IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 25 > Lyon


I had really needed my sleep last night, and with the usual two-hour breakfast window available to me, I had to interrupt the final, and typically most enjoyable flaking embers of my dozing. It would remain an eternal mystery to me how on days when I was forced to get up, I always felt exceedingly comfortable and unwilling to draw myself away from the bed, which felt like it was crafted from a collection of beautiful boneless females who I had melted into. Yet on mornings when I had nothing to get up for, I would writhe around feeling desperately unable to enjoy the lie-in being offered to me, until I had stretched every muscle in my body to its extremity and acquired a guilty conscience for being so lazy. The odds seemed to be stacked impossibly against attaining the middle ground I sought, in which I would wake up, consider the hours of sleep I had gained to be of perfect duration, stretch my arms out singing to the lord and leap out of bed with a grin, ready for anything the day could throw at me.

It was the same with drinking. If the numbers 0 to 60 on a scale of intoxication represented my being not nearly drunk enough, and unable to feel socially involved with the same degree of excitement as everybody around me, and 62 to 100 constituted any set of events within the scope of vomiting, collapse, total disorientation, stupidity, alarming the police and remembering nothing, then the chances of reaching the perfect 61 were practically nil. I had seen glimpses of 61, it was some kind of utopia in there, and indeed every time I got drunk I would see it flash past, teasing me, but I would overshoot the platform and it would be too late to alight as I drew into the horrors of neighbouring 62.

One of the influences upon my desire to travel was the perpetual fantasy I held, that somewhere out there was a European 61 mountain, waiting for me to discover it. A place with excess happiness reserves where the people were unwaveringly merry, and where I would find ultimate contentment. It was a flimsy belief, but Lyon seemed to offer as good a chance of hosting this mountain as any other city I had seen. It was in France for a start, a country I was enjoying more with every moment I spent in it. Now that les grèves seemed to have finally ceased, there were few worries about getting around, and I had no need to panic about the following day's arrangements for moving on to another destination. So I set off in the direction of Perrache station to sort out my train tickets for tomorrow, ever the pessimist. I only wanted to get the drudge out of the way so that I could enjoy the rest of the day, and it was necessary to make an advance seat reservation on the TGV service.

I walked down the hill from the hostel into the centre of Vieux Lyon, a historic sector of the city newly declared a UNESCO world heritage site, a fact which was being widely trumpeted at the tourist information office where I acquired a map. I stopped at a café and plonked myself down at an outdoor table in the nearby square, soaking up the surroundings of elaborately decorated old buildings and bells tolling in the two local cathedrals.

I sat with my baguette - a necessary addition to my daily stereotypical French food intake after a messily organized semi-breakfast at the hostel - wondering how soon I would become bored if I lived here permanently. I often had an attention span to rival that of a goldfish, but I felt sure that I could carve out six months of pleasure in the city, provided I could find a reason for moving here in the first instance. It was a leisurely stroll to Perrache station along the banks of the Saône, one of two wide rivers cutting across Lyon and dividing it into three distinct sections. I made my booking for a journey the next day which would take me to Luxembourg City via Metz, and then took a wander into the central pedestrianized shopping district.

I reached a square which was famed for being one of the largest in Europe. It was also one of the whitest. I had never seen such a blinding terrain and I fought my way across its surface like an Antarctic explorer. The paving in the square was covered in a sheet of white sandy dust which brilliantly reflected the sun, and even with my head bowed down and my gaze hidden beneath the rim of my hat, I struggled to navigate in a straight line. It was a giant rectangular open space, practically featureless aside from the odd distinguished statue, and was like some kind of public dazzling ground, where unwitting tourists would be fried in front of jeering spectators before collapsing and withering under the intense light. I made it safely across, but to anybody watching I probably looked like a sad drunk as I staggered from side to side hunched over.

