Only Lyon (ten things you must do here)

I’m about to fly to London to spend Easter with my family and I am feeling a mélange of things about this. Obviously, excitement about eating chocolate, and seeing parents and sisters and small cousins and boyfriend, and choral evensong on Easter Sunday (I’m serious – you can’t beat a good old Victorian joyous banger). But that excitement is overshadowed by both confusion – because where on earth did this month go?! – and real, genuine sadness that my time in this pretty city is over already.

This month has been a burst of sunshine. I mean this partly in a literal sense: I have had so many days of perfect blue sky, the sort of light that makes even the dullest of buildings shine, and it has been so warm that I have finally parted ways with the bobble hat and wooly scarf that became an extension of my skin in my East German winter. But it’s true in a metaphorical sense too: I didn’t do a particularly good job of disguising that in the months surrounding the new year I was, quite simply, not doing very well, and to have not only survived but enjoyed (enjoyed! yes! really!) my time here, is a complete elation.

I feel like a new woman. I’ve been running regularly along the Rhône and have, in what may turn out to be a fit of madness, signed up to run the Oxford Half Marathon in October. I’ve loved being at school – and it really is like school, rather than university – and have been diligently doing my homework every night, putting my hand up, and leaving polished apples on the teacher’s desk. (Not quite). Otherwise, I’ve spent a lot of this month pottering around, sunglasses on, with my Proust audiobooks playing through my headphones – the most ingenious way to tackle that terrifyingly long finals reading list, I think. Here are some things worth doing, whether you stumble upon them, like I did, or visit Lyon with a strict itinerary.

1. Hire a bicycle and cycle around the Parc de la Tête d’Or

The Parc de la Tête d’Or is a wonderful haven of calm towards the north of the city. You enter, or at least I did, through a spectacularly ornate set of gates, and suddenly you’re no longer being honked at by angry drivers because of your complete failure to understand the cycle lanes, but soaring along wide, open paths, blooming flowers on one side and the lake on the other. I went on the most magically bright day, when the water was the sort of over-hopeful blue a child might use to colour in the sea in their picture. Only this time it was real.

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You can hire bikes incredibly easily – and cheaply – using the Vélo’v system: think Boris bikes but without the Tory politician associations. I picked mine up from a station outside school and left it at one near my flat – they’re everywhere. More info here.

2. Get lost in book wonderland

I stumbled upon this exquisite bookshop nestled in one of the many alleys in the city centre. I walked in under its archway of books, and spent a long time – hours, maybe – browsing the shelves, reading opening chapters, until I felt I’d outstayed my welcome. When I got home I realised I had no idea where I’d actually been, and had to do some detective work via google. It was this place and it is a dream.

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3. Visit La Confluence

La Confluence is the point where the Saône meets the Rhône. There’s a shopping centre and a harbour area and a harbour and even a nightclub, but once you get past the busy bit you find yourself somewhere much calmer, walking out along on an ever-narrowing strip of land from which you can stare out and contemplate the world while your friend finds her inner instagram-hipster.

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You can also climb on and pose with these letters. The photo opportunities know no bounds.

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On a serious note, I loved the serenity of this little place, and it’s well worth a visit.

4. Visit the Musée des Beaux Arts

The arts on display here are very beau indeed. I spent a divine afternoon alone here taking the time to listen to the audioguide as I looked. There’s an extensive collection of Impressionist paintings, which was as wonderful as I’d anticipated. I was also particularly taken by this pair of statues depicting The Annunciation, made in the 14th century for a church in Sienna. The two figures are obviously marked as different by the quality and style of their clothes – I mean, one is humble little Mary and the other is the Angel Gabriel – but their facial features are eerily similar.

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5. Wile away the hours in a coffee shop

If there’s one thing Lyon does very well, it’s coffee shops. This was a particularly welcome discovery when, in my first two weeks, I found myself staying somewhere without wifi, and so found myself retreating to a different one most afternoons. Special mentions go to the Chai Latte at Slake, the salads at Les Cafetiers and Moulinette, and most especially the aesthetically pleasing, gluten free, and all-round delicious brunch at Le Tigre, pictured below.

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6. Gaze out over Lyon from La Croix Rousse

La Croix Rousse is a hill just a little way from the city centre. While walking up it may be the most strenuous cardio you’ve done in a long time or maybe ever, the view from the top – nearby rooftops, the Saône, both cathedrals, and a whole city sprawling out until it meets the distant foothills of the Alps – does not disappoint.

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7. Eat ice cream in Vieux Lyon

Vieux Lyon is the old town, and with its reddish buildings and winding alleys it feels somehow more like Italy than France. This was particularly the case when I went there with Noonie on an unseasonably warm day. We ate the most delicious ice cream as we wandered through tourist-ridden streets. It felt like a holiday.

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8. Visit the Cathédrale and the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière

In my second week here, I remembered that if I am one thing it is a massive cathedral nerd and went on what can only be called a mad one. I started at the Primatiale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the catholic cathedral in Vieux Lyon. (Maybe even have an ice cream first?). It’s a cathedral with a wonderfully ornate facade which looks rather like the Notre Dame de Paris, but once you step inside you might as well have wandered into any gothic nave. Its striking white pillars reminded me somewhat of York Minster. The stained glass windows in the choir are particularly stunning.

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Anyway, the cathédrale was built between the 12th and 15th centuries and was pretty much the big dog of Lyon’s buzzing religious scene until the end of the 19th century, when the basilique came into being. The basilique is at Fourvière, on top of a deceptively high and steep hill. If you can cope with the intense cardio that is the walk to the top – or, if you are more clued up than I was, and find the public transport up – the view, over both rivers and almost endless city, is well worth it. There had been a church on this site since 1192, but construction of today’s basilica didn’t begin until 1872: the Prussians were threatening to invade and the Lyonnais had promised to build a big church dedicated to Mary if their city was spared. It is very much not-gothic, rather Romanesque and Byzantine; one huge mosaic.

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(I said massive cathedral nerd. I wasn’t lying).

9. Buy some delicious pastries. Eat them in the sun with friends.

I think my favourite day here was last Saturday. It was unseasonably warm – t-shirt and soaking up vitamin d warm – and Noonie was visiting me. Lidia had Chaz and Bea to stay too, and so we five Exeter girls in Lyon spent the most glorious few hours sitting in the sunshine in the Place des Jacobins. We each chose one delicious pastry from a very enticing patisserie, and cut each one into five. Five exquisite mouthfuls of five very different but wonderful treats: Tarte aux Pralines; Pomme meringuée; Citron meringuée; Tart chocolate; some divine nutty creamy pastry the name of which I’ve forgotten. It was heavenly.

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10. Stroll along the rivers

I’ve saved the best til last, perhaps, but walking along by the water is also the most accessible and most practical thing one can do here. I have always wanted to live in a riverside city. Oxford sort of counts, but only sort of: my dreams have always been of somewhere where the river flows through the very heart of the place, and where reflections of grand buildings and busy bridges mingle with the blue of the water. And suddenly I spent a month in a city with not one such river, but two!

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This has been my favourite month of year abroad so far. (Sorry Leipzig, you ain’t got nothing on this). I will definitely be coming back here.

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2 Comments

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  1. I only got halfway through this post before starting to badger my boyfriend: “Let’s go to Lyon.” “Why?” “It doesn’t matter why. Let’s just go to Lyon please.” Sold!

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