Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Lyon, France

Posted on 11/13/03

This is just one part of those hellish stairs.

Although Lyon is the second largest metropolitan area in France, it’s only about 1/5 the population of Paris making a thorough survey of the city infinitely easier and more tranquil. With my newly acquired Lonely Planet in hand, I marched out of the train station in classic, bewildered, arriving backpacker fashion with the giant book flopped open in one hand to the pages with the address for my hostel and a rudimentary map of the pertinent part of the city. My dazed tourist appearance aside, I hadn’t been this prepared upon arrival in any city since Belfast and that was only thanks to the in-transit intervention of Nikki and her dad. Judging from the Lonely Planet map I had two choices as to how to approach the hostel. Unfortunately, I listened to my initial gut instincts instead of working the more successful reverse psychology ploy on myself and went the longest, most painful way to the hostel which was conveniently located near the top of the tallest hill for 100 miles in any direction. My perennially abysmal sense of direction led me on a path that required me to go up the absolute worst set of stairs, indoors or outdoors, that I had seen in Europe, then walk uphill for another four blocks, through a construction zone and then a maddening walk back downhill for two more blocks. This was way worse than the other option which would have only forced me to go up a hill with a 45° incline for four blocks on a 24 inch wide sidewalk.

I arrived at the hostel looking like I had just escaped a POW camp on foot after four years of captivity. Sweating profusely despite the cool weather, injured, limping, filthy, panting and exhausted. Unfortunately, as in Bordeaux, I was staying at the local affiliate of the Hosteling International network of hostels which are notoriously designed with the bare minimum of amenities. This particular HI hostel was even more uninhabitable than average with its remarkably half-assed application of basic services. The prime example were the sinks that only had hot water, featuring those maddening taps that you pushed in and the water runs for about three seconds before petering out, requiring about six pushes to wash your hands or 178 pushes to shave. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the water pressure weren’t jacked up high enough to launch a spinach quiche into orbit. No matter what precautions you took, it was impossible to use the sinks without splashing a heavy amount of water on your crotch and even more on the floor. This plumbing debacle resulted in each room having a puddle in the middle of the floor and every resident of the hostel looking as if they were overdue for a change of their adult diapers. Then there were the shower rooms with the poorly designed drainage slopes so half the water would empty right out into the hall. The comical bed sheets were about three inches too short for the mattresses, so when you torqued on the bottom, elastic sheet, it would pull the mattress up on both ends into a low U-shape. Even the breakfast was done barely to minimum homeless shelter standards. The coffee machine’s preprogrammed dispenser would mete out about four more ounces of liquid than the coffee cups could hold, creating a coffee pond in the floor in front of it and resulting in the entire dinning area being ornamented with coffee stains. And all they offered were the three worst charity, give-away jam flavors in the world; cherry, peach and apricot. Finally, in an effort to slam home France’s title of the Worst Nationwide Customer Service Level Since Prehistoric Times, the hostel’s desk staff were generally more concerned with messing with the CD player and chatting to each other than assisting the anywhere from two to 10 people that always seemed to be standing around waiting for service. These disappointing details were magnified by the realization that my Hosteling International membership card was probably still sitting on the desk back in Bordeaux where upon my departure the desk clerk had been to preoccupied with a personal phone conversation to check me out and I finally ended up just leaving without saying goodbye or risk missing my train. The Lyon staff forced me to buy a new one. I made a quiet vow that I was done with Hosteling International hostels for the remainder of my life, as I waited for the disdainful desk girl to find the time to give me my room key in between the more urgent task of rearranging the crap under the desk to make space for her purse.

After spewing out almost 8,000 words to document my eight days in Paris, my first venture out into the city was to visit the most noticeable sight in all of Lyon. The Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière was pretty much the only notable structure that was further up the hill than the hostel. Its looming presence could be seen from all over the city which, combined with the Saône and Rhône rivers running parallel through the area, made getting a fix on your position easier than getting a fix on your belly button. The interior of the Basilique was even more impressive than the exterior. The detail of the decorations, the wall murals and wood carved trim was stunning. Again, I had photography difficulties trying to do justice to the Basilique’s interior. My flash was nowhere near powerful to illuminate the gaping space, but my hand could not keep steady enough for long exposures. I eventually cheated by resting the camera on the backs of the pews for stability and shooting bizarrely angled, but usably clear shots of the décor.

Outside I took numerous panoramic photos of the city from the top of Mount Fourvière while observing that there weren’t the usual mountaintop fortifications enclosing the Basilique. Though after trotting back down Fourvière’s harsh slops I assumed that the medieval residents of the city probably didn’t need to waste the time and materials on building ramparts. On the off chance that any attackers could storm all the way to the top of the mountain on foot without suffering a coronary, they would be so pooped by the time they neared the summit that they could be easily picked off by a single sleepy archer, who wouldn’t even have get out of his reclining, Elizabethan Lazy-Boy to get the job done.

