If you’ve never lived in the North; if you haven’t experienced the face-biting cold of a Nordic November or been blasted by sheets of sleet in a Scottish September; really, if your winters are less than 6 months long, you will never understand the pain of being away in another country when amazing weather arrives at home.
I didn’t even believe the forecast. Of course it was going to be better weather in Paris than in Oslo over the string of May holidays. May in Oslo typically isn’t anything special. The snow has melted, revealing rotten grass sporadically strewn with defrosting dog poo. The streets are gravelly and the chill of winter past lingers on. If the days are clear and the sun does its job, it’s nice to sit outside at the peak of the day, bid winter farewell and look forward to a (hopefully) hot and sunny summer.
Paris is usually in its prime in May. Spring is in full bloom: the trees blossom, the flowers flower and café terraces bustle with Parisians and tourists, who arrive in droves for the long weekends. I was imagining 10 days of barbequing, hanging out by the river at the Paris Plages, drinking aperol spritz on the terrace and stocking up on plants for our urban garden.
It wasn’t meant to be. In between bursts of hot sunshine when we would desperately dash to the nearest terrace, Paris this May was overcast and grey. Meanwhile, back in Oslo, summer elbowed spring out of the way and arrived in all its glory. There was no spring this year: one week there was snow on the ground, the next week it was shorts and t-shirt time. Within three weeks, the people of Oslo were taking their first dip in the fjord, which only a couple of months earlier was partially frozen-over.
I was distraught to be in Paris while all of this was going on. I know it sounds dramatic (my friend Sarah told me off, in the way that only best friends can, for being a spoilt brat). It’s just that when the good weather arrives in the North (did I mention that Sarah lives in Brazil?), you know its days are numbered. You have to enjoy it while you can. Impossibly, three weeks later, the weather in Oslo is still glorious. Office desks stand empty; the beaches and islands heave with truants because life, or rather summer, is just too short. We have endured what felt like the longest winter in history. It was one of those where it would snow for days, then the temperature would creep up to slightly above zero. The snow would start to melt, only to freeze again once the sun set at 2.14 pm, leaving a treacherous layer of ice and bitter temperatures behind.
When the thermometer in Oslo hit 30, I was distressed enough to consider flying home but the flights were too expensive. Instead, we decided to board a train and head southwards in search of the sun. We looked into going to Marseille, expecting higher temperatures and sunshine there. Uncharacteristically however, Marseille, and the entire southern coast along to the Cote d’Azur, had weather similar to Paris. Things looked more promising in Lyon, and since I had never been to the food capital of France, we decided to seek the sunshine there.
I was a bit disappointed when we arrived. The TGV gets into Lyon Part Dieu and the area around the station isn’t the nicest. We chose to walk to our hotel in the old town to get our bearings. We crossed the two rivers Lyon is famous for – the Rhone and the Saone. The wind blew hard on both bridges and I was sulkily convinced that the weather was going to be no better than in Paris.
I cheered up slightly when we got to our hotel in the old town. Le College Hotel is a quirky 4-star hotel with a school-theme. Our room was minimalist with a lovely little balcony looking out over the cobbled streets. We received a warm welcome at the reception and were sent out with lots of tips for exploring the old part of the city.
The moment we decided to forgo the funicular and start the 580-stair ascent up to the Sacre Coeur, was the moment the sun made its entrance. The steep climb is not for the faint-hearted or weak-muscled. Being scared of heights, I felt like I was going to be tripped up by every person that passed and my legs started protesting about half way up. It was all worth it when we got to the top. The city and distant peaks of the Alps sprawl below the watchful church. We spent about an hour in the Gallo-Roman Museum of Lyon-Fourvière before trotting back down the hill, stopping to admire the roses in the Parc de la Tete d’Or.
We had got one of the things we had come for – the sun was now high in the sky. The other was to experience a traditional Lyonnais Bouchon. We had done a bit of research and chose Le Garet. This cosy family-run restaurant can be found on many a top-10 bouchons list and is just about as traditional as they come. Not a fan of innards, I struggled to find something that appealed to me on the menu and ended up with cervelas sausage as a starter and a pike cornel as a main dish. Both are Lyonnais classics: the latter is a fish mousse in a seafood broth. The food was good but I enjoyed it more for the experience than anything. We had a great time chatting to our neighbours (with whom we had to share our starters) and trying to figure out what everyone else had ordered.
The next night we dined at Jour du Marche where the menu changes daily according to whatever is available at the market. This restaurant offers an alternative to the traditional bouchon, serving up modern, innovative Lyonnais cuisine.
When we weren’t eating we were walking around exploring the city. Lyon has a lovely, laid-back atmosphere, particularly in the old quarter. There are wine bars and pubs galore, shops, museums and everything you could want from a long (or short) weekend.
I would recommend Lyon for those looking for a taste of French city life but who find the sheer size of Paris off-putting. Paris can feel intimidating for someone who is not used to big cities. Lyon is quieter, less crowded and friendlier. I’ve never agreed with the ‘Parisians are arrogant and unfriendly’ stereotype but I understand why it can seem that way if you’re a first time visitor trying to figure out which metro to take during rush hour. Lyon has a lot of the upsides of Paris – the beautiful bakeries, the markets and restaurants, the riverfront and the churches – and fewer of the downsides.
And of course, if you ever find yourself in Paris feeling disappointed by grey skies in May, check the weather map. The sunshine could be just a two-hour train journey away.