Rhone River cruise, Lyon, France: Why this sexy French city isn't just bourgeois

Nothing beats a tour guide with inside knowledge, discovers Brian Johnston.

There are some things only a local can tell you. I might have walked about Lyon all day by myself and never noticed that its older houses have no shutters.

"We never used to have shutters here, what for? Everyone must get up early and go to work," says Aurelie. "Shutters are a sign of laziness."

I like such little insights. They tell me more than any museum display, but are harder to come across. Fortunately Aurelie is on hand, casting comments like confetti as we stroll through Lyon. I was quick to sign up on her tour, which promised an intimate exploration of the city on foot. Let other passengers do their overview from the windows of a coach; each to their own. This "do as the locals do" tour is an the alternative option, and suits me well.

We arrived in Lyon the night before on SS Catherine, the latest luxury ship from Uniworld, and are three-quarters of the way along a cruise that began in Avignon. Lyon is our big-city stop, and seems to hesitate between the sunny hedonism of Provence and the more sedate, mellow-mistiness of Burgundy where we're headed next day.

"Lyon is so bourgeois," Aurelie comments. "Everyone is so polite and hardworking. But we do like our long lunches."

Bourgeois cities tend to dullness, but Lyon is a chirpy, sexy place. It has Roman ruins and Renaissance architecture, yet a futuristic new neighbourhood is rising at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. Its art scene thrives, its restaurants are crammed, and tourists are only an afterthought. Locals flop on riverside promenades, shirts off, strumming guitars and gossiping.

We cross a bridge and into St Georges, the overlooked part of the old town, former centre of the silk trade that made Lyon rich. Aurelie brings us to Soierie Saint Georges, the last surviving silk manufacturer, where a Jacquard loom is still used to create beautiful textiles. Nearby, she recommends Restaurant du Soleil for its local dishes, something to consider later during our free time.

We're following no tourist trail. Instead of the usual church, we head instead into Limonade de Marinette, a 1960s diner crammed with old-fashioned shop displays: pretty biscuit tins, fluted bottles, toothpaste packages on which scrubbed French kids grin. 

We sip on lemonade as Elvis plays. Owner Gerard Murat is happy to talk about his mania for collecting: he has 4,500 items. His favourite? Perhaps the Petit Pain Zan. The cardboard shop-display tray and all its tins of aniseed-flavoured pastilles remain intact. Next door in his workshop, Monsieur Murat repairs old things, such as the Polaroid cameras and sewing machines that many of the cruise passengers remember from younger days.

Later we stray into St Jean. It's one of Lyon's liveliest districts, but Aurelie seems to drift through the tourist crowds oblivious. Yes, there might be a cathedral ("and you see, all those statues have been decapitated," she sniffs) and the French Gothic and Italian Renaissance buildings are lovely. But here is the Boulangerie du Palais where locals shop, recommended for its marzipan "Lyon cushions". And do we know how to find a proper bouchon, the traditional, casual eatery of Lyon?

"Look for red-and-white checked tablecloths and the authentique bouchon Lyonnais label on the door," advises Aurelie. "See if the menu lists andouillette, a stinky tripe sausage. They don't serve those in tourist restaurants."

Then, rather unexpectedly, she pushes open the door of an apartment block and leads us inside, down a dim corridor and across a courtyard and out the back entrance into another street. These are the traboules, covered walkways that link parallel streets in the old town. There are some 300, but most you'd never find by yourself. Some have wonderful architectural details, such as mediaeval spiral staircases and Italianate arches. They convey a great sense of local living. Underpants hang overhead, bicycles lean against passage walls and conversations float from open windows.

"You know, Lyon is a left-leaning city" says Aurelie in a final piece of wisdom as we leave the underground station and head back to our river ship. "Leave your one-hour transport ticket outside the station, so a student can pick it up and use it before it expires. That's the way we do things in Lyon."

The writer travelled as a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. Follow his river-cruise blog at rivercruiseinsight.com





Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi (14.5hr) with onward connections to Geneva (7hr), from which direct trains run to Lyon (1.45hr). Return economy fare from $1953 from Melbourne and $1969 from Sydney low season, including taxes. Phone 1300 532 215, see etihad.com.


Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's eight-day "Burgundy & Provence" cruise runs between Avignon and Lyon (or the reverse) and is priced from $4159 per person twin share, including meals, gratuities, port charges and guided shore excursions. Phone 1300 780 231, see uniworldcruises.com.au.