Forget Paris, Try Lyon

It was nighttime when I first pulled into France‘s second-largest city, by car, and the lights were on – a wash of royal blue shining up onto orderly rows of stately Renaissance buildings in ochre hues and reflecting in the river that bisects the city. Handsome was the word that came to mind. A masculine gold-and-sapphire answer to Paris’s ravishing, soulful beauty.

This was the postcard edge of Vieux Lyon, the old quarter of the city. Behind the grand, polished edifices lining the main avenue, a tangle of ancient, narrow streets delivers on the quintessential old-world European fantasy. At bistros called bouchons, people linger over slices of red praline tart, the city’s signature dessert. The same silver bikes roving Paris by the thousands slide through traffic. Graffiti is covered by pink tissue paper in the shape of a poodle.

Lyon, the gateway to the Rhone-Alps region, makes a fantastic alternative to the country’s famous capital for those interested in culture, food and enchanting surroundings. Located in the eastern part of the country, it’s reachable from Paris by the high-speed TGV train and the new budget service, Ouigo, which launched on April 2. (You can also rent a car and wander there via the chateau-rich Loire Valley.) Significantly smaller and more affordable than Paris, it’s easy to get around (by bike, streetcar or foot) and isn’t overrun with tourists.

Lyon isn’t Paris writ petit. It has charms all its own. These are the ones I’ve fallen in love with over the years visiting relatives who live there:Traboules
These 16th-century covered arcades and tunnels feel like secret passageways through the historic districts, and they are Lyon’s distinctive architectural feature. It’s said that the Allied forces used them to elude the Nazis during World War II.

Roman Ruins
Lyon was originally a Roman colony, and several ruins remain. The Pont du Gard (pictured below), one of the most spectacular preserved Roman structures outside of Italy and the highest Roman aqueduct in the world, is an easy day trip.

Trompe L’oeil Murals
Lyon elevates murals to high art. Of the 60-some murals in the city, the trompe l’oeil masterpieces are the biggest attractions. They cover entire sides of tall buildings, and some fool you into thinking the scene is real.

Public Bikes
Lyon launched the public-bicycle system that everyone associates with Paris – Paris’s Velib program is modeled after Lyon’s Velo’v. In fact, Lyon was the first European city to figure out how to make a municipal bike program sustainable.

Astronomical Clock
Inside Cathedrale Saint-Jean in Vieux Lyon, this mechanical wonder first constructed in 1383, and reconstructed in 1661, contains a 66-year perpetual calendar that will be accurate until 2019. It also includes the position of the moon, the sun and the earth, as well as the stars in the sky over Lyon.

The Shell House
Hidden along one of the alleys in the Croix Rousse historic district, best known as the center of the city’s famous silk heritage, seashells cover every inch of surface of a home and courtyard. There’s a no-trespassing sign, but it’s worth a quick peek through the fence.

Provence
Hilltop villages like Oppede le Vieux (pictured below) are only a couple hours away. Day trip bonus: stopping at French truck stops. My favorite one offered used of old-school fitness equipment like pull-up bars, and curvy concrete daybeds outside under trees.

[Photo credits: Gelinh, Damien (Phototrend.fr), Lorentey, Pug Freak abd Dominiqueb via Flickr, and Megan Fernandez]

REI Adventures offers members 25% discount on select trips

REI Adventures is offering 25% discounts for members on select tripsIn 2011, REI Adventures, the travel arm of outdoor gear retailer REI, is celebrating its 25th year of offering great outdoor and active journeys to adventure travelers. To commemorate the occasion, they’re passing on a substantial discount to members of the REI Co-Op, giving them 25% off some of their most classic trips.

In all, there are seven trips that the discount is being applied to. Those trips include a classic safari in Tanzania, a trek to Everest Base Camp, cycling in the Loire Valley of France, trekking the Tour Du Mont Blanc, hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, backpacking in Fitz Roy and Paine in Patagonia, and exploring the Alaskan wilderness on foot and kayak. Each of these trips is considered to be one of REI Adventures’ signature vacations, offering some of the most amazing and memorable experiences for any traveler.

As mentioned, to take advantage of the 25% discount, you must be an REI member. Becoming a member is simple however, and it offers more benefits than just the discount on these trips. There is a one time fee of $20 for the membership, but it entitles you to take part in special events at REI stores, increased discounts on gear items, and a yearly dividend that is based on the items you purchased. That dividend can then be spent on new gear in the store as well. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast at all, then the membership usually more than pays for itself in the first year alone.

Members always receive a discount on REI Adventures trips, but the additional 25% savings is on top of that already discounted price. For instance, the African Safari normally costs non-members $4075. Members get the same trip for $3699, but if you take advantage of the added discount, you can visit the Serengeti for just $2775. Not a bad deal at all.

Dates for the discounted trips are limited, so you’ll want to take advantage of them as soon as possible. To get more details on these adventures and the dates when they are available, click here.

Competitours Race Day 5 – Paris “We won!” (with Video)

As part of our Gadling on the Road series, Kent Wien and his wife Linda are participating as Team Gadling in the first run of Competitours, an Amazing Race like competition taking place in three different countries in Europe. Race along as Kent documents their progress.

All eleven teams gathered at the train station in Brussels for our journey to our next destination, which had just been revealed before dinner. Sure enough, we were going to Paris.

I made it to Paris a few times last year but I didn’t feel like Linda and I had any advantage over any of the other teams, since the challenges were rather varied. And I was more interested in the challenges that I wasn’t familiar with, avoiding the Pont Neuf and Catacombs challenges in favor of the more out of the way tasks.

We poured over the 6 pages of options for Paris and the surrounding area. We knew we’d have to come up with either two 30-point and one 15-point challenge or better yet, a 60-point plus one 15-point challenge to reach our maximum limit of 75 points for the day.

The 60-point challenge was risky. A day trip to the Loire Valley to tour the