A street in Dijon
Even though I’ve lived in France for the better part of a decade, I still get so excited about traveling in this country. Except when it comes to Lyon.
I first visited the city a few years ago, when the boyfriend and I stayed with some friends of his over a dreary November weekend. Sometimes spelled “Lyons” in English, Lyon has a lot to offer, starting with its long history (it was once called Lugdunum, and was the largest city in Gallo-Roman France; you can still see the remains of its theater and other archeological finds today). The Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) neighborhood is one of the best-preserved medieval neighborhoods in the world. Wines from the Rhone region abound. The cathedral Notre Dame de Fourvière has a commanding presence on the hill that looms over the city, and beside it is a metal structure that I’ve dubbed “the poor man’s Eiffel Tower”. But despite these and other appealing aspects, I found Lyon to be sort of…characterless. I was surprised to find that my boyfriend felt the same way. A few years later, we mentioned our trip to his great-aunt, who echoed, “Hmm…Lyon”.
I’m currently reading Charles Dickens’ travel memoir, Pictures from Italy (which you can read online or download to your e-reader for free!). On his way to the aforementioned country, Dickens had to go through Lyon. Here’s what he had to say about it:
What a city Lyons is! Talk about people feeling, at certain unlucky times, as if they had tumbled from the clouds! Here is a whole town that is tumbled, anyhow, out of the sky; having been first caught up, like other stones that tumble down from that region, out of fens and barren places, dismal to behold!
I laughed as I read the rest of the passage about Lyon; apart from improved sanitation, the city seems to give the same impression today, as it did in the 1840’s.
A few months ago, my friend Caddie*, a French teacher, called me excitedly to say that she was bringing a group of students on a class trip to France in June, and that she’d have a few free days when we could get together. This was great news; though Caddie is one of my best friends, we haven’t been able to see each other in person for almost three years. “The kids will be doing a homestay, so we can hang out – you can even stay in my hotel room for free,” she went on. Where would we meet, I asked. The answer: Lyon.
I love Caddie enough that I didn’t care. And as the visit got closer, I even got optimistic. Maybe this time, discovering the city with a good friend, I’d end up liking it a lot more.
Although Caddie and I had a great time, and though we saw and did a lot, the city still seemed lackluster. “It’s the poor man’s Paris,” Caddie remarked, unknowingly echoing my comment about that Eiffel Tower-like thing on the Fourvière Hill. “Lyon’s not ugly or anything,” she went on, “but it just seems like it’s trying to be Paris – and not really succeeding.”
That may have been why, after having spent Friday there on her own, she’d booked a train for a day-trip to Dijon, thinking I was only staying until ten o’clock Sunday morning, instead of ten o’clock Sunday night. When she realized she'd made a mistake about my departure time, Caddie waved my concern away. “It's my fault,” she said grandly, “so I’ll pay for your ticket and you’ll come to Dijon with me.” I protested, but she shook her head, took a sip of wine, and told me “Y.O.L.O. – that’s what my students say: You Only Live Once”
And so, we woke up Sunday morning, headed to the train station, bought my ticket, put my bag in a locker, and took the two hour train ride to Dijon.
Unlike Caddie, who’s always been mercurial and spontaneous, I’m a planner. I control and organize just about every aspect of my life and travels, often in spite of myself. I’d made a mini-guide for our weekend in Lyon, based on things Caddie had told me she wanted to do. Now, that was useless, but I didn’t feel upset. My stomach lurched a little as the train started moving, but I felt excited, too, like this was meant to happen. I had to let go.
And I’m glad I did. I’d never been to Dijon, nor to any town in the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region. While Lyon lacks character, Dijon is rich with it. We were so charmed by the place, shown to us by a teacher whose students are pen pals with Caddie’s, that we quickly stopped making mustard jokes and puns. The white-stone city delighted us.
After a few hours, we got back on the train and returned to Lyon. I grabbed my bag from the locker at the station, while Caddie ordered a salade lyonnaise (one of the few notable things about the city is that it does have a few signature foods) at a nearby café. I joined her and we savored our last two hours together. A quick photo together in a booth at the station, and I ran to catch my train back to Paris. Caddie and I promised we’d try to see each other the next time I'm in the States. We decided we won't meet anywhere we know, but somewhere we’ve never been before.
Here are some pictures from the weekend:
When I arrived in Lyon, this cool sign outside the Part-Dieu train station caught my eye. The lion is one of the symbols of Lyon, since the city’s name and the animal are pronounced the same way.
This pleasant-looking place isn’t an actual bookstore or library, alas, but a miniature in the Miniature and Cinema Museum.
Notre Dame de Fourvière and the Eiffel Tower-like structure on the hill above Lyon. We tried to climb the hill, but were stopped by a rainstorm that made us slide down the slopes, so we gave up and went back to the hotel room to eat baguette and sausage. Caddie has another free day in Lyon; hopefully she’ll get to see these places up close, as I did the last time I was there.
Lyon’s Gay Pride Parade was going on that day. It was a moving coincidence; Caddie came out to me many years ago while we were watching the Paris Gay Pride Parade. At the Lyon parade’s end, a canon created a foam party, right there in the street.
As we headed back from Vieux Lyon after our attempt to climb to the top of the Fourvière Hill, the light hit the Saône River just right.
A big mustard fan, Caddie was thrilled to see the original Maison Maille…which unfortunately wasn't open, since, like most French towns, Dijon’s stores are closed on Sunday. Oh well, at least we got to take pictures in front of it....
Luckily, one or two souvenir shops were open, including this one, that was selling jars of all kinds of mustard, from traditional-style, to mustards mixed with unusual things like cassis or Nutella.
The church of Notre Dame de Dijon is known for several things, including the impressive façade of gargoyles on its western side,
and “la chouette” (“the owl”). This tiny sculpture, worn from hands being passed over it, is considered a good luck charm. People – including residents like the old woman who asked if she could cut in between our photos so that she could touch the owl in passing – caress the statue with their left hand and make a wish:
The Board of Tourism put a version of the owl on metal arrows stuck on the sidewalks. Visitors can follow them to see most of the town’s famous landmarks.
Dijon is full of beautifully preserved buildings from the Middle Ages, to the early 1900’s. Here, a street of medieval houses looks more or less the same as it did centuries ago.
The ends of the beams on medieval houses are often decorated with small sculptures.
The Bourgogne (Burgundy) region is known, among other things, for rooftops of multicolored tiles, generally on medieval or Renaissance-era buildings. The tiles are often arranged in different patterns on each roof.
This medieval building’s old wood is so warped that its façade seems about to slide off!
The warm sun shines through one of Notre Dame de Dijon’s rose windows.
For a few euros, you can climb to the top of the City Hall’s medieval tower, to get a view of the town – including a great perspective of those fantastic Burgundian rooftops, like the one in the lower right corner of the photo.
Just below, the beautiful Place de la Liberté.
We ended our day in the Botanical Gardens, where letters on the side of a building spelled out, “DETENDEZ-VOUS” (“RELAX”). I took it as a sign.
This gazebo surrounded by plants was beautiful,
while this photo, part of an outdoor exhibition on cows, made me laugh:
Back in Lyon, we noticed a woman near us at the café didn’t mind a little sparrow who was hopping around, trying to steal bread from people’s plates.
A surprising image that was the perfect ending to a surprising weekend.
*name has been changed.