We try to do something new each of these past years that we've spent Christmas in Paris. This year, I thought that seeing something more of France other than just her capital city would be a good thing to do. I just had to make sure it would just be a day trip, would be easily accessible via train and would be interesting -- in the historical and cultural sense.
Two months ago, I booked train tickets to Lyon -- France's 3rd largest city after Paris. We left via Gare de Lyon -- one of Paris main train stations and dating back to 1900. It is a gorgeous piece of architecture -- very typical of that period.
Our train was located in the "blue" area -- named after this iconic cafe "le Train Bleu" which has been seeing passengers off since that time.
Because I booked early, I was able to get first class seats for a lower price in SNCF's TGV high speed train. As in all voyages, the early booker gets the better value. We would be hurtling through the south of Paris, making 450 kilometers pass by in just under two hours.
The internet is an amazing, wonderful travel resource. I found this international company called Tours By Locals that hook up individual travelers with licensed and reliable tour guides in over 40 countries. Because it was winter, there were hardly any of the regular tours available but one guide agreed to take us on -- Mari Reguillon was enthusiastic, knowledgeable and very passionate about her city.
She prepared a 3 hour walking tour that captured the highlights of Lyon -- it would give us a snapshot of the city.
Mari met us at the train station, right as we got off the TGV train -- our first stop was a funicular ride that would take us up the hill to Fourviere.
Fourviere is better known as the site of the Notre Dame basilica of Lyon and the original site of the city. Behind the basilica is a viewing area where one can see all of Lyon in one full sweep.
Two rivers run through Lyon -- the river Rhone and the river Saone.
Both meet and merge at a certain point of the city now developed into a modern business area called the Confluent.
After explaining the lay of the land to us, Mari led us back to visit the Basilica. It is not as old as Notre Dame de Paris -- this church was built in the late 1800s, a veritable baby among the many ancient and old churches in France.
The church was built in thanksgiving by the rich women of Lyon who had prayed for deliverance and safety to Our Lady from the Prussian invasion in the 1800s. When the Prussians failed to attack Lyon, the Basilica was quickly built with their private funds.
Today, a statue of Our Lady, clothed in gold leaf, stands on a steeple, arms outstretched, continuing to bless and protect the people of Lyon.
Mari brought us down to the chapel of St. Joseph and showed us this familiar looking image of Our Lady. It was a statue of La Naval de Manille -- donated by the Filipino community in Lyon as a permanent part of the church. Truly remarkable to find Nuestra Senora de la Naval in this city, thousands of miles away!
From the Basilica, we continued our walk through old Roman ruins, just down the hill from Fourviere. This theatre, reconstructed from the ancient ruins, is now a major venue for many of Lyon's cultural events like musical concerts, plays, dance recitals.
From Fourviere, we walked down through Old Lyon or Vieux Lyon -- so charming with cobblestoned streets, narrow alleys and traditional architecture.
Mari told us that Lyon was originally the first capital of France. This was where the Romans built their first settlement in 43 BC. Today, the Roman influence can be seen in the very Italian look and feel of many of the buildings in Vieux Lyon. I was particularly struck by the colors of the buildings -- pinks, peaches, ochres -- colors very common to old buildings found all over Rome and other parts of Italy.
The highlight of the "highlights of Lyon" tour for me was being able to pass through the traditional "traboules" or passageways that are in many of the old building in Vieux Lyon. A traboule is a "secret" passageway that you can cut across to reach another street -- a shortcut if you will.
Some of the "traboules" are open to tourists and the public -- these are marked by signs that request the passersby to please respect the privacy of the occupants of the building that they are passing through. The old buildings are after all, occupied as residences today.
Still, there are some unmarked "traboules" which Mari showed us -- which are also open -- to the ones who know which doors to push.
From the old town or Vieux Lyon, Mari brought us to Presquile, the peninsula right smack in the middle of Lyon, through which the two rivers intersect and later merge as one. She said good bye to us in front of the fountain of Bertholdi -- which is right across Lyon's city hall.
We had told Mari that we wanted to sample Lyon's gastronomic specialties.
Lyon is home to Paul Bocuse and is considered as the new center for gastronomy in France. Definitely we wouldn't be able to afford any of Bocuse's restaurants in Lyon -- even his bouchon or bistro would be way out of our reach.
Mari recommended that we try the salade Lyonnais -- which is really a massive plate of greens topped with croutons and incredible cubes of lardons -- the fancy french name for bacon.
This is then topped with a perfectly poached egg which you break and mix into the salad.
If you think a salade lyonnais is a light, diet friendly salade, think again -- the lardons can definitely add a kilo or two.
We needed to walk off all those lardons so we strolled through Presquile on our way to Place Bellecour. Hausmann style buildings such as this one were all over Presquile making me feel like I was still strolling through Paris.
Place Bellecour at last -- and what did we find but this huge ferris wheel -- if there is an amusement ride that I cannot pass up, it's a ferris wheel, specially since this was so big and would definitely give me a bird's eye view of Lyon.
From my gondola, I swung up and up till I was eye level with Fourviere Hill where we had started our walking tour more than four hours ago. The winter sun would soon set but for now, it lent some warmth to an otherwise chilly afternoon.
That tower beside the Basilica is not the Eiffel Tower by the way -- "Lyon is not trying to copy Paris", as Mari vehemently stated -- it is a tower for communications.
Although from this distance, it certainly looked suspiciously familiar to me!
I turned around and saw the opposite view of Fourviere. The domes in the distance, the red roofs and the over all architecture made me think of Florence -- truly, the Roman influence over Lyon continues to this day.
All too soon, it was time to hop on a bus from Place Bellecour and head to Lyon's Part Dieu station, where we were to catch the 5:45 pm TGV back to Paris. We had been in Lyon for just over six hours but our tour guide Mari had made sure we caught a good glimpse of her city. The quarter moon was up in the darkening sky as we waited for our train.
It was 6 hours well spent -- Lyon, light but a good bite nevertheless!