As I walked out onto the street from the station I had no idea whether I was actually in the city proper or out in the suburbs. The station was a large, busy terminus, much like Victoria in London, full of rushing people in suits, carrying briefcases. The air was chilled but the sun shone brightly. Right in front of the station was a large Irish pub, O’Conway’s, that enticed customers in with big posters depicting the full Irish breakfast. I had always thought the French were disgusted by our idea of breakfast, but it seemed that the people of Lyon were a different breed; they were shovelling mushrooms, sausages and fried bread into their mouths as if they were expecting a famine (perhaps of the potato kind, boom boom) and washing it down with pints of Harp and Guinness. What I wouldn’t have given at that moment for a cold pint and a greasy fryup. My stomach was killing.
After a quick walk around it soon became clear that I wasn’t in a central part of the city, so I jumped on a train to Lyon Perrache, which I hoped might be situated in a more scenic borough. I walked out of the station straight into the middle of a lively fête celebrating local customs, music, food and wine. Men in berets served cheese and bread to smiling old ladies; a middle aged and suave crooner serenaded female passers by from up on a stage; people stood around smoking cigarettes and shrugging; and an angry passer-by kicked the bike of a cyclist who hadn’t rung his bell before riding through the middle of the square. I stood for a while, taking in the atmosphere, actually enjoying being in the middle of something so French. I felt like I had strolled onto the set of Allo Allo. My bags were starting to weigh heavy in my arms, and I didn’t want the extra weight slowing me down as I explored more of what the city had to offer, so I found a hotel and explained to the male receptionist that I was on a stag weekend and that my ‘mates’ had stolen my wallet as a joke while I slept on the train and left me with the challenge of finding them somewhere in the city.
“Ah, you Engleesh, always wiz zee practical jokes!” he said, laughing as he took my bags from me and handed me a receipt, saying I could come and pick them up any time before 8 that evening.
My first impressions of Lyon were positive. Despite being one of France’s largest cities, it had somehow managed to keep the feel of a quaint, little town. The area around the river was picturesque, and the sky was the bluest I had ever stood under at this time of year. I soon forgot my hunger and began feeling good about life in general. How was this possible in France, I wondered? Maybe I had been wrong about our Gallic neighbour all along. People even smiled and said, “Bonjour,” as I passed them by on the street. It was nice.
After crossing the river, I followed a steep path all the way to the top of Fourvière Hill, turning me out at the site of the ancient Roman Amphitheatre, the Théâtres Romains de Fourvière, which offered the most stunning panoramic view over the whole of Lyon. The Roman theatre, the oldest in France, was built by the order of Augustus in the years 17 to 15BC, before being expanded during the reign of Hadrian. Ruins of three ancient Roman structures – a theatre, odeum and temple – almost untouched by time, just sitting there above the city. The steep seating galleries, a decorated floor, and the foundations of a large stage all remained in tact, leaving me feeling overwhelmed to once again be standing in the middle of something so historic. This was the place to come if you were local, young and in love. All around me couples sat on the grass, on the theatre’s steps or on the wall overlooking the city, sharing ice-cream. Who was I to tell them that ice-cream was not a food for January?
From there, I carried on my ascent further still until I came to the highest point possible and found myself standing in the shadow of the Basilica of Notre-Dame; a huge structure built between 1872 and 1896. The basilica – which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is said to have saved the city of Lyon from the plague in 1643 – actually contains two churches, one on top of the other. The upper sanctuary is very ornate, while the lower is a much simpler design. I was overawed by its presence but felt that pang of sadness again knowing that I had no one to share the experience with. The feeling was too familiar by this point on the journey. The basilica was just as majestic inside as she was from outside, the only thing slightly spoiling the serenity was a loud vending machine churning out souvenir medals for two Euros a time, which I found to be bordering on the tasteless. The Church is a business like any other. I wondered whether this scene encouraged the Japanese tourists to carry on flashing away with their cameras, despite the local French worshippers paying their respects in the aisles. At what point does a sacred building become a tourist trap?
