Two French Cities, Neither of Them Paris. Which One to Love?

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting every vacation spot on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. He arrived in France from Germany, where he visited Munich and Dessau in search of culture and history.

It’s 7 p.m. in Lyon and the banks of the Rhône are buzzing. Barges converted into bars are full of university students celebrating their first night of the semester, all of them exuding a nervous “new kid” energy. When the sun eventually sets, the city lights up: the many bridges look like they’re wrapped in glowsticks and the stoic beige and maroon buildings along the water are bottom-lit by a warm incandescent wash. High above the city, visible from virtually anywhere, is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, its gleaming white facade turned yellow by spotlights. It’s as if the entire city is one big museum, carefully curated and expertly lit to encourage awe.

It’s 7 p.m. a week later and almost 200 miles away, in Marseille. In the main plaza of the Cours Julien neighborhood, groups of friends of all ages and ethnicities are gathered around the rusty picnic tables that fill the space outside microbreweries, dive bars and cafes. A couple sits next to the central fountain, sharing a bottle of pastis poured into paper cups and diluted with water, while listening to hip-hop blaring from a portable speaker. On the opposite side of the plaza and down a few of the painted steps that lead into the Opéra neighborhood, two Senegalese friends are jamming, one on a guitar, the other on a djembe that’s been wrapped in streamers of brightly colored silk. Two of their friends watch, passing a fragrant spliff back and forth between them. Street art covers every inch of wall that’s reachable with a ladder, and most of the walls that are not.

If Lyon is a thoroughbred, a crowd-favorite racehorse, then Marseille is the scrappy long shot who sneaks into the track and steals the race. Experiencing both places back to back felt like crossing continents, and it was proof that you can have an unforgettable trip to a French city without ever stepping foot in Paris.

Little has changed since then, including the menus, which don’t shy away from the icky-delicious bits: tripe, liver and sausages made from pork intestines. But what you’re really going for is the atmosphere, each bouchon — even the touristy ones that pack the narrow cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon, the Old Quarter — feels like its own secret speakeasy. Every diner, trading jokes with the always-just-a-little-sardonic waitstaff, looks like a regular, even when they don’t understand the menu.

My first bouchon experience was elevated by my company. I met Stéphane, a Lyonnais man, eight months ago on a beach in Panama. In the red-walled confines of Les Fines Gueules we reminisced about the ice-cold Balboa beers and whole grilled fish we’d shared halfway around the world, while marveling at the fact that here we were, reunited, while sharing red wine poured from an unmarked bottle.

And then my main course arrived — I had opted for one of Lyon’s specialties, quenelle de brochet. Its description was a little baffling: a dumpling-like concoction of creamed pike fish made semisolid with an egg-based binding agent. But curiosity got the better of me, and the reality was nothing short of a religious experience. The piping hot oblong mound had the consistency of a delicate souffle and any fishiness was subtle and comforting. After every bite I looked up to Stéphane with a “is this for real?” look on my face. He seemed miraculously unfazed.

  • The Lyon City Card, an all-access pass that gives you free admission to museums, public transit, activities and tours is a very good deal. Available in one-to-four-day versions, even if you only use it occasionally, you’ll be saving a lot of money.

  • For an old-school brasserie experience try Brasserie Georges, the oldest brasserie in the city and one of the oldest in Europe. Go for the veal liver — trust me. Elsewhere, make a lunch stop at Les Halles Lyon-Paul Bocuse, named in honor of the city’s gastronomic godfather. Come to the indoor food market hungry and spend a few hours grazing its stalls which sell fresh oysters from across the country and an infinite variety of sausages and cold cuts.

While Lyon’s three-course set menus of meats cooked in vats of butter and dripping with fat can make even the most seasoned eater crave a nap, I found a better solution was to walk — and walk and walk. The Old Quarter and Croix-Rousse neighborhoods are full of traboules, secret, covered passageways that were used by silk traders to transport goods in inclement weather and as shortcuts across town. Handy online guides are available, but it’s far more exciting to stumble upon them on your own, and follow them as they wind through tiny courtyards and storehouses. More than once, I put the phone away and walked for 30-minute stretches with no destination in mind, taking arbitrary turns until, somehow, I ended up on the banks of the Saône.

The stately apartments that line Lyon’s two rivers; the way the light dances across the cobblestones of Vieux Lyon in the hour before sunset; the vegetable stalls that line the sidewalks of the third arrondissement: Lyon looks like the history picture books I’d pore over as a child. The city’s greatest appeal is its beauty, as if its founders knew that they struck gold with its location at the confluence of two slow-moving rivers and just a day-trip away from the Alps.

I spent hours going in circles in the neighborhood of Noailles, where people from across Africa and the Middle East trade and chat all day long. Algerian and Moroccan men in fake designer T-shirts loudly hawked black market cigarettes out of fanny packs; a Mauritanian woman asked me to follow her to her textile shop; side by side, people from across the world, spanning religions and socio-economic backgrounds, looked over the catch of the day at the fish stalls, and filled their bags with the same vegetables for very different meals. That energy was one of the reasons Marseille made the 52 Places list this year.

Wandering away from the neighborhood, I had one of the best bowls of Vietnamese bun thit nuong — charbroiled pork over rice-vermicelli noodles — I’ve ever had at the unassuming Nguyen-Hoang, on a decidedly unscenic street corner.

“How did you find us?” one of the family members who run it incredulously asked me at the end of my meal. (Thanks, Instagram follower!)

  • For the best view in the city, hike up to the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde to soak in Marseille’s vast sprawl. If you can’t make the steep climb by foot, there’s a “petit train” that leaves from the Old Port. Avoid weekends and cruise ship days when the crowds can get thick.

  • Bouillabaisse is a hearty seafood stew that’s famous in the city. Today, it’s a major tourist attraction and you should expect to pay upward of 70 euros for the pleasure of eating it. If you are going to give it a shot at one of the many seafood restaurants in the Old Port or out in Les Goudes, call ahead to make a reservation: many places require a 24-hour heads up.

It’s never quiet in Marseille — on one night, I watched a 10-minute-long fireworks display out my Airbnb window and still have no idea what the celebration was for. But I found the noise of the city comforting. It’s a city where tourists aren’t the focus and, as a tourist, it can feel good to feel like you’re somewhere with its own sense of purpose.

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