In a week and a half, the population of Lyon will triple for four days. Hotels have been sold out for months, and good luck getting into a restaurant in Vieux Lyon.
La Fête des Lumières!
Lyon has more than one claim to fame (the invention of cinema, the silk industry of Croix-Rousse, and Paul Bocuse, to name a few) but the Fête des Lumières is by far the most important annual event.
I didn’t know what to expect from the Fête des Lumières (which literally means “festival of lights” in case you were wondering). I kind of imagined lots of little tea lights in windows. That’s part of it; Lyon residents do sometimes put little candles in their windows. But it’s more like an artistic explosion of colorful moving light all over the Lyon that transforms the city into a magical alternate universe fueled on vin chaud for a span of four days.
I used to live in the Croix Rousse neighborhood in Lyon. It’s up on a hill, bordered by Lyon’s two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône. (It doesn’t look like they should rhyme, but they pretty much do.) Anyone who lives in Croix Rousse will tell you it’s the best neighborhood of Lyon – I’ve met longtime residents who didn’t refer to themselves at Lyonnais, but Croix Roussian. It’s also known as the fourth arrondissement, but no one but the post office calls it that.
Croix Rousse is like it’s own little village up on the hill over Lyon. It’s known for its silk-weaving history, les canuts. A lot of apartments in Croix Rousse have high ceilings and mezzanines because when all the silk weavers were weaving their silk up on the hill, they needed high ceilings. I’ve also heard that they are the reason behind Lyon’s famous traboules, which are essentially little tunnels through buildings. They ultimately became important during WWII, but the silk weavers just used them to stay out of the rain. Rain is bad for silk, apparently.
Anyway, Croix Rousse is cool for lots of reasons, and if you visit Lyon, you definitely need to hike up that hill (it’s really not that bad) and wander around. Or if you’re lazy, you could take the metro, and maybe you’ll benefit from this tip I’m about to share with you.
In Lyon, your metro ticket is valid for an hour. That means if you take the metro somewhere, go run an errand or what have you, and then want to get back on the metro less than an hour after you first validated the ticket, you can use the same ticket to board the metro the second time. (I don’t think it works this way in Paris, and that is disappointing.)
Since Lyon is not a huge city, it usually doesn’t take more than 20-30 minutes to get most places on public transport. In the Croix Rousse metro stop, people leave their still-useable tickets at the entrance when they leave the station. Then when the next person comes along, they can grab the ticket and use it to get on the metro. How’s that for collaborative consumption?
Ever since I discovered this, I always leave my metro ticket when I get off the train, unless I’m planning to go somewhere else in the next hour. You can leave a ticket or look for a ticket at any metro station – I just happen to frequent the Croix Rousse metro, and I haven’t noticed tickets up for grabs at other metro stops.
I’m a supporter of the sharing economy so I love this kind of stuff, but for me the best (okay, second best after the free metro tickets) is that this a little thing that people do for their community, just to be nice. There’s no immediate payoff – they’re paying it forward.
And as minor as it is, I like to do little things like this to pay it forward. It reminds me to be more generous and less stingy. We’ll start with used metro tickets and work up from there, okay?
It would be easy for you to think that I live in Paris, but I don’t. I did, but I moved south a year ago. Not all the way south – to the Rhône-Alpes region. You know, Grenoble, Lyon, Annecy, Chamonix – it’s a nice part of France. (Although if you were to ask me where the not-nice parts of France are, I’d be at a loss to tell you.)
In the summer, I move around a lot, but in theory I’m based in Lyon. I freaking love Lyon. It’s a great city. You can look forward to some inside scoops from Lyon (because I have friends who know what the scoop is and they tell me) and here’s the first one.
I was spending a few days in Lyon with my friend before kicking off the summer, and since we’re both American, we were hungry. Please note that we were hungry at around 8pm which is one of the acceptable times to be hungry in France. We went around the corner to try a little place that both of us had passed numerous times in Croix Rousse – l’Epicerie Comptoir. (You can also find them in two other arrondissements in Lyon as well as Grenoble.)
We chose inside over outside because it was getting chilly, and the gentleman inside greeted us warmly. We asked to see a menu, and he replied, “I am the menu!” He recommended a plate of charcuterie and a choice of tapenades with a really yummy wine that may have been from Australia or South America or possibly the south of France.
Normally I have trouble relinquishing control over my food like this. I like to comb through the menu, look at the prices, add it all up in my head, and then make a decision, so agreeing to food without having all the background information is disagreeable to me in the same way that I find it disagreeable when I’m not allowed to choose my own produce at the market (I don’t WANT the apple with the little hole in the side and I’m sorry if that makes me a produce snob.)
My self-induced anxiety was lifted when our food came. A perfect planche of charcuterie with thinly sliced saucisson and pâté en croute and prosciutto (sorry vegetarians). I eat a fair amount of charcuterie in France, and this is probably the best I’ve ever had. And the tapenades! There was olive, beet (which we referred to as “betterave” even when speaking English because “beet” means something quite different in French) and two others which I think had something to do with red peppers and garlic. All four were de-lish even if I cannot remember what they all were.
We also had a whole jar of small pickles (gherkins? Cornichons) to go with the charcuterie and I may have overdone it on that front. I like tiny pickles, what can I say?
The bill came to about 20 euros each, which is a little more than I usually spend on dinner (#thrifty) but it was reasonable considering the quality of all the different things we tried. FYI, you can also buy their products to take home, hence why is it called “L’Epicerie.”
Update: I did end up returning to L’Epicerie Comptoir, and while there are other wine bars in Lyon that I prefer, L’Epicerie Comptoir has a nice modern vibe and a good amount of seating – hopefully, you won’t have to fight for a table here.
(Update: I wrote this two years ago, and a lot of things have changed around here! I’ve discovered new things, a lot more international food has popped up in Lyon, I started buying almond milk, you get the idea.
I think that a lot of the things on the list still hold true. None of them are part of French culture (France has its own awesome things) and most of them are still unfamiliar to the older generation/people who live in less urban areas.
Keep in mind that Lyon is the second biggest city in France (or third after Marseille depending on how you slice it). It’s been voted one of the best cities for start-ups and there’s a substantial population of young hipsters and bobos (and foreigners, like me!) There is so much innovation and creativity present in this city! Happily, that has begun to translate into food too. In the years that I’ve lived here a lot of new restaurants and cafes have popped up, and I’ve discovered new places I didn’t know about before.
If you live in a less-urban area of France, I’d love to know your take on these things too! Can you get smoothies and barbecue where you live? Does anyone eat corn on the cob?
So with that, here’s the original post; you’ll find my updates italicized below each section.)