22 August 2015

Are we talking about the same thing?

A recent article in the online English-language magazine The Local, entitled "The daftest Trip Advisor comments about France," featured an array of damning and often entertaining reviews of famous locations, mainly in and around Paris.

Although I am generally more interested in less well-known gems, the article made me wonder what people wrote about the highlights of my adopted city. Surely, I mused, visitors would be more positive in their comments about Lyon, France's second city (sorry, Bordeaux, Marseilles et al) and the undisputed capital of the Gauls.

A quick trip to the Trip Advisor site proved eye-opening.

I was fully expecting to read complaints about the Cathédral Saint Jean-Baptiste (Cathedral of St. John the Baptist), the inside of which is currently undergoing extensive renovation, causing large parts to be temporarily closed off to the public. And my suspicions were duly confirmed.

But I didn't anticipate some of the negative and often inaccurate comments about Lyon's other key attractions, not least those posted by French visitors.

Fourvière hill

 You can't miss Fourvière hill; the oldest part of the city, which looms over the old town and is topped by the Basilique Notre Dame (more about this below). 

Having reached the top, whether by car, funicular railway or on foot up steeps steps and winding paths through gardens stretching up from Vieux Lyon, you are rewarded by a breathtaking view of the entire city across the Rivers Saone and Rhone and the Presqu'ile. 

On clear days, the white-capped Alps line up on the horizon. And under certain climatic conditions, Mont Blanc looks close enough to touch, even though it's 160km away. Fourvière hill is therefore the perfect place to get your bearings, understand how Lyon grew eastwards over the millennia and whet your appetite for a trip into the mountains.

Not all reviewers share my enthusiasm. One moaned that the panorama was "rather one-sided" (180+ degrees must be so disappointing). Another complained that the tickets for the funicular railway - which actually allow you to use all public transport throughout Lyon - are only valid for an hour. A third begrudgingly conceded that Fourvière hill was nice "if you like views."

Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière

The Fourvière Basilica is literally the pinnacle of Lyonnais devotion to the Virgin Mary. Built in 1896 and allegedly funded entirely from donations by grateful citizens as thanks for "preventing" the enemy invading the city in the Franco-Prussian War, the building has been likened to a modern-day Acropolis. Inside it has not one but two huge, tall chambers for worshipping in, one on top of the other, as well as a side chapel to the Virgin Mary featuring a beautiful Black Madonna on the altar. The walls of the sumptuous upper chamber are lined with gigantic and incredibly detailed mosaics, and its roof and marble columns are staggeringly ornate, a blend of Gothic and Byzantine architecture. Everything is beautifully preserved and maintained. An 8-metre high gilded statue of Mary stands atop a dome on the roof, one arm outstretched as if blessing the people below.

What then did the Trip Advisor folks think? "Ghastly kitsch" and "Very tacky," wrote two disgruntled reviewers. A man from Britain said it "doesn't rate" as a sight and was therefore "not worth the trip". Using his country's preferred vernacular, an American visitor called it "butt-ugly," while a French tourist likened it to Disneyland - rather implausibly given the complete lack of rides, queues and people dressed as anthropomorphic animals. And finally, in what could simply be confusion with the cathedral, a reviewer from India referred to it as "Saint Jean Basilica (probably named after Joan of Arc)". 

As in that other famous virgin, though not from Lyon, but Orleans, a mere 400km away as the crow flies.


Lyon's 400 or so traboules are like a well-kept secret. Born of necessity, these interior passages and stairways were and still are often the only way to get to most of the apartments of the multi-storey buildings that are crammed together both on Croix-Rousse and between Fourvière hill and the River Saone in the old town. Located behind seemingly ordinary front doors, the traboules also provided an excellent escape route from enemies and occupying forces unfamiliar with the maze of passageways criss-crossing the medieval town centre. 

A great many of the inner courtyards (miraboules) linked by traboules are architecturally beautiful and often feature tower-like external spiral staircases to reach upper-floor flats. 

Although the buildings are all still occupied, a limited number of traboules are open to the public from 10am to 6pm - provided visitors remain quiet while effectively walking through someone's house.

"What is there to see?" asked one Frenchman, adding "What's the point in looking at entrances to buildings? It's a real waste of time." Another was more succinct in his condemnation, entitling his review "Nul" (crap). While a visitor from Birmingham tautologically described them as "just passageways," bemoaning that "It isn't possible to access many of the traboules." Others complained that they were "hidden away" and "hard to find" or "not accessible all the time." 