I continued through the streets, not really knowing what to do or where to go, but happy enough to just meander and observe some of the stunning architecture. Lyon had museums-a-plenty, as did so many cities these days, but I would rarely read a description of one which would have me salivating with expectation. I felt that my day at the Louvre was probably overkill, and had put paid to any future intentions of exploring more museums.

I walked around to the bank of the other large river, and perhaps the one with the more familiar name - the Rhône. I was over 150 miles from its Mediterranean end in the Golfe du Lion, but it would continue much further north and east, through Lake Geneva and into Switzerland, covering some 500 miles in all. I believed that great rivers held a key to many great cities, with their flowing energy and strength wielding a power which would instill vitality into the people occupying the places built upon them. Just having to cross an expanse of water on a daily basis probably conferred a subconscious feeling of accomplishment upon all the local citizens. But more importantly, they could be such a pure, unpenetrable diversion from the otherwise tamed urban environment, more natural than any park and void of any human intervention but for the odd boat. It was that purity which I felt cast a special spell upon a place. The inhabitants of Lyon were very lucky, as they had two of these natural marvels.

They also had a superb opera house; an eighteen-storey monster building - much of which lay underground, since the twentieth century refurbishment had excavated several layers below. The modern part of the design incorporated a splendid arched glass roof with glowing neon lights which could be seen from afar, whilst grand eighteenth century architecture adorned the brickwork around the sides. One of the most flabbergasting monuments was much smaller, but held a stance just as magnificent, and it lay just a short distance away in Place des Terreaux. A fountain designed by Bartholdi was the centrepiece of the square, and its stone chariot and wild horses leaping out in all directions was an astonishing piece of sculpture.

Whilst I stood gaping at it, I was intrigued to see trolley buses passing in front of me, the first working example of this form of transport that I had ever witnessed for real. My home town of Brighton had once been famous for them. Everybody loved the trolley buses, supposedly. Earlier in the year I had watched a video of them operating around Brighton and Hove before they were finally consigned to history in the 1960s, and like many people I wondered why they had ever been withdrawn, and dearly wished to see the day when such a system might operate in the town once more. Here in Lyon they'd already implemented a very modern trolley bus network with brand new fleets of vehicles, which was such a simple and relatively cheap solution to modern transport problems. It required none of the expensive extra infrastructure for laying tram lines, and none of the vast capital outlay for an underground system, but was a cleaner, more environmentally sound alternative to the noisy bus. Again, the residents of Lyon were lucky. Here there were modern, safe underground lines, trolley buses, funicular railways, trains, buses, boats, the lot. They were leading by example.

I crossed back over the Saône into Vieux Lyon, with its characteristic narrow streets and strange little shops. There were several sets of steep steps running up the hillside close to the youth hostel, upon which sat the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. I began my ascent of one of the staircases, determined not to look back and spoil my anticipation of the view until I had reached the top. Halfway up the hillside was a park which clung to the slopes and offered the weary climber some respite. Part of the hill once crumbled away and caused a landslide which killed several people, commemorated by a plaque at the bottom and now featuring a serene fountain facing the roadside.

I finally reached the top, and made my way to the viewing point adjacent to the Fourvière cathedral. If the hostel commanded special views across the city, this spot - at more than twice the height - offered a supreme panorama of Lyon that was breathtaking (below). The viewing information stands advised that on a clear day one could see Mont Blanc. It was a clear day, but I couldn't see it. Just not clear enough obviously, unless its title had been changed overnight to Mont Blanc-Bleu-Clair, and it had paled against the horizon. I could have ventured further and climbed the stairs of the cathedral which kept watch over the city, but my legs had already issued a writ against my brain.

A panorama of Lyon from the viewing area next to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière

Another view of Lyon from the top of the hill, featuring the 'Crayon' building of Crédit Lyonnais to the right

The Fourvière district on the hillside had been established as the town of Lugdunum by Julius Caesar, and the extensive remains of Roman occupation were still evident, notably a little further down the hill from the cathedral at the impressive Roman amphitheatre. By the time I had completed my circuit of the city, it was already nearing the evening, and although I felt that I had seen not nearly enough of Lyon, my feet could not handle anything more than the short walk back down to the hostel. I also knew that for the final time, I had to face that most treasured event of the week - laundry night.

