Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.
The last time I was in France was in 2009, when I spent a mere three or four days in Paris with my friend Maren. It was a short break from a longer trip that I spent travelling around England visiting friends, but gave me a taste for France that I was determined to satisfy during our #chanoy European honeymoon with a much longer visit. A few days in Paris simply wasn’t going to cut it. Hence we rented a car for a month and decided to go driving around the south-east of France, across to north-west Italy, and down through Spain and Portugal.
We picked up our hybrid rental car on our last morning in Paris, and promptly jumped onto the toll road down towards the town of Auxerre, a halfway point between Paris and Lyon. Driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road wasn’t an issue – I got used to it pretty quickly. Getting onto the toll road wasn’t an issue – you can pick any toll gate and simply take a ticket. It’s getting off the toll road and into a town that we ended up having issues with.
We accidentally went up to the wrong exit gate, the one reserved for those with automated passes for French toll roads. Stuck there at the gate, we tried to explain to the attendant via the intercom that we couldn’t just reverse out of that toll gate because we had three cars and an angry truck driver behind us – none of whom would allow us to reverse out and into the right lane. After ten minutes of futile Frenglish via intercom and constant horn honking and verbal abuse from the truck driver, the attendant finally walked over to our gate and helped us get through manually. I was a bundle of nerves by that point!
Luckily once we passed the toll gates and got into the town of Auxerre, we found ourselves in the most perfectly beautiful and serene old city to pass a few hours and calm our nerves. It’s a small-ish city replete with Renaissance/Enlightenment-era buildings, topped with a few key landmarks including a splendid Gothic church. Situated on the banks of the River Yonne, it’s just the perfect size for a day trip from either Paris or Lyon with a nice lunch in one of the cafes in the centre of the Old Town.
If you’re into wine though, it might be worth making Auxerre a base for exploring the wider Burgundy region for a few days – as we left Auxerre and took the back roads through the country into Lyon, we discovered countless vineyards and primary producers along the way. While we didn’t stop for any tastings (I don’t drink alcohol!) and can’t vouch for the wines of the region, I know many people enjoy the signature Burgundys.
Our base in the area was to be Lyon, and a little studio apartment in the third arrondissement. Free parking was non-existent in the area, so here’s a tip for those planning on renting a car and driving through any major city in Europe. What we did almost everywhere we went was to find free street parking near the last station of a major metro line and leave the car there for however many days we required. When there are trains every five minutes, and it costs under $2 Euro per person for a fifteen-minute trip, it ends up being much cheaper to do that than to pay $20 Euro a day for parking in the city centre.
Lyon itself felt like a city that was best suited to locals rather than tourists who want to tick experiences off a list. There’s some Roman ruins, a few churches and cathedrals, a lot of old buildings, some interesting hip neighbourhoods, and a pretty developed commercial centre. The location of the city on two major rivers makes it quite scenic in many parts. However, there’s not a lot in the city that you wouldn’t necessarily find in other similar cities nearby – for instance, Nimes (two and a half hours away) has much better preserved Roman historical sites.
What Lyon has instead, is liveability. Public transport runs smoothly. The environment is clean without pollution. Shops and commerce are easily accessible and service is brisk. Restaurants and eateries are plentiful across a wide price range (we visited Brasserie Georges and loved it). There’s some diversity as well – we managed to find little Chinatown. Wonderful fresh farmers markets are on somewhere in the city almost every day of the week. If you wanted to base yourself somewhere in France for a few months, to live as a local rather than a tourist, to speak with other young people every day and really learn what it means to be French…Lyon is the place to be.
During our stay in Lyon, we also took a day trip to nearby Dijon. Two hours by car one-way on the toll road, with a $15 Euro charge each way – quite a quick and easy drive for us Australians who are used to spending an hour in the car every day to get anywhere in Sydney! Unhappily we did not have Dijon mustard while we were in Dijon, but we did have a fantastic lunch courtesy of stalls at the Les Halles markets – a must visit for anyone who delights in fresh produce, artisan bread, or fantastic cheeses and pates.
Dijon has much more to offer the average tourist when compared to Lyon, with a stunning palace which used to belong to the Ducs de Bourgogne, or as you might know them, the Dukes of Burgundy who used to rule over an area stretching from Burgundy in present-day France up to what is now the Netherlands. Dijon is a cheap day out for the art and history lover, as the old Palace (Palais Ducal) has free entry and also includes the Musee des Beaux-Arts with a fantastic collection of medieval artworks, sculptures, and artifacts like armour. I recommend also paying the nominal $3 Euro fee to take the tour (English-speaking!) up the tower in the palace, which gives you the best views over the whole city.
Overall, the cities of Auxerre, Dijon and Lyon (and no doubt other towns in the area) afford some of the best and most genuine French experiences one can have as a tourist. Join the locals at the daily market, stroll along the rivers Saone, Rhone and Yonne, visit some impressive historical sites, taste some local wines if you’re so inclined…in fact, just order a drink at a cafe, sit outside and watch the world go past. Life moves at a slower pace.