One Australian woman even said she'd be asking for a refund, though for what I'm not entirely sure. 

Gallo-Roman amphitheatres

The remarkably well-kept ruins of two 2000-year-old amphitheatres at the back of Fourvière hill may not be as pristine as that in Ephesus or as big as the Coliseum in Rome. But the larger of the two could seat 11,000 people in its heyday and both are still extremely popular venues for concerts and other performances every summer (as long as you bring a cushion to sit on). 

Even though they are lower down the hill, they still afford splendid views of the city.

A disappointed Londoner commented on Trip Advisor that there was "nowhere obvious for food and/or drink" and didn't like the fact that there were "lots of steps." A baffled Frenchman was amazed to discover that "As the name suggests, they are in ruin." And for his part, a visitor from Poland described it as a "bunch o rocks" that looked "pegged together with sand and cement." 

I presume he prefers good old Roman glass, concrete and steel constructions.

Mur des Canuts

The Mur de Canuts fresco covers 1200m², making it the largest trompe-l'oeil painting in Europe. As so many of Lyon's 200+ murals, it was designed and painted by Cité Création

Approaching it - and even from relatively close up - you would think you were looking at a long stairway leading between four houses, with two rows of apartment buildings in the background. The ground floor of one of the buildings in the foreground seems to house a shop, another, on the right, a branch of Banque Populaire. 

In reality, the entire three-dimensional cityscape was painted on a flat surface: the back of a narrow building at the intersection of Rue Denfert Rochereau and Boulevard des Canuts. The only genuine part of the entire piece is the entrance to an underground car park.

The Mur des Canuts is rated 6th on Trip Advisor's list of 159 "Things to do in Lyon". Yet several of the site's reviewers complained that it was too far away from other sights (wouldn't it be nice if all highlights were scrunched up together?). A visitor from China wrote that, even though it's mentioned in all the guidebooks, the Mur des Canuts is "not worth a detour." 

But the harshest criticism was posted by a reviewer actually living in Lyon. Under the heading "Boring," she wrote "I just do not understand what all the fuss is about. OK, the painter/painters must have been talented. And yes, the wall looks quite nice from far away. But, if that is all Lyon has to offer as an attraction, that is really sad."

Yes, dear. You're absolutely right: The Mur des Canuts is Lyon's only attraction. (Did you see my eyes roll?)

Fête des Lumières

The Fête des Lumières, or Festival of Lights, takes place on December 8th. On this night, the people of Lyon put candles on their windowsills. Initially this was to thank the Virgin Mary for allegedly saving the city from the plague in the 17th century, but it has long lost its religious connotation. 

In the 1980s, some bright spark at the municipal authorities had the bright idea to turn this into a tourist attraction, turning the one-night homage into a four-day light-based jamboree focused on imaginatively illuminated public buildings. 

The concept was a huge success, and now some 4 million tourists a year flock to Lyon to see the more than 300 brightly and often humorously lit sights throughout the town. The concept has even been exported. True, many have developed into son-et-lumière light shows, but there are many simpler illuminations. There's even an entire section of the festival devoted entirely to designs by art students.

As a result of all this variety - not to mention the millions of (additional) people in the streets - it's almost impossible to see more than a handful of illuminations per evening. So careful selection and planning using the free guides is an absolute must.

The Festival of Lights is Trip Advisor's #2 "Fun & games" attraction in Lyon, and over 60% of the people who wrote about it on the site gave the event a five-star rating. But not everybody is happy.

Not surprisingly, many people - primarily Lyonnais reviewers - complain about the crowds. One local is annoyed about the noise. Another describes it as "a festival for drunks, gropers and pickpockets."

Amazingly enough, given the complexity, variety and sheer number of illuminations, several reviewers say the festival is "disappointing" or "boring," with one calling it "nullisime" (completely rubbish). Equally oddly, many people comment about the festival being "too commercial", when the entire event is free - even public transport, which is extended specially.

But my all-time favourite Trip Advisor review comes from a Swiss visitor, who, blissfully unaware of the origins and concept of the Festival of Lights, moans, "About street animation: there's none! No night or Christmas market, no artist or performance, you pretty much go from one installation to the other." He or she concludes "Run away, go to a Christmas market in Alsace, Switzerland or Germany, even if commercial, there's still a spirit and things to see there."

Paddy's Corner pub

Trip Advisor also includes reviews for Paddy's Corner, an Irish pub in Croix-Rousse. Tellingly enough, none of its boozy reviewers gave it less than four stars.

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