While we’ve been fortunate enough to visit Paris more than once, neither of us has ever been to the south of France. We took this #funemployment opportunity and took a train from Paris to Lyon. I know it’s not definitvely Southern France, but it’s south of Paris so we’ll let it slide this time. Our hotel, as always, was perfectly situated near the Rhône and Saône rivers. Just around the corner was a hip shopping area full of trendy boutiques, chic restaurants, and plenty of bars. (Safety note: don’t worry, we were well out of Lyon before the bombing incident). I thought Paris was cool but turns out, all of the stylish youths are all in Lyon! Every other person on the street looked like they jumped out of the pages of Vogue.
Our first night we actually ate poke, something we missed from home and haven’t been able to find often in Europe. Ohana Poke Bar had fresh, delicious ingredients, and we were happy to get some greens for once. Luckily the staff spoke great English so no avocado for Mark!
If breakfast is not included with the hotel, we usually venture out to a cafe to get coffee and a croissant. While I miss my Asian breakfasts, the French do make a mean breakfast pastry. We stumbled upon a few bagel shops while wandering around our neighborhood so on our first morning, we tried one out. The most popular place was closed until 11:30am, we think because a bagel here is more like lunch than breakfast. So we settled for option #2, The Brooklyn Gourmet Company. The place was empty (10:30 am breakfast is still too early I guess) but the young woman behind the counter was very nice and served us with a smile. We both ordered the “Hudson” – salmon, cream cheese, dill, cucumbers, and onions. Please keep in mind that Mark is from Long Island – home to the best bagels, the best pizza (all true), so bagels are no joke. Drumroll please….
The bagel was warm but not toasted. It was soft, doughy, and didn’t fall apart as you ate it. The cream cheese was smooth and some genius whipped in dill with it so my tongue melted with satisfaction. The lettuce and onion provided a nice crunch I didn’t know I needed. IT WAS AMAZING.
strong smart and didn’t order a second bagel, choosing instead to get some steps in along the Saône River. Along the way, we walked through Place Bellecour, one of the largest open squares (no patches of greenery or trees) in Europe. The square is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s also the kilometer 0 of Lyon – all distances are counted from the square.
After meandering around some picturesque streets, we caught a funicular up to Fourvière, a district sitting on a hill jutting up from the Seône. It’s known in Lyon as “the hill that prays” for its many religious buildings. The most famous of these is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. The basilica is dedicated to the Virgin Mary for saving the city during the bubonic plague. Normally, I skim through churches because they all look the same to me, but de Fourvière was something different. Inside are some of the most beautiful mosaics and stained glass I’ve ever seen. The mosaics are insanely detailed and depict various scenes from Mary’s life.
I would love to have any of these mosaics as puzzles, they are that complex! I found myself standing quietly in front of each piece, looking for Waldo. Each pass revealed new details and new colors. My favorite piece was of Joan of Arc, featured below. Despite the packed canvas, she still stands out, front and center like a holy badass.
Right around the corner from the church is one of the most compelling views of the city below. I was surprised to see the viewpoint was empty, so we took our time admiring the scenery.
As we slowly made our way down from the basilica, Mark mentioned that he wanted to make one more stop. We wound around a few more corners and there it was – a Roman theater! Not something I expected to see in France that’s for sure. Fourvière was originally the site of a Roman settlement dating back to 43 BC!
The walk down was peaceful and solitary as most tourists take buses up and down the hill. We weren’t that tired yet so we headed to the Musée Miniature & Cinema, a very quirky museum that combines two loves of the owner – the making of film and miniature art. The first three floors are dedicated to major motion pictures and includes costumes, props, storyboard drawings, and videos. It even had a recreation of full sets from the 2006 film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Each room along the way explains all these different production tricks and secrets used to make a movie – animatronics, prosthetics, models, green screen technology, etc. We watched videos on how films used models and mini sets to create famous scenes in movies.
We saw costumes and props from some of our favorite films like Fifth Element, Star Wars, Batman, Hellboy, etc. The last floor was dedicated to miniature sets – basically the world’s best dioramas. These were extremely detailed and meticulously crafted, but we were so enthralled by the rest of the museum that we were tired by the time we got to this part and coasted through. This museum was a complete surprise, hidden in the classic old renaissance area of Lyon, and we absolutely loved it. A welcomed break from the historical museums and sites we’ve largely been packing our days with, this museum was right up the alley of these two cinema-crazed travelers.
