Another beautiful train ride to another beautiful French city. That pretty much sums up our summer travels.
This time we left Avignon and headed to Lyon, the third-largest city in France. We had heard great things about this historic city and looked forward to two leisurely weeks to explore it.
Our Airbnb was in a 70’s era housing complex - certainly not a building that fits with Lyon’s grand architecture, but it was in a great location - and the price was right - under our goal of $90 a night even in peak season. And even though the exterior was a little disappointing, we knew from the pictures that the apartment itself would be just fine. And it was. The place was clean, the kitchen was well stocked and the shady, plant laden deck was a retreat from the warm weather. We always say a great host makes up for a less than perfect place, and Christine was delightful.
We were in the La Croix-Rousse neighborhood - famous for a hilltop that overlooks the city. On our first day we kept looking for a way to reach the top of the hill until we realized we were already there! And the view is indeed panoramic. But that meant most of our exploring would be downhill. And of course, that meant getting back home would be uphill. We logged more steps in Lyon than any other city with one day topping out at 21,685 - almost 10 miles! There is a metro station literally out the front door of the building (the only one we’ve ever ridden that goes uphill!) and we did come home that way a few times, but mostly we walked the city.
And what a fine city it is. Everything seemed freshly scrubbed - in fact, the scaffolding surrounding the majestic Lyon Cathedral during a major cleaning came down the week before we arrived. There were flowers in the pots, cobblestones being cobbled, sidewalks were swept throughout the day, and, other than approved street art, there was very little tagging in the city center. Best of all, the people we met were open and friendly. Personally, I’d take Lyon over Paris any day.
We went on two free-walking tours with Free Tour Lyon led by Paul, who also owns the company. He has an infectious love of Lyon’s history and current culture even though he is a Dutch transplant. On the first tour, he took us on an interesting walk through the old town, the largest preserved Renaissance Quarter in Europe where we got a great overview of the city’s history including the Roman influence. The second tour took us through a few different neighborhoods including our own because Croix-Rousse was the epicenter of Lyon’s famous silk trade.
We had no idea that Lyon was, at one time, the most prestigious silk-producing cities in the world. It began with a royal decree in 1466 when King Louis IX declared Lyon as his silk capital. The industry thrived well into the late 18th century, and at one point there were 180,000 active looms in the city. Most of the Ateliers were on our hill where new buildings were constructed in early 1800’s to house the new-fangled, 4-meter-high Jacquard looms - some say these punch card-driven looms were the precursor to the modern computer.
We both read a book called Tree of Gold that took place in the streets surrounding our Airbnb. And while it was mostly a love story set in rival silk houses, it was also a fine primer on how silk was designed, created and traded. It inspired us to learn more so we visited a museum in a silk house that featured a working Jacquard loom, stopped in at the textiles museum, and, a little later in our travels, visited Fontainebleau Palace where we could see precious Lyonnais silk wall coverings, drapes, and upholstered furniture ordered by residents King Louie XIV and Napoleon.
The silk industry was responsible for one of Lyon’s most unique architectural features - the Traboule. Traboules are covered passageways and staircases that connected the silk houses on the top of Croix-Rousse to the warehouses along the river. They were built to protect the delicate fabric from inclement weather and the dirty, crowded city streets as they were ferried to merchants and couture customers.
There are over 500 of these passageways in the city, and several of them are open to the public if you know where to look (hint: take the free city center walking tour and Paul will let you in on the secret).
Lyon is a large city, but at the same time, very walkable. There are so many majestic buildings to visit, churches to admire, narrow streets to discover and pleasant walks along the riverfront, that you won’t even realize the number of steps you're racking up. And in the middle of it all is Europe’s largest public park. The Parc de la Tête d’ Or is a sea of open green space with shoals of ancient trees for shade and a small lake as its centerpiece. The colorful botanical gardens and Victorian greenhouses full of exotic plants forced me to add another 100 photos to my already saturated cloud. And even on a hot August afternoon, the animals in the free zoo were playful, especially family of rope-swinging Capuchin monkeys and the young giraffes.
Football is never far from Michael’s mind so we also attended a match between Olympic Lyonnais and the city of Angers at the impressive Groupama Stadium. As always, it was fun to watch the fans go crazy! At one point there were loud pop! pop! pop! sounds and it looked like a portion of the stands had caught fire - but that didn’t seem to rattle any of the security personnel, so we assumed it was just another day at the stadium. .
A week later, we watched Lyon's women's team play. Many of the sports most well-known women players have either played or currently play for Lyon, including Norway's Ada Hegerberg, the world’s best player. The match was held on the practice grounds of the same stadium and while it was more low-key, it was every bit as enjoyable because the seats were close to the playing field.
One afternoon we boarded a vintage Vaparetto that is part of the public transportation system. It makes regular runs down the river to a recently developed area called The Confluence - the narrowing bit of land where the Rhone and the Saone rivers converge. As you leave imposing limestone monoliths behind, ultra-modern apartments and office buildings take their place along the riverfront. After a lovely half-hour boat ride, we docked at a massive shopping mall. Nearby, the Museum of Confluences - France's largest natural history and anthropology museum, sits at the very end looking like a spaceship that made a crash landing. It was a great way to get on the water and see some crazy architecture for the price of a metro ticket.
Our days were interspersed with sight-seeing, visits to our local outdoor market, a few leisurely days at home, getting new eyeglasses, and the aforementioned daily walk. It seemed there was always something interesting to see, even in our own neighborhood, so we never lacked for a 10,000 step destination.
In fact, one of Lyon's most popular sites is The Canuts Mural, just a few blocks away from our Airbnb. The first time we stumbled across this massive piece of artwork, was on the way to the store on our first afternoon. From a distance, it looked like we were approaching a beautiful, vine-covered building with lots of people milling about in front. But as we got closer we could see it wasn’t real! It is just one of 100 large murals sponsored by Cite de la Creation - a group of artists who contribute to the work. The Canuts Mural (Canut means silk worker) is updated every ten years when new local celebrities are added.
Even though it was August, a month when most French people take a long holiday and many shops are closed, Lyon was vibrant, but at the same time, as mellow as its honey-colored stone facades. Some stores were closed, and some markets were on hiatus, and there weren’t any major festivals or concerts while we were there, but there was plenty to see and do - and it never felt crowded. Probably because most everyone had left for the seaside.
We could see why the New York Times listed Lyon as one of the Places to Go in 2019. And, if you need another reason to put Lyon on your bucket list, you can reach every major European city, as well as be skiing in the Alps or swimming in the Med in under two hours - so it makes a great starting place for a European vacation. And, maybe best of all, it is more affordable (and just as beautiful) as Paris.
From Lyon, we headed to Samois-sur-Seine to spend two-weeks near our daughter and her family. Samois is a quiet village along the Seine river, just under an hour outside of Paris. If you'd like to know more about Samois and nearby Fontainebleau, I wrote a blog titled Home Sweet Almost Home about the area earlier in the summer.
Next, I’ll catch you up on our time in Cannes - it appears we can’t get enough of France!
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
NOTE: This is the 184th blog I’ve written since we began our Senior Nomad adventure in 2013. All of the blogs are searchable by topic or location. And, if you’d like to try living daily life in an Airbnb, use this link and save $40. on your first booking and receive $15. credit towards an Airbnb Experience.