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Lyon - There's No "s" In French

Jun 11, 2008
It's about 450kms from Paris to Lyon (or Lyons if your prefer in English) but forget about the four-and-a-half hour drive and instead save money, time and the environment by taking the high-speed TGV train service. After all, the journey time is just under two hours.

Added to which there's a regular service, although you'll need to reserve your seat in advance - a requirement when buying a ticket on a TGV - as even though ours was one of those double-decker jobs, it was packed. Clearly proof that plenty of people regularly commute between the two cities.

This was my first trip to Lyon - primarily to see a production of Porgy and Bess at the opera house. But it was also a chance for a glimpse at what's reputed to be one of the most beautiful of France's cities (the country's third largest) and something of a gastronomic paradise. Although I knew a late arrival and an early departure the following day wouldn't really give me the chance for any fine dining.

As fate would have it our arrival at Lyon's Part Dieu station was heralded by the opening of the skies as the heavens fair chucked it down. This was a case of "April showers bringing forth more showers in May."

No it doesn't scan properly and it deviates from the original, but sadly it was the case and arriving umbrella-less meant standing in line for a taxi to take us to the hotel.

After checking in and freshening up it was time to jump into another taxi - yes it was still pouring - to make the short hop to the Opera house.

Now Lyon's Opera house is a grand old building, dating back to 1831 although it had a bit of a facelift in 1993 as part of a "modernisation" drive.

Unfortunately that seems to have resulted in a pretty dated look in the bits that have been updated with the interior of both the downstairs bar and the main auditorium boasting a wonderful black-red colour scheme - very much of its time.

Then there are the tiled shiny floors of glossy marble that turn into a veritable skating rink for those wearing leather-soled shoes the moment a spot of rain hits the surface.

No prizes for guessing who had squeezed himself into a brand new pair that turned into skates once his feet hit the ground.

On to the performance - which was sold out - and our third row black (plastic-backed of course) seats gave us a splendid view of the stage, a definite plus given the rather special nature of the production, because it wasn't just all about singing - as fabulous as the voices were.

The directors of this particular version were the choreographers José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu, whose contemporary dance company would add an extra element to the opera.

That proved to be vital factot especially as George Gershwin's opera is long - very long - very far too long even for my opera-intolerant companion for the evening who insisted on trying to listen with eyes (and presumably ears) wide shut.

Mind you, I had to have some sympathy as apart from the frequently reprised "Summertime" and "Ain't necessarily so" there aren't a great deal of instantly familiar and hummable-alongable tunes.

The music was as brooding as ever and the vocal performances marvellous but what really sold this production - to me and most of the rest of the audience - were the dance and visual effects.

Both were spectacular. There were some exhausting yet evocatively hip-hop moves to reflect mood changes and interpret both the music and lyrics. A sort of double effect, complementary rather than repetitive.

The performances were electrifying and although sometimes they appeared perhaps a little clichéd they kept (most of) us on the edge of our seats mesmerised by not just the power and strength but also the grace and beauty.

An extra visual effect was the video backdrop - something of a Montalvo- Hervieu speciality.

It was sometimes a little disturbing particularly when showing recordings of the dancers doing exactly the same routines they were performing live, but purposefully just a little out of synchronisation.

Maybe it's just an age thing but there seemed to be a few too many assaults on the senses at the same time - very much an "MTV generation comes of age" sort of thing with the ethos seeming to be "let's sling everything at them (the audience) at once and see how they manage."

Mostly though the video worked magnificently, especially when it complemented something that was happening slightly off stage such as a bloody murder or a torrid love scene.

The bottom line was that the production wasn't one that could be listened to with eyes closed and fully deserved the rapturous applause it received at the end.

Ravenous after the performance it was up to the seventh floor for a late night, two-course meal. The set menu at €30 was all right but nothing special. There again at almost midnight there wasn't really any other alternative, so a return trip to Lyon will have to be made just to confirm that it lives up to its gastronomic reputation.