Certainly not unique to Lyon, France, or even Europe, street art was high on every internet list of what to see and do here. Here the height of fashion are their grand murals painted in the style of trompe l’oeil (French for “deceive the eye”). Great big murals that highlight the life and many characters of the city of Lyon. Lyon’s love affair with street art dates back to the 1970’s when a group of students decided to liberate art from the confines of museums and galleries to the streets. The two most famous of these include: the Mur des Canuts depicting a long staircase cutting through colorful apartment buildings, with shops and all sorts of people roaming about; as well as Fresque des Lyonnais another massive fresco depicting a large apartment building highlighting 31 famous Lyonnais people from past and present, including the Lumière brothers credited with pioneering cinema. There were other colorful pieces masterfully done, all in grand scale, which always provided a reason to pause and reflect.
Lyon is well known for its cuisine and we wanted to continue the tradition of eating well. The upside about staying in a lively area is that it’s walkable and there is lots to see and do. The downside is that everything can be more expensive because it’s a touristy neighborhood. We enjoyed our walk earlier so much that we decided to do it again and walked across the river to eat dinner. Cafe Luna is a small restaurant owned and run by a husband and wife team. It was still early by European standards (8 pm) so the place was empty. The husband worked front of house while the wife cooked in the small kitchen in the back. Our starter was presented by the wife and she seemed quite proud of it, as she should because it was delicious! A simple green salad with produce from the local market and a stunning homemade tortilla, spanish-style (our new favorite)! Mark and I ordered the same entree of filet mignon pork with potatoes and salad, also from the local market. The whole experience was quiet and intimate, comfortable and pleasing. Thank you Cafe Luna!
We quickly found ourselves falling in love with Lyon; it was hip, beautiful, and felt authentically French in a quietly-going-about-its-business sort of manner. We immediately planted seeds with each other that we would love to return here one day. Pssst — Mom, Dad — you should live in Lyon for your next stint abroad! We’d love to come visit! Just saying … we’ll announce when applicants for a Belvedere House Sitter can be submitted. As a former House Sitter, it’s probably the best job I’ve ever had.
The next morning we boarded a train even further south, to Nice! Located in the French Riviera (or Côte d’Azur in French), it’s a charming coastal city with elegant beaches mixed with vibrant French and Italian street life. This was my first introduction to Mediterranean life and I still can’t believe I’ve been missing out on it for this long! Days are long and quiet with people slowly handling their responsibilities for the day. Shops open later, there’s a long break for lunch, and the evenings are spent lounging outside with friends, wine, and cigarettes. Life is enjoyed in these parts, and I made a note to start living by their example.
Our hostel (we had a private room, with our own bathroom, thank you very much) was less than a 5 minute walk from the train station and the same distance to the main street. The main street is part of Promenade des Anglais, or La Prom as it’s known locally. It’s popular with tourists and locals alike and for good reason. It stretches for about 7km, weaves down a main shopping center and out to the coast.
At the end of the main street, before you hit the water, you’ll find a fountain sculpture known as The Sun Fountain, or Fontaine du Soleil. The tall, chiseled man is supposed to be Apollo, the god who pulls the sun across the sky with a chariot pulled by four horses. But this Apollo has no chariot and the four horses are on his head! On top of that, locals were aghast by the largesse of his package (the hammer of the gods). In an attempt to squelch this controversy, the sculptor adjusted Apollo’s nether regions … but took a little too much off the top. The end result left him a bit small for a god, resulting in the statue being referred to today as “The Virgin.” Poor guy. In happier news, later that night we walked to a local cinema and watched Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron’s new movie, Long Shot. It was hysterical!
Mark took a hike up several flights of stairs to Castle Hill, a park overlooking the coast. Blessed with sweeping views and a waterfall, he also found himself following the signs to the “cimetière.” There was a large gated section housing a Jewish cemetery, with a monument dedicated to those whose lives were lost during World War II, either as part of the resistance, or martyrs of persecution. There was also a monument down below along the coast dedicated to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during World War I. Not to be too morbid here, let’s balance out this paragraph and accompanying photos with his photoshoot with the #ILoveNICE sign:
Since we were so close to the train station, we couldn’t help but take the opportunity to travel to see some cities near Nice.
Less than thirty minutes on a train and we arrived at the Principality of Monaco (or as our audio guide would call it, muh-NAH-koh). Fun fact of the day: Monaco is the second smallest country in the world after the Vatican! It is known to be one of the wealthiest and most expensive places in the world due specifically to its lack of income tax and low business taxes, and is used as a tax haven by many.
It was a little hectic to walk around because the city was setting up for the Monaco Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious car races. The course has many elevation changes, tight corners, and a tunnel, making one racer comment that it’s like “trying to race around your living room.” We didn’t see any of the Grand Prix cars but we did see a lot of Ferraris, Lambourginis, and other fancy pants cars.
