After weeks of searching for lodging, communicating rapidly with other assistants, contemplating simply staying out all night and trying to convince myself that it was something could miss, we found a way. Take the first train Sunday morning and the last train Sunday evening. We would spend only a few hours in Lyon, but we would get to experience the city, even if only slightly, and with the early sunset in our favor, we could catch a few hours of the festival. Alex, another assistant, and I decided, yes, let’s do it.
We didn’t have to get up too early. The first train to Lyon was at around 9 AM and would get us to Lyon just before noon. Alex and I enjoyed a lovely chat for the 3-hour trip. Can I stop for a minute and just say how much I love trains? We rode throughout the beautiful countryside, enjoyed plenty of space for both, ourselves and our stuff, and got to face each other, so we could have a lovely conversation without strain.
Before long, we found ourselves at Lyon Part-Dieu, one of the train stations. Up until that point, I had nearly forgotten how small Clermont-Ferrand is, but it subtly and abundantly became clear how much bigger Lyon was than Clermont-Ferrand. We certainly saw it walking in circles trying to follow the signs to find the metro and/or bus station (literally right in front of the exit of the train station as it turned out). We saw it walking around the city with buildings several stories taller than what we were used to seeing in Clermont-Ferrand. The real kicker though was probably the presence of a Starbucks at the train station. (There are no Starbucks in Clermont-Ferrand, but there are a few McDonald’s. We are not entirely cut off from the rest of the world.)
The first thing we did, a habit I developed when traveling when visiting my brother in the Netherlands that continues to serve me well, was go to the tourism office. They were friendly and incredibly helpful – even in spite of the huge crowds, long lines and long hours they’d likely already worked. They set us up with a walking tour and directions to bouchonneries (the specialty of Lyon). We picked a couple of restaurants and decided to see what the wait would be.
Ha. Wow were we rookies. The first 3 places we went to were full – either booked well in advance for the limited seating or had an hour wait. We decided to try something a little outside of the city center in hopes that they would be less crowded (and less expensive). We were really hungry by then and had to use all of our willpower not to buy every delicious temptation along the way (beignets, churros, waffles, roasted chestnuts…even McDonalds was tempting). Finally, after inquiring at two restaurants, a third neither took reservations nor had an hour wait. We sat in a coat room for about 10 minutes and then were seated.
The restaurant was awesome. The style of the decor was like the Hapsburgs meets the 1970s. The wallpaper was a deep, scarlet red with an old-world design, but felt like velvet and the decorations were an eclectic mix of pop culture in black and white photos and baroque-style furniture. The food was incredible. We chose the 3-course fixed price meal and had a glass of wine each. Here is the menu:
Alex and I both picked different options so we could try everything. In case you want to drool:
It was all simply delicious. It was also incredibly filling, the kind of meal where you could just lay your head down on the table and sleep…
Wait, what’s an andouiette, you say? Funny you should ask because I didn’t (and I’m glad). Apparently, it is a sausage made of intestines. Bon appetit 🙂
After our scrumptious meal, we walked around a little and then headed back to the city center for our tour. We met our group and started on our tour. The English tour was sold out, so it was all in French…luckily I could at least manage by then.
The tour was nice. We saw the churches and learned a little about their history. We walked through one of the infamous passageways called a “traboule” and learned about medieval plumbing (yuck – no wonder disease killed so rapidly). We also learned about the influence of Italy and families like the Medicis. The tour ran over, so we left the group to go see the light displays.
“Festivals of lights” to me meant trees and buildings decorated in Christmas lights. This was so not that. The trees with lights were merely the appetizer. Instead, these displays would use buildings to display art, play games and fool your eyes. In theory, my favorite display was the disco ball that the basilica hung from their steeple on top of a hill – I always enjoy displays of humor from the Catholic Church.
In practice, my favorite was the “main attraction”, a combination of art, music and dance projected on the main city buildings. The description doesn’t do it justice. See for yourself in the video clip:
It was wonderful, but we certainly didn’t get to see everything we wanted. Main culprit? Crowds and crowd control. Honestly, the barricades designed to conduct traffic were confusing and nonsensical. What should have taken 5 minutes took 20. Space was wide open and then packed. Several times we had to make a 10 minute or more detour to see an attraction that was 100 feet away from us. On top of that, just getting from one attraction to another took 2-3 times longer that it should have due to the crowds. Before we left, I met an old friend who is also an assistant in France. After fighting crowds, we talked briefly, saw the main attraction in the square and then had to catch the metro to make our train in time.
We walked to the metro station and were astounded. It was a mob. Not an angry mob, but a mob. Luckily we just decided to get an all-day metro pass so we got in the shortest line (at least 10 minutes of waiting). Everything beyond that was pretty smooth sailing except they closed exits in the metros. This meant that to get to a connecting train you had to leave the metro station, go down the block, find the other entrance to the station and go in that way. It made absolutely no sense and only added to the chaos and stress of making it back on time. (We decided to run because it made us feel better. So yeah, we were those tourists.) However, we made it back just in time to catch our train (which turned out to be a bus) that would get us back home in 6 hours (not 4 like we thought) because it had to traverse literally every roundabout between Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand (you haven’t felt motion sickness until…).
But we made it home, safe and sound, after a great day in Lyon.