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Friday, 31 May 2013

En Route with Andrew Hamilton II

By Andrew Hamilton
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
(One in a series)
Lyon, France
I went to Lyon because the the details about the trains to Dijon and the hotel accommodations in Dijon, where they have the mustard, are confused or murky and it was late and I was working out of the WiFi in a Korean hotel in Montmartre and later in some places down at the south end of town, off the Internet tourist maps. I spent three nights in the Korean place in Montmartre, in the Abesses quarter, a nice neighborhood, and then three nights in a flop down at Convention in the fifteenth, and a night at a hot-water hotel on the rue du Moulin Vert across from a restaurant that looked good but served some awful gelatinous codfish. More on food and on wine later, maybe.

The point of my being down at the south end of Paris, off the visitor map, was that I used to live there, across the street from the Abbatoir du Vaugirard, which was the horse slaughterhouse before they closed down all the city distribution points and moved them out to the suburbs, before they turned les halles into the Pompidou Center and turned the big abbatoirs at La Villette into the science park that nobody goes to.

I may have mentioned this before, about living across the street from the horse slaughterhouse, how I used to wake up listening to the clip-clop of hooves in the morning, and walk to the Porte de Vanves métro terminal past open-fronted butcher shops with horse carcasses hanging from hooks set into rails in the ceilings, and the restaurant up the street called Aux Trois Mulets that specialized in mule dishes, and how they have since turned the slaughterhouse into a park and named it the parc Georges Brassens because George Brassens lived in the neighborhood for twenty years or so and I probably passed him on the street but had no idea who he was or that he even existed.

But to add to this history, I can report that the park built on the grounds of the old horse slaughterhouse has a specialty, to be found as far as I know nowhere else in Paris: pony rides for children. A Magreb or maybe Gypsy family has a string of dwarf ponies, and they walk kids around one small section of the park. Nobody seems to know that some bitter old bureaucrat in the parks department is having a joke here. Ninety percent of Parisians were born after the Abbatoirs du Vaugirard were razed, and the old people addicted to horse meat are busy riding all over town to the few shops that still sell it. 

So I went to Lyon for five or six days. The part of Lyon where I was, the older part, is divided into above the arches and below the arches. The arches are the old train station, which is built on those massive arches like all the old train stations in France. Below the arches used to be where they had bars and whorehouses, but it's halfway to upscale now, with an ice rink and cultural centers and new apartments and hotels, and one end of a navette boat route that runs up the river to just north of the old town, costs only a euro and a half, which is less than the streetcar.

Lyon is the second largest city in France, evidently. First night in Lyon I bought bread and the shopgirl coughed into her hand and then grabbed the bare baguette with the same hand and gave it to me. Probably just by coincidence I soon had the first grippe that I'd had in twenty years. It was a bad cold with coughing, lasted into halfway through Nice, a couple of weeks. Have you ever tried to buy cough medicine in France? I ran through several bottles of homeopathic remedies before I found a pharmacist who understood molecular theory and alcohol-sugar syrup.

Lyon was set up around silk mills on the hill across the Saône, it's where the Rhône and the Saône come together I think, anyway, two fairly big rivers for that latitude. The streets where the silk-weavers lived mostly ran parallel to the river, so to get to the docks with their bundles of silk they would cut through private courtyards and between private residences.  These short-cuts are called traboules and are a major attraction. A few of the traboules are maintained for the tourist traffic. I went through one called "la longue traboule," the long Lyonnais shortcut in English,  and it was about like any city shortcut, although more picturesque than many, and with signs asking you to not smoke, spit, piss in corners, speak loudly, or otherwise indispose the riverains, please.

Riverains is a word I've learned only recently. No parking, except riverains. Acces interdit, sauf riverains. For a long time, I thought it meant people who live by a river, because I first noticed the signs along a waterway somewhere. It means the guys who live here, as far as I can tell.

Lyon has a famous sort of specialty restaurant called the bouchon, which means a cork as in a wine-bottle, but which in Lyon refers to the bound loads of silk that the silk-weavers used to hustle through the neighborhoods on their backs. These are cozy little restaurants where you can get a full meal for about fifteen euros, cheap in modern France. The drawback is that they specialize in offal-- sausages and other preparations of the lower intestine, and as the guidebook says, many tourists have difficulty learning to appreciate low-intestine meats and their associated odor.
The only bouchon I went to had a special of froglegs  showing on the ardoise, so I had froglegs, a big platter of them, and they were OK. I had some other decent meals in Lyon, I think, but I forget what or where. Ardoise, by the way, means "blackboard." For some reason I have to look it up every time I go to France, even though I once spent a couple of years writing out English passages and grammar rules on the blackboard for the kids to copy into their notebooks. It's the blackboard where they chalk up the specialties, and in some places the whole menu. A lot of older places, the waiter will come with a portable ardoise and hold it in front of your your face when you ask for the carte, or after the main course to show the dessert selections.

There are a lot of museums around Lyon, which I of course avoided. There is a big cathedral in what I'd call a late-Baroque or maybe high Roccoco style on the high hill at the west of town. It could be just a belle-epoque cathedral done with excessive exuberance, but my eye sees roccoco out of the art-history book, whether it officially is or not. This cathedral is locally called "l'élephant", because it has four thick towers on the corners that make it look like an elephant with rigor mortis lying on its back. Inside is a wonderfully cornball array of high rococco artwork, you've never seen anything like it. Sort of refreshing. You pretty much have to take the ski-lift to get up there, which costs two bus or streetcar tickets, but that covers both ways and I think you can transfer to regular trasport for an hour and a half afterward. Right next to this thing is a stubby, weird-looking "replica"  or half-scale model of the Eiffel Tower, half-scale in height and width but made of the same thick iron fronds, which was built by free-thinkers who felt that the highest building in Lyon shouldn't be a damn church.  So they threw up a mis-shapen red tower a few feet higher than the elephant, and it's now festooned with microwave antennas, as ugly as anything you ever want to see.

I got a kick out of Lyon, but I don't think I'll ever buy any apartments there. It's like a cross between Fresno-in-France and what I imagine Cleveland to be, with a touch of Duluth in the iron-mongery. As everywhere in France, it's full of activity and good things for citizens, public works, renovations everywhere, new tram lines, new train stations, maps mounted on street-corners, cafés and bakeries and elegant traiteur shops, electronic signs with rotating announcements of public lectures and high-school soccer games and free comic-book expositions and other civic events, tulips and daffodils in public flower-beds, and neighborhoods full of storefronts where an old Arab in a long brown garment and pointy slippers will unlock your phone and install a new SD card, cheap.

I next went to Nice, where I'd rented an apartment for two weeks, on the yacht harbor or Old Port.

(Andrew Hamilton, The PJ's travel editor, also lives in Trinity Center, California).