From there, I walked back down to the city towards a large square I had seen from the top, which had as its centrepiece a huge Ferris wheel. Place Bellecour, at 62,000m2 , is the largest clear square in Europe. In the middle of it, next to the Ferris wheel, stood a statue of King Louis XIV mounted on a horse. This was clearly the city’s main meeting place and I had to carefully navigate my way in and out of small children on scooters, parents pushing prams, and long haired teenage boys on skateboards. In front of the statue, black youths practiced their hip-hop dance moves, watched all the time by their less confident white friends. As I stood, still enjoying my surroundings but wondering whether Sebastien was ever going to get in touch, my phone vibrated into action. My dad had put some credit on it earlier in the day, so I was able to take a call. Sebastien told me to meet him at Croix-Rousse Metro station at 7pm. I only had an hour, and I had no idea where it was or how I was going to get there. He explained that I was to first take the Metro to Hotel de Ville before changing lines to get to my destination. I didn’t know what the security was like on the Metro or if I would be able to ride it without a ticket but I had no other options than to try. But first I had to pick up my bags from the hotel. The same receptionist from earlier that day was still manning the desk, and after returning my bags to me he told me that Hotel de Ville could be walked to in 25 minutes if I knew where I was going. He marked it on a map for me. I strode briskly and made it in just under 20 and then found that I was in luck. One of the ticket barriers in the station was broken and had been left open, although a belt had been pulled across it to stop people from passing through. I could jump it, but with the bags I couldn’t really do it discreetly, and the station was full of commuters as well as the odd security guard doing his rounds. I decided to wait until a train was at the platform before taking my leap of faith, that way everyone would be getting on and off the train and wouldn’t be paying any attention to the gate. With absolute perfect timing, the train pulled in to the platform just as the two security guards disappeared up the stairs and out of sight. I leapt over the belt, making a loud crashing bang as I landed. People turned their heads to see what was going on but had no time to stop and question anything. I walked casually down to the end of the platform and then down another flight of stairs to Metro Line C where my train was waiting for me. I arrived at Croix-Rousse at 6:40 with 20 minutes to spare.
Sebastien arrived dead on 7, listening to music through a large retro pair of headphones. My first impressions of him based on looks alone were that he would be easy to get on with. He introduced himself and I was surprised by how well he spoke English. It turned out he had lived in Chester for two years and had been in a long-term relationship with a Scottish girl. This association with a Scot had, thankfully, not affected his use of the English language too negatively. Sebastien’s flat was like a barn conversion, up in the loft of a house. You had to duck in places so as not to knock your head on the wooden beams holding up the roof. The inside walls were brick slabs, just as they were on the outside. There was no plasterboard, no wallpaper and no paint. It was rustic, and I liked it. The first thing my host did when we walked through the door was make a call to a local pizza place to place an order for collection, and then we headed out to pick up dinner and a few cans of super-strength lager. It was a Friday night and Sebastien wanted to let off some steam. After we’d worked our way through the cans and the food, he pulled a bottle of expensive champagne from the fridge and said that he had been given it by his bosses as a reward for some good work he had done, and felt that now was as good a time as any to drink it. I quickly washed and we headed back out the door, champagne in hand, and worked our way to the bottom of the bottle as we walked into town, where I was told I would be shown what Lyon had to offer at night. The rest of the night is a blur, but I can just about remember being in at least three different clubs throughout the course of the session, and I also have a vague image of the two of us partaking in a pull-ups competition on some scaffolding. Don’t ask me to remember who won. Probably me. Sebastien is French. Definitely me. At least, that is the story I’m sticking to. I do not lose pull-up competitions to the French. Ever. All in all, it was good times in Lyon.