Fed and watered, strolled back to the hotel - hallelujah it had stopped raining.

If the Opera house left me questioning the tastes of Lyon's interior designers and architects, then our hotel - Beaux Arts - left me flummoxed.

It's officially now the Mercure Beaux Arts - part of the Accor group and therefore second only in the category of hotel to the chain's Sofitels. Maybe the price - €99 for a double room - should have signalled what to expect - nothing special.

While it describes itself as an Art Deco hotel, unfortunately it manages only offer a very poor copy of what could be the real thing. The sad fact is that the heart and soul of the place have been ripped out with no real thought of aesthetics.

Our room should have been a delightful tribute to the past. Instead it had been stripped of all its original features to the point where it was almost devoid of character. True it was vast in volume with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides opening out on to small balconies. But a stale, musty smell hung around even with the windows flung wide open and the room wasn't made any more appealing by the mustard coloured, plastic lined full-length curtains.

The functional, durable, dull blue carpet only inspired a desire to tear it up to check whether it was hiding some glorious old parquet and the bathroom - well it really isn't worth mentioning. So I won't.

And it wasn't just our room that had been thoughtlessly "made-under." There were signs everywhere in the hotel of what "might have been" if only a little more TLC had been spread in renovating.

The winding staircase could have been creakingly magnificent but instead it had been thoughtlessly painted over. There was rendering on the indoor walls, which had then been daubed in a nondescript colour and even the tiny old-fashioned lift seemed sadly neglected although it should have been full of charm. There was just the occasional glimpse of what was missing in some of the original giant wooden frames.

But overall the impression was a miserable one. Shame on Accor hotels!

The group could and should take another look at what could be done to a fabulous old building to bring it up to the promise of the blurb.

On the plus side, and thankfully there is one, is its location. The hotel is bang in the heart of the peninsular between the cities two rivers (the Rhône and the Saone) and a few minutes walk from many of the tourist sites and some fabulous shopping.

The service was a bit hit and miss. Front desk had only one person on duty when we arrived and the poor guy, while friendly and efficient, had to split his time between answering guests' queries (such as booking us a taxi) and serving behind the bar.

Breakfast the following morning was rather a "unique" experience, which can best be described as offering "service with a grimace". The two ladies greeting the guests certainly seemed to be full of attitude - which from an onlooker's perspective was mildly amusing -although simultaneously they appeared totally overwhelmed by the number of people stumbling in to eat. Almost as though this was their first morning on the job. Perhaps it was.

They bustled about quite determinedly marching in and out of the kitchen with lists. But apart from taking down our room numbers (breakfast is never included in the price of a room in France and is always charged separately) seemed to do very little else.

Apart that is from scolding one guest, presumably still half asleep, for taking a cup from a pile next to the coffee machine.

"There are cups already on the table to use," was the information given by one "waitress" as she almost ripped the cup from the poor guy's hands.

Yikes. I guess nobody DARED question why there was a pile next to the coffee in the first place.

The food was passable. But for €14 a pop, I had been expecting something a little more wholesome than rubbery lukewarm omelette and manky sausages. Two words spring to mind RIP and OFF.

There was just time for a quick coffee outside the hotel and a spot of window shopping - on the whole stores open up for business at 10 o'clock - before taking a taxi to the station to catch our train back to Paris

And here's a word of warning when looking for a taxi in Lyon. Don't. It can be a real hassle for the visitor.

If you turn up at the nearest rank there's no guarantee you'll find a taxi. Even if there are a couple waiting with "available" lights illuminated, the drivers might simply not be around.

As there seems to be nothing to hail down on the streets of course, your best bet is to ask your hotel reception to book one for you.
About the Author
Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist specialising in politics, sport and travel. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at http://www.persiflagefrance.com Or for more of his travel pieces, check out http://urlswurld.blogspot.com
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