AFTER SEVERAL WEEKS of "maybes," the definite invitation to visit Lyon arrived, and the timing carried a decided disadvantage - there was not enough time to meet charter flight requirements and get a cheap flight to accompany my husband (who was the one being invited and thus paid for). How then to make the most of my rather costly peak-season air ticket? A colleague suggested the solution: Go via Geneva and take the train across to Lyon, traversing enroute the emerald green foothills of the Alps.
We planned to spend the day in Switzerland, take a spin around beautiful Lake Geneva and head for some village for the night, enjoying swift looks at a couple of graceful towns on the way. All this before hastening to Lyon, where Sam was to get to work hanging several of his huge unstretched canvases in an international show called "Tissu et Creation: 1. Les Peintres."
In Geneva, a couple of lost bags dimmed Sam's ardor for Swissair and, pulling temperamental artist's prerogative, he felt only Lyon would calm his fury. I agreed to a change of schedule because I planned to return to Switzerland to interview another temperamental artist, singer Nina Simone, who has resided outside Geneva for the past few years.
After a brief bus trip from the Geneva airport to the train station, passing tacky examples of modern architecture enroute, we boarded one of the frequent trains to Lyon, following the Rhone River in its gentle, southward trek to the Mediterranean. Switzerland's verdancy gave way to that of France as we rolled through a series of mountain villages with neat country gardens and minitowns with blooms bursting from every windowsill, on our two-hour trip to the French silk capital, 285 miles southeast of Paris.
Most of our trips to France had beem working ones - art exhibitions in Paris for my husband with side trips to the south when we could find the time and money. As a result, our French experience has been schizophrenic. We've seen the French much like some average tourists - arrogant, slightly conniving, debonair. But at a gallery or museum opening, the stereotype disintegrates under the weight of individual acquaintances - most are warm, witty, eager to please. We wondered whether our duo-view of the French would be as marked in this second largest city of France as its first.
Then, too, the atmosphere of the village within a city has always been the secret charm of Paris. Would Lyon have a charm beyond its industrial character, and if so, how with its paranoia over having been dominated by Paris, would it reveal itself"
Rain began falling as our train pulled into the little Victorian station, an approach that might have been romantic had our French hosts not faileld to meet us on schedule. The damp stroll along the bustling street in front of the station gave us a chance to size up an unusual structure appended to the station, with a fountain and plaza in front. We did not know that atop the multi-level building, accessible by an escalator and strangely reminiscent of Paris' controversial Pompidou center, known as Beaubourg, was our final "official" destination. That building, which really was a gussied-up shopping center, was topped by "Espace Lyonnais d'Art Contemporain Centre d'Echange," site of the exhibition.
After finally giving up on our hosts, we headed for our hotel and got our first view of Lyon's two rivers. With the rain falling softly and disappearing into the rising mist above the Rhone and the Saone, Sam and I fell in love with the physical appearance of the capital of France's second largest metropolitan area.
When we finally met up with our hosts, the personable director of Espace Culture, Jean-Louis Maubant and his assistant, Odile Quirot, they explained that the basic city plan was designed with Paris as the model.
Sam was busy hanging his paintings the first days of our visit and his preoccupation allowed us to sample some of this gastronomic capital's less fabled cuisine. The restaurant at which we took several of our meals, because of its proximity to the museum, was called Brasserie Lyonnaise, which Sam joked was a bit like the French equivalent of a truck pit stop.
But Brasserie Lyonnaise is nothing like 1-66, no worry about an angst overload with reminders of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This family-style restaurant is a respectable site for the past-time that never wearies most Lyonnais.
The dining hours are endless. The workers sit down to a machon before 11 a.m.; we often began dinner at midnight, and even then groups of teenagers, pairs of shop girls and family groups would blithely stroll in as we were finishing our main course. In one sense, then, Brasserie Lyonnaise, with its home cooking (and excellent tartare) is more typical of the food that has made Lyon famous than its Michelin-starred restaurants. (About $40 for two with wine.) The Rhone-Alpes region (of which Lyon is the capital) has five of France's 17 three-star restaurants.
However, it was with particularly keen pleasure that at noon one day I fould myself standing before a flower-banked house in Collonges, just north of Lyon, giving intense attention to the stirrings behind the white wooden facade before me. A walk through a blooming courtyard and I was in Chez Paul Bocuse, the restaurant of the elder statesman of French cuisine.