It was during my enquiries about washing facilities that I encountered the one situation which soured my experience of the hostel. In my usual polite, friendly manner I asked the girl at the reception desk for the tumble dryer token, which she had omitted to give me when I paid for use of the facility. With no warning she threw an enormous volatile tantrum and spouted off at me. In just about the most condescending manner I had ever been spoken to, she claimed that if I talked the way I did then I couldn't expect to receive an answer. So, talked in what way exactly? It had obviously been foolhardy of me to respectfully attempt to ask her a simple question in French, and when she demanded that I speak in English instead, she steamed up in anger at my dialect. Her own interpretation of the language was spoken with an artificially inflected American accent, and she had decided that my native version of English was unsuitably enunciated. She wasn't the first person I had met who held a secondary understanding of English pronounced the American way, and who felt that my own articulation was confusing, and even incorrect.

It was unlike me to keep my cool in such circumstances, whereupon a red mist would usually build rapidly before my eyes and I'd lash out in automatic mode with a supercharged verbal onslaught. My refusal to lower to her own demeaning standards, and my continued polite requests seemed to fill her with further irritation, but also an acceptance of her own wrongdoing. The spite she had shown me would have been enough to earn a sacking on its own had I been conveniently in the possession of a camcorder, but I was prepared to let it pass providing I heard no more from her.

I darted up and down the stairs between my dormitory and the laundry room, waiting an eternity for the dryer to stop, so I could then take a shower and change into fresh clothes. One hour later, I realized that operation of the dryer was preferably performed when the device was plugged in at the wall. There was no window on the machine, it was a top loader which sat close to something else that hummed, so I had presumed once pressing the 'ON' button that my clothes were happily airing, despite their persistent dampness each time I checked on their condition.

A further half an hour in my dormitory was starting to make me nauseous, due to the antics of the two new guests who had arrived. An American guy sat on his bed and openly excavated artefacts from under his toe nails, sprinkling remnants of his findings across the floor in a casual manner. Meanwhile, the other guest was a demented Vietnamese guy who mentioned death too many times for my liking, and was determined to insert an extreme expletive into every sentence he uttered, be it on the subject of the Japanese, music, war or a bag of crisps. Anything and everything had him enraged and acting like a psychopath.

I remembered the words of Lynsey at the hostel in Poitiers, and I considered it very likely that I had been lumbered with the looney gang by staff who felt it best to put all the bad eggs in one basket. There were no prizes for guessing which member of staff may have opted to place the daily intake of retards into my own dormitory. I had to get out of there, and once I had collected my washing and taken a shower, I wandered down the road to purchase some provisions and find a bottle of cheap, cheerful plonk for the evening. Wine was so inexpensive in France, and it was an unwritten requirement of staying there that I should consume a few glasses each day.

When I returned from the shop, I scoffed my dinner and took to the terrace at the rear of the hostel, where I met up with some friends from the night before. Once more we saw the final offerings of submerged sunlight departing, and the glitzy replacement bulbs of Lyon lighting up the sky. The glowing red roof arches of the opera house competed with the illuminated offices in the 'crayon' skyscraper occupied by the Crédit Lyonnais bank, and the various spires of landmark buildings offered further shining beacons above the city.

I would be sad to leave this place. It was an understated and underrated city which tourism had largely forgotten, yet it was probably best preserved that way. Another night spent with good company was a welcome relief from both the frantic pace of recent travels, and the disturbing environment that awaited me in my room. It wasn't until very late that I returned to the dormitory, at which point I was inebriated enough to fall straight to sleep and forget any worries about my fellow bunk occupants. Only five days of travelling remained, but three more countries were challenging me to a visit.

HOSTEL REPORT: Lyon - Auberge de Jeunesse du Vieux Lyon - see day 24

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