I made my way through Vieux Lyon (“Old Lyon”), seeking out and cutting through the numerous “traboules” (secret passageways usually camouflaged as apartment building entrances that connected one street to the next), without inadvertently breaking into genuine apartments. As in Paris, Lyon had about six bakeries for ever square block and the heavenly aroma that they created sucked me in several times a day to eat pastries and chocolate éclairs so heavenly that they could bring a nun to orgasm.

I got caught in the rain more than once, but otherwise the weather in Lyon, while not warm, was not nearly as frigid as it was in Paris. Early evening strolls were still popular for families and couples looking for dinner or a glass of wine in a quiet bistro. All this outdoor, public socializing made Lyon seem exceptionally safe and friendly. If there was a bad neighborhood in Lyon, I never found it.

My after dinner ritual was to walk into the cobblestoned, claustrophobic heart of Old Lyon and attach my ass to a stool in Café Orange - an internet bar that invited you to surf to your heart’s content as long as you were drinking – and stay there until I ran out of cyber business or simply became too drunk to type. After dealing with internet prices in Paris that were anywhere from six to nine euros an hour, having access to unlimited internet while sipping decent wine was a huge bonus. Once I had maxed out my internet needs, I’d swivel around in my chair and practice my Spanish with Andres, the Ecuadorian bartender, who generously humored me and my Spanish skills through a half bottle of red wine before I screwed on the courage to make the climb back up to the hostel and bed.

I celebrated Halloween while I was in Lyon. To their credit the hostel did its very best to decorate the place (often at the expense of the people waiting for help at the reception desk) and make the evening festive for both the adults and the hoard of children that had arrived for the weekend. Having become a regular at Café Orange by that point, I headed down later in the evening to take in their merriment and clear out their wine shelf of the house red. They held a party with a special guest DJ, lots of slimy, sticky toys that we whipped at the walls and ceiling and entertaining costumes. Not having access to a costume, I just told everyone that I was dressed as a “Norwegian.”

Central Lyon has several parks and public gardens, but the real action is at Parc de la Tete D’or with its mammoth grassy fields, miles of jogging trails, impressive botanical gardens and free zoo. I hadn’t seen an elephant since Salzburg, so I decided I was probably due and headed across the park to the zoo. The zoo turned out to be a little depressing. I suppose I should have expected as much from a free zoo, but the sub-standard animal habitats looked like they had been designed by the same people who did the hostel. The elephants in particular seemed to be extremely unhappy. One was separated from the other two on a small island of land surrounded by a 10 foot deep concrete ditch and all he did was lean up against the closed door that led back into the barn and stare wistfully at his buddies. The other two were engaged in some kind of weird dancing, head nodding, autism-like behavior. They bobbed in near unison for periods of 15 to 30 seconds, then they would pause, look at each other and exchange some non-verbal, elephant glances before starting the ritual over again. I stared at this for about 10 minutes trying to imagine what it meant other than probably “I’d give my left tusk to get the hell out of this place!” before I moved on to check out the giraffes and monkeys. The elephants were still bobbing 30 minutes later when I cut through the zoo on my way out of the park.

On my last evening in Lyon, I set out to splurge on a meal. The best deals in French restaurants are almost always the fixed menus, with your choice of starters, entrees, desserts and sometimes wine all for a single price. Edible meals can be found for less than 12 euros, but if you really want a dinner to remember you have to drop at least 25 euros. I thoroughly investigated Lyon’s classy restaurant section on the strip of land that runs between the Saône and the Rhône Rivers before deciding on a drool inducing menu. I ordered a starter described as a “pastry filled with crab meat, herbs and citrus sauce” and the “leg of lamb with caramelized five berry sauce with sautéed artichokes and shallots” for an entrée. These food descriptions had me bouncing in my chair, making small grunts and gasps as I waited to be served, but what had gotten me all worked up in print lost its steam upon presentation. My entire meal didn’t have the mass of your average Happy Meal. The crab-filled pastry was a single, very tiny pastry with crab meat decoratively spilling out of the top. Two dainty mouthfuls of food, at best. I tried to reassure myself that it was only the starter. The entrée had to be a reasonable size, right? Wrong. It would have been more accurately represented if it had been described as “leg of munchkin lamb.” I’ve seen a lot of lambs in my day and I have yet to see a normal, healthy lamb with a four inch leg. After I stripped the bone of its meat, there was barely enough material to piece together three McNuggets. The dark chocolate, flowerless cake in coffee cream that I ordered for dessert, while being exceptionally succulent, was about as thin as an Andorran phone book. The only part of the meal that was served in normal proportions, thankfully, was the wine. With as little food as I had, washing it down with the generous amount of wine that I was served was probably the only thing that kept me from loudly demanding a second meal so I would have the available calories to burn while making the hike back up Mount Fourvière.

After dinner I imbibed in yet more red wide at Café Orange before bidding adieu to the regulars and left the next morning on a train for Nice.

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