Two rivers run through it: an expat family’s first year in Lyon
When it was first proposed that I contribute a piece about visiting Lyon, France’s second city, my initial reaction was that I was hardly the right person to offer this insight.
After all, there are many Lyon guidebooks that cover the Roman ruins, Fourvière, the museums, the verdant parc de la Tête d’Or and its zoo, the new ecological neighborhood of Confluence, whereas I have lived here for less than a year and in that time have spent two days per week in Paris, where I moved from and still work. Furthermore, as the mother of two kids, much of my experience on the ground in Lyon has revolved around getting them settled into their new lives.
“Just describe our typical Saturday errand circuit,” my husband said, over a glass of Côte du Rhône. We were sitting on the shaded deck of Le Quinze, one of many péniche bars that rest in the blue-black waters of the Rhône.
My mind travelled back over the last eleven months, since we arrived on the TGV from Paris, the kids and a heap of suitcases in tow. All the installation difficulties had rapidly put an end to the fantasy that our new life in Lyon was going to be immediately filled with weekends of leisure in the nearby mountains.
We had spent the better part of the year in the center of the city, on the Presqu’ile, the “almost island” where we live, that juts out between the two rivers winding along either side of it, causing our chronic decisional conundrum: which river to gravitate towards?
The mood of each river is distinct, for if the Rhône can be described as powerful and imposing with its dark, strong current; the Saône is its dreamy sibling, quietly flowing past the base of the Fourvière and Vieux Lyon, a snapshot so picture-perfect that it’s hard to believe it’s not the idealized sketch of an illustrator trying to evoke a happy medieval village in a child’s fairytale storybook.
One of the nicest things about Lyon is how small it actually is….Small enough to traverse several times in a day, convenient for a family encumbered by commercial tasks and children who don’t want to sightsee (but who are always happy to have a sirop in a groovy café).
As my husband pointed out, just the act of running errands had provided us a year of inadvertent walking tours along and between the two rivers, starting from our address on Place Bellecour, the “Point Zero” of Lyon, the heart of the Presqu’ile, from which all other distances are measured.
Five minutes from Place Bellecour is the Rhône, where one can cross over to the East Bank to stroll amidst the bikers, runners, rollerbladers, and skater/BMX-dudes. When the weather is grey and drizzly I think of this side of Lyon as a cross between Paris and Seattle (when it’s sunny, more so like Paris and Venice Beach, California) as the architectural landscape is as elegant as any you’d see in Paris, yet the demographic so entirely sporty.
The pedestrian La passerelle du collège, one of 30 plus bridges in Lyon, hangs gracefully a half kilometer ahead to the North, making for an easy short cut back onto the Presqu’ile. Once you’ve crossed over, you can meander through the neighborhoods of l’Opéra and Place des Terreaux , with its ornate Fontaine Bartholdi, a perfect marker for the art supply and bricolage stores that dot the neighborhood.
There is no shortage of fabulous restaurants in Lyon, but only one I will mention here, simply for the absolute loveliness of the place: the café at the Musée des Beaux Arts. While Lyon is known for its bouchons – restaurants of heavy traditional food such as cow’s stomach, brain or muzzle – the restaurant at the musée is not one of them, and that is the reason I like it — along with the huge colorful mural at the back wall of the restaurant and the open view to the idyllic courtyard below.
If you’ve ever thumbed through the pages of Vogue or GQ and thought, “who wears such fancy clothes?” rest assured that the answer can be found, right here in Lyon, on the fashionable high end rue du President Edouard Herriot.
Clean shaven and cologned men in Rolexes and freshly pressed Armani stroll with women in Yves Saint Laurent, Max Mara, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Cartier…You get the picture. Très bourgeois. Très fun people-watching….although don’t get so engrossed in gawking at the elegant army of consumers out spending their fortunes that you overlook the resplendent fountain at the Place des Jacobins, or the delightful Théâtre des Célestins.
And for sweet tooths, a must of the neighbohood is the Pâtisserie Pignol on rue Emile Zola.
Back at Place Bellecour the children can run around like maniacs while you photograph the statue of Louis XIV on his horse. You can then amble through the art-galleried streets of the quartier d’Ainay, the old Catholic neighborhood that sprang up a few hundred years ago around the Basilica of Saint Martin d’Ainay, before heading west towards the Saône river, crossing the Pont Bonaparte into the lovely quartier Saint-Jean, past the Cathédrale of the same name, through the winding, cobblestoned streets of Vieux Lyon.
Find your way to the Passerelle Saint Vincent to cross back over to the Presqu’ile and watch the sunset over the hills of the Croix-Rousse , a hillside quartier whose rosy red and ochre architecture evokes the Amalfi Coast.
We did exactly this one hot evening a few weeks ago, stopping for a cooling panache at the Buvette Saint Antoine, a laid back open-air bar that looks out over the water. We sat in contented silence until suddenly the strains of a wistful accordéon lilted towards us from a boat passing by. The words of the old man singing floated up to our ears before the sound finally faded from our reach:
Elle me dit des mots d’amour,
Des mots de tous les jours,
Et ca me fait quelque chose.
Elle est entré dans mon coeur
Une part de bonheur
Dont je connais la cause.
I squeezed my husband’s hand and sighed: La vie en Rose.
And so it was.
This post was written by Kristin Louise Duncombe
For more information visit her website at www.kristinduncombe.com
Photos credit and copyright Kristin Louise Duncombe
Photos of Lyon’s rooftops and Cathedral, credit & copyright Geneva Family Diaries 2012