Having been unable to sway either native Frenchman (busy, budgeting, etc.) or visiting American (busy, budgeting, etc.) to dine with me, after sharing a brief aperitif of champagne and a raspberry liqueur with an acquaintance, I found myself alone, seated in Bocuse's intimate, yet dramatic eastroom. I had asked a most knowledgeable acquaintance to write ahead (a good idea, but not absolutely necessary), and mu luncheon consisted of pate, Loup en croute (sea bass in crust), cheeses and selections from a dessert tray designed to drive mad the carbohydrate-conscious. It was a magnificent extravagance in the style of nouvelle cuisine, sort of. The approximate$40-per-person (wine extra) cost, however, made it a wild extravagance.
Talk to any Lyonnais and he'll mention Leon Daudet's rhyme, "Lyon, that mystical village with three rivers - the Rhone, the Saone and the Beaujolais." And with good reason. Everywhere available are fresh carafes and pots of the region's finest.
One night we crossed to the Saone's right bank to sample the nightlife in Old Lyon, the Renaissance town now undergoing another renaissance. It is an area of secret passageways and hiden corridors, with private clubs and new specialty shops tucked behind the facades of ancient mansions. Perched on the hilltops are churches like the medieval Cahedral of Saint Jean, the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere and other reminders that Lyon is 2,000 years old and was once the capital of Gaul. Anyone visiting Lyon should buy "Guide de Vieux Lyon," for while we didn't have time to explore thoroughly, I'm convinced this is the most beautiful and exciting part of the city.
One day I visited Paul Goujon, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, who said Lyon is undergoing a physical and intellectual change that soon will mean a new way of life.
"Over the last 20 years there has been a complete shakeup in the life-style, transportation, the highways within and around the city, new districts, sports facilities, dwellings, building of new districts like La Part-Dieu."
But Goujon, a former journalist, said Lyon didn't want to treat other smaller towns in the Rhone-Alpes region the way Paris had treated then. "The Lyonnais have suffered the dominatin of Paris . . . We want the means of a capital city and the charms of a provincial city," said Goujon, anticipating that the first line of the new subway, change the push toward making the city "of human proportions, and with quality."
Whether Goujon was pragmatist or promoter remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Lyon's location an hour from the Alps and three from the Mediterranean adds to its allure as a tourist attraction.
One day we drove toward the sea to Avignon. The trip was occasioned by the exhibition of an expatriate American. Timothee Hennessey, formerly of St. Louis, in tiny Villeneuve across the bridge from Avignon. We rented a Peugeot, and our passengers were a Venetian artist, his wife and their son Isaac, 3 1/2. Many Lyonnais leave the city for the weekends, and the road to Lyon was choked this Friday morning. The beauty of the bright fields of lavender we passed as we followed the Rhone toward the Mediterranean was somewhat marred by a carsick toddler and a Venetian whose auto-phobia was not lessened by French drivers eager for sun. (We decided to take the train for the three-hour return trip.)
The bustling town of Avignon, 66 miles from Marseilles, is practically surrounded by the 14th-century ramparts.The Popes' Fortress-Palace, high on a steep hill, dominates the town, and a lively international mix of sunseekers promenade on the streets and boulevards that ring the wall outside the ramparts wall.
But after all, Sam was invited to Lyon for a purpose and the night of the show finally arrived. With appropriate drama, the Mayor of Lyon, Francisque Collomb, arrived for the vernissage in a driving rain. His car drew slowly to the curb, and the ram-rod-straight official smiled benignly, his dark coat absorbing the splashing water. He and his entourage were escorted down the long mall leading to Espace Lyonnais d'art Contemporain, the exhibition site across from the railroad station.
Sipping champagne, the mayor and his party toured the exhibit. He paused to pooh-pooh the notion that present-day Lyon, with its compressed downtown, and projected Lyon, where a new center is emerging, may not be as splendid in their way as their right bank Renaissance counterpart. He preferred to look at the positive - that the present show, for example, was expected to draw 100,000 people. Culture is alive, all official Lyon stressed.Theater figures like Roger Pianchon, artistic director of Theatre National Populaire, and Marcel Marechal, both well known in international theater circles, are "essentially" Lyonnais, they said.
And of course, there is the cuisine.