There isn’t a ton to do in Monaco that doesn’t require spending loads of money, so we sought out the cheapest site – the Royal Palace and the Prince’s car collection. The Royal Palace contains exactly what you’d expect – fancy rooms, lavish decorations, and an odd family painting that screams white privilege. Mainly featured was a photography exhibit of Grace Kelly meeting Prince Rainier III for the first time. It meant well; the exhibit started out featuring Hollywood images of Kelly in films and in magazines. (Side note: Grace Kelly is BEAUTIFUL). But the lead-up to the visit and the actual visit lasted just over an hour, and I don’t need to see 300+ images of Kelly in her dress, or read an eerily detailed timetable of this one day.
We also became distracted because a Chinese man entered the exhibit surrounded by a small entourage. He had a few bodyguards and was given a private tour. I instantly thought, “he must be a billionaire.” I Googled “Chinese billionaire” but his face didn’t match any of the results. I racked my brain … he’s definitely important, he’s definitely famous, he’s definitely rich … so I Googled “alibaba guy.” BINGO! We followed Jack Ma around a bit, gossiped with some other tourists about what we would do if we had $39 billion … we felt so cool!
We waved to Jack Ma as he left (he waved back!), and we walked down to the Prince’s car collection. It’s a pretty extensive and quite impressive collection, especially if you love cars. I don’t know anything about cars (nor do I really care), but I always like to peek at someone’s collection. I collected magnets as a child, so I can totally relate to the prince. Featured cars included Grand Prix race cars, Rolls Royces, Ferraris, vintage BMWs, vintage Mercedes, and even horse-drawn carriages (and an Isetta!).
After witnessing his expansive car collection, I felt like Prince Albert II and I were the same person, both worth $1 billion. What to do with all that money? Gamble it away at the Monte Carlo of course! The idea of a casino in Monaco was the brainchild of Princess Caroline as an attempt to save the House of Grimaldi (Monaco’s royal family) from bankruptcy. In modern times, the casino has been featured in several James Bond films as well as Ocean’s Twelve. There are no photos allowed in the casino, but we snuck a couple anyway. The expensive cars parked outside provided just a small glimpse into the glamour that would await us. The high ceilings hold baroque paintings, the walls are lined with gold paneling and decorative columns. Mark walked confidently up to the Blackjack table intent on winning some big bucks, so we could live more opulently during the remainder of our trip. So as not to hover, I looked for a place to sit, and chose a particularly plush couch cushion. By the time I looked up, he was walking straight towards me, with his shoulders slumped and his head down. Guess our budget’s getting a wee bit tighter. Aw well, still very cool to be there and make a donation!
Monaco was very pretty and no, the building are not made of gold (not all of them, anyway). Honestly, the harbor scenery (minus the grand stands) reminded us of downtown Tiburon, so oddly enough we weren’t blown away as much as I thought we would be. I’m sure Monaco is an absolute blast if you have money, but I still recommend a visit if you have a credit limit. There is a McDonalds there!
Finally, for our last day in Nice, we took a 40-minute train ride out to Cannes to check out the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. The previous day saw the premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, and Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie were in attendance to walk the red carpet! We looked at today’s schedule and … no such luck. There was a french-Canadian film about to premiere just as we arrived on the scene. There was a red carpet and we saw flashing bulbs from afar, but there’s too much security to get close enough to see anything good. We didn’t see any celebrities, but that’s okay. We had a blast roaming La Croisette, people-watching, and taking in the views. People stand around wearing tuxes and ball gowns holding makeshift paper signs asking for extra tickets to specific films for that evening; supposedly it works a small portion of the time.
Our absolute highlight though was a scavenger hunt that we invented ourselves. It’s been just the two of us for the majority of the last few months, so if you can’t have fun, you’ll lose it! Isabel found a cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe and we knew we had to find more. Lucky for me Mark loves posing with these cutouts so we had a blast exploring Cannes, trying to find all of them.
Cannes was also very beautiful, this time it reminded us of Sausalito. It would be nice to go back when there isn’t the film festival going on because the crowds were too much for my taste. (Mark’s note: it would be better to go back for a future film festival, when we have the money to burn for a pass!) I’m still happy we went and we made a fantastic day of it, even if we didn’t see any celebrities.
Venturing outside of Paris revealed a whole new France to me. We’ve started to consider this trip a “retirement research trip” after visiting these different cities. Each one captivated us in separate ways – sometimes the scenery took our breaths away, other times we couldn’t help but mimic the old men sitting on stools outside cafes. This journey has really opened us up to exploring more of these major European countries, beyond the star cities. I’d love to explore more of Spain and Portugal, Scotland and Ireland, even Croatia. And most definitely see more of France. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually let Mark talk me in to doing a soccer tour, country by country. Maybe.