I woke the following afternoon on a settee in the living room with the headache to beat all headaches. Sebastien was still asleep in his room, where he stayed for the rest of the day. That evening, still carrying my monumental headache, he gave me a tour of the city’s massive park that also housed the zoo, before taking me to an Australian pub, Ayers Rock, where there was a free barbecue going on to celebrate Australia day. The owners of the place had really made the effort and the whole area had been turned into a beach. There was sand on the floor, surfing on the TV screens, Victoria Bitter being served in cans, and drunk Aussies in shorts falling all over the place. I hoped that a couple of cans of VB and a few free hot dogs would be just the cure for my headache, but surprisingly it had the reverse effect. Once the food was all gone, we headed over to an Irish pub, Wallace’s, for fish and chips. The dinner was filling, my host was taking good care of me, and I already felt like he was an old friend. His love of football was equal to mine, and his love for his club Olympique Lyonnais was as strong as mine for Spurs.
Unfortunately I feel I let the side down a bit, because despite Sebastien being up for another heavy night of drinking, I was by now feeling so ill that after meeting his friend Alex for a couple more beers, I had to ask that we call it a night, but not before thanking Alex for what he had done for me the previous night. I was in bed by half past midnight, and slept right through to late the next morning.
The day ahead was a big one, as first Spurs were up against Man United in the FA Cup, and later that evening Olympique Lyonnais were playing their most hated rivals St. Etienne in a French league match. Both games were being shown on local TV, so we headed back down to the Irish pub to start the day’s viewing. Spurs lost, but Sebastien consoled my hurt by buying a load of hot, crusty baguettes, duck pâté and French prosciutto that we ate back at the flat. French food wasn’t half as bad as I’d always thought. Later that evening we returned to the pub to watch the Lyon match, where I noticed a few differences in the thinking and behaviour of a French crowd compared to an English one; the main one being that the French get a lot more excited over little things. They would shout and cheer every time their team won a corner, a free kick or even sometimes a throw-in. The place we were in was packed and it was impossible to move. I secretly found myself supporting the underdogs St. Etienne, despite being stuck in the middle of a loud and partizan Lyon following. St. Etienne led 1-0 from the 46th minute, and deep into injury time those around me were drowning their sorrows in their beers, when out of nowhere in the 92nd minute they managed to find an equaliser and the whole pub erupted. In fact, the whole of Lyon erupted; the celebrations of the city could be heard and felt, I imagined, in Brighton.
That night I sent out a few couch requests to people in both Montpellier and Marseille, asking anyone with an available place for me to send a text message to my phone. Both cities could be used as a stopping off point on my way to Spain, and I would only choose which one to head to once I received a reply from either city. Sebastien was going away on a business trip at 7 the following morning so I would have to be up and out by then too.
We parted company with a handshake and a promise to keep in touch. Sebastien also handed me a little bag that he had filled with a couple of sandwiches, a packet of biscuits and a bottle of water. He also gave me a Metro ticket that I could use to get to Hot Shots Part Deux; I mean Lyon Part-Dieu station. I still hadn’t received any news from potential hosts, so I had no idea where I was going to go. I decided to attempt to head south to Valence, by which time hopefully I would have received a text message and would then get to either Montpellier or Marseille from there. As I stood inside Lyon’s station a curious thing happened that could only happen in France. From nowhere, a man in a scarf walked up to me and asked if I had any spare lip balm that he could use. What the fuck? No! I am a man. And so are you. Supposedly. I know you are French, but even this is a bit much. Seriously, who does that? Under what circumstances is it acceptable to ask a stranger in a train station for a lend of his or her lip balm?
