettes. 

I am at a new threshold, fresh from collegiate exodus. It’s a time of great opportunity—and thus great consequence. I feel pressured knowing that the coming months will be extremely formative. How will I sustain from afar relationships that are dear to me? How will I manage my increased independence? How will I make time count?

This next phase in my life will be a sort of genesis: exploring, teaching, traveling, writing, and living well. I need to discover and define who I am in a world outside of academia. If I were anywhere else, I would still be exploring this new identity, but moving to France compounds the searching. By exploring environments, cultures, and relationships around me I hope to get a better sense of the world and my place in it. 

As the flight attendants roll out our food—or rather, the symbol of food—I can finally feel I’m in the beginning again.