The unfriendliest folk in France? Don't you believe it

Lyon's reputation for giving tourists the cold shoulder is undeserved. Mike Gerrard found a 'Bonjour' on every corner in France's second city
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The Independent Travel
The green hills below the plane were low and rounded, and lush with recent rain. Swimming pools were scattered across the countryside like turquoise beads, as if the pilot could have used them to guide him to the airport at Lyon. On the bus to the city centre, I looked out to see row after row of sunflowers, and I smiled back at them. Welcome to France, they said.

Lyon is France's second city, the place people flash past on their way to Provence or the coast. Parisians look down on it, but then Parisians look down on almost anything beyond their own nose. Jealousy may be a factor, as Lyon and the area around it is said to have more renowned chefs than anywhere else in Europe, which would certainly make Parisian noses sniff disdainfully.

The chefs are attracted by the produce in this fertile part of France, and as I strolled along the Sunday morning market on the Quai Saint Antoine I could understand why. There were butchers, bakers and paella makers. There were spice stalls, cheese stalls and fishmongers. One stall sold only garlic, and another overflowed with mushrooms. You could even pick your own, from a chunk of tree trunk the stall-holder had brought along with him. Another man had brought his bees, his stall piled high with jars of golden honey, and little beeswax carvings. There were tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, courgettes, fresh figs, raspberries and strawberries, melons and mangos. Above the market hubbub came the ringing of cathedral bells, for on the far bank of the River Saone stands Lyon's Cathedral of Saint-Jean.

As if to emphasise its richness, Lyon has two rivers running through it, and meeting while they're there. The smaller Saone has come down through Macon and in Lyon merges with the Rhone, which flows on past Avignon and Arles and through the Camargue to the Mediterranean, about 150 miles distant. In Lyon you're never far from water - or indeed from a watering-hole. Every other building seems to house a restaurant, bar, bistro, boulangerie, patisserie or a shop selling hand-made chocolates.

The Cathedral bells were calling me, though, so I crossed the river by one of the several passerelles, or foot-bridges, to Old Lyon, the biggest and best-preserved Renaissance district in France. Lyon's Cathedral dates back to the 12th Century, with stained glass almost as old. Even on this dull morning, its vivid colours seemed to shine down from high above the altar, where the glass has miraculously survived seven centuries and several wars. So too has the cathedral's clock, which dates from at least 1383 as a document at that time refers to its existence. Three times a day, at noon, 2 and 3pm, its apostolic figures do their mechanical march around the top.

By this time the rain was dancing down on the Old Town's cobbles so I decided to concentrate on indoor pursuits instead: a museum and a meal.

The Musee Historique de Lyon is not the biggest of the city's many fine museums, but it had the virtue of being both close and open. It's housed in a 15th Century mansion - the Old Town abounds with them - that's built around a courtyard, and as I paid my 25Fr I noticed yet again how courteous everyone was. Smiles and perky "Bonjours" all round. And this in a city which, one guidebook told me, has the reputation for having the unfriendliest people in France. What? Short of throwing their arms around you, kissing you passionately and forcing money into your wallet, I don't see how they could be any friendlier.

The Museum was, like all the ones I visited, laid out with some style. The lighting on the bas-reliefs from the city's Roman past was stunning, angled and bright to bring out every chip of the chisel on the hunters, lions, griffons and other creatures carved out of the stone. The same technique had been used in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, whose collection is second only to the Louvre. Here its Egyptian collection was in rooms as dark as tombs, but with shafts of light almost caressing the work of the craftsmen of ancient Egypt.

The Historic Museum also includes, on one floor, the Musee de la Marionette. France's most famous puppet creations, Guignol and Madelon, a kind of Gallic Punch and Judy, were born in Lyon when tooth-puller and part-time puppeteer Laurent Mourguet invented a three-fingered glove that gave him much more versatility than the previous string-pull puppets. On display are not only old French puppets and theatres, but marionettes from Mali, Togo, Japan, Russia, Java, Madagascar - even a strip-tease puppet and a puppet of a puppeteer holding a puppeteer holding a puppet.

There are as many nations represented here as in the city's restaurants. I spotted Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Korean and Cambodian eating places, not to mention Tunisia, Morocco, the Cameroons, Italy and even the Seychelles. No British, though, for some reason. I hadn't come all this way for a curry, however, so it was to the Lyonnais bouchons I looked. The city is renowned for these old inns, serving local food at reasonable prices. Something about Le Cabaretier tickled my palate's fancy, so I wandered past the bar and back at least half a century to the tiny rear room.

I only wanted a light lunch, forgetting that in Lyon there's no such thing. For 119Fr (about pounds 13) I could have had several courses including a terrine de canard pistachee maison sur son lit de mesclon, whatever that is, or a saumon poele en basilic sauce champagne.

The rest of the weekend passed in a rainy blur of food, wine, museums and markets. On my last day, after another belt-busting lunch, I was walking by the Saone when I realised there was one very French thing that I hadn't yet done. So I popped into a pissoir before heading for the airport bus. I sat on the side where the sunflowers would be. It was raining again by the time we reached them, but they still seemed to be smiling.

FACT FILE

Getting there

The author travelled as a guest of Inghams, whose Eurobreak brochure includes short breaks in Lyon starting from pounds 223 for two nights at a 3- star city centre hotel. This includes flights from Gatwick or Heathrow with British Airways or Air France. Note that almost all museums and many shops are closed in Lyon on Monday, so if only visiting for a couple of days don't make one of them a Monday. Details from Eurobreak, 10-18 Putney Hill, London SWI5 6AX (tel: 0181 780 7700).

Lyon-Satolas International Airport is 20km from the centre, linked by a regular bus service for 82Fr return.

Where to eat

Rue Merciere off Place des Jacobins and Rue des Marronniers east of Place Bellecour are both pedestrianised streets lined with good eating places.

Try Le Bouchon aux Vins or Le Merciere in the former, and Restaurant Byblos in the latter. Lyon is renowned for its bouchons, or inns, which are long-established good-value restaurants. Many of these are in Rue Merciere and the streets around, with another cluster just across the River Saone in Vieux Lyon. Try Le Cabaretier at 6 rue de la Fronde, near the Musee Historique de Lyon.

Markets

Lyon's markets operate every day except Monday. The best of these is on Quai St Antoine and Quai des Celestins, almost opposite the Cathedral on the banks of the Saone. Another outdoor market is on Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse at the Croix-Rousse metro station. The indoor market at Les Halles is a short walk east of Pont Lafayette.

Museums

The Tourist Offices in Lyon sell a Key to Lyon booklet for 9OFr which is valid for three days and includes admission tickets for the six main museums, a city tour and a one-day travel pass.

Further information

The Tourist Information Office in Lyon stands near the centre of the main Place Bellecour.

A city map of Lyon and other information is available from the French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London WIV OAL (tel: 0891 244123 - calls cost 50p per minute; e-mail: piccadilly@malf demon.co.uk).

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