I jumped on the 9:07 Lyon-Nice express, hoping to make it as far as the first stop of Avignon without too much stress. As I had a whole day and no real plans, I decided to break my journey down into lots of little stops, resting and rethinking my plan at each break. The ticket man, a young guy who spoke good English, came along pretty soon after departing. I told him that my girlfriend had told me to meet her on the train as she had our tickets to Nice, and that I had just gone to buy a bottle of water before it left. I’d missed the train that she was on and now had arranged to meet her at Avignon where she would get on this same train for the rest of the journey to Nice. He said, “No problem,” smiled, and left me alone. I got off of the train at Avignon at 10:15. The weather was hot. T-shirt hot. In January! I didn’t feel like rushing, as I still had nowhere to go, so I sat in the sun for an hour eating a sandwich and wondering whether I was in for another long, hard day of struggling. Everyone in the station was dark-haired, oliveskinned and beautiful. I asked a girl how I could get to Montpellier and she told me that I would have to take a train from Avignon Central, which was quite far from where we were now, an outpost TGV (high-speed rail) station far outside the city. I decided that rather than take that option I would jump on another TGV train and get to Marseille, where I fancied my chances more of finding a place for the night. I jumped on the 11:49 to Marseille and jumped off at the first stop of D’aix-en-Provence. No ticket inspector had come along but I still felt more comfortable breaking my journey into two 20-minute legs. It was psychological. The area outside the station looked exactly the same as it had outside Avignon; surrounded by the dry mountains of Provence, with lots of green trees and brown land at their feet. I got on the very last carriage of the 12:22 to Marseille and arrived in the city stress-free at 12:35. Outside the station a Mediterranean metropolis awaited me. People loitered about in t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses. It was baking. It was hard to imagine that just a couple of weeks earlier I had been knee deep in snow and wearing a coat that had frozen while I walked. I set about trying to find a hotel that would let me use their Internet and look after my bags for me, when I received a text from a girl in Montpellier.
The Law of Sod.
Marie was offering me a place to sleep for the night. So, ridiculously, I retraced my steps all the way back to Avignon, arriving at 2:16pm, being approached just once on the way by a ticket inspector.
“Parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked.
“No,” was the sharp reply from the typically Gallic middle aged man. So in bad French I explained the same story about the girlfriend and the ticket and the bottle of water, before he repeated everything back to me for clarification. In English! Cheeky French bastard.
“So, at D’aix-en-Provence you went to buy some water while your girlfriend waited on the train. The train left without you and now your girlfriend is waiting for you with the tickets in Avignon?”
“Exactly,” I confirmed.
He then switched back to French and asked where our final destination was, to which I replied, “Lyon.”
“Ah, c’est ne pas probleme.”
All was fine, and to celebrate my good fortune I spent the rest of the journey sitting in First Class.
Once at Avignon TGV station I had to somehow get into the city to catch my train to Montpellier. The bus cost just over a Euro, which was pittance, but it was pittance that I didn’t have. Working in the ticket office was a young girl who looked bored, so I decided to try a bit of the old charm. Speaking only in French I gave her a sob story about losing my wallet and needing to get to my French grandma in the city. She either fancied me, was turned on by my accent or simply found me pathetic, but with a, “This isn’t normal procedure, you know?” handed me a free ticket. I thanked her and asked her name.
“Aurelie,” she blushed.
“Merci, Aurelie,” I smiled. I would have winked but I don’t know how to. Instead, when I try, it just ends up looking like I’m suffering a stroke.
Avignon town centre was beautiful, with a large Roman wall running through the centre of it. I wanted to be able to see the city properly, as I remembered reading something about it being home to quite a few popes back in the day, but time wasn’t on my side. I did have to take a little breather to admire the beauty of the local womenfolk, though. My God, what was going on in the South of France? These girls were a different breed. Absolutely stunning. I hopped on the 3:25pm train to Montpellier and was pleased to see that I only had to survive four stops. The guard came along just after the first, though, and told me to get off at the second, which was Nimes, before leaving me alone. Just before we got to Nimes I ‘fell asleep’, (the speech marks mean that I didn’t really fall asleep and that I was only pretending. You knew that already) keeping my head down low so as not to be noticed from further up the train. My plan worked, I wasn’t disturbed again, and I arrived in my target destination at 4:30pm.