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.

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 (, Lorentey, Pug Freak abd Dominiqueb via Flickr, and Megan Fernandez]

High speed rail in Europe on track to provide a painful blow to the airlines

On September 7th, the Dutch rail operator will finally start operating trains on the Amsterdam – Rotterdam high speed line, the next step in making continuous high speed rail travel possible from Amsterdam to Brussels and Paris.

This high speed line had been in the planning phase for over 30 years, and took ten years to build. As with many Dutch infrastructure projects, the environmental impact meant a lot of the track had to be tunneled or bridged, increasing the total cost. One of the longest tunnels crosses under the “Green Heart”, and is almost 8 kilometers long.

There is one minor snag – the trains required for continuous high speed travel have not yet been delivered, so even though there is one long high speed line from The Netherlands, through Belgium to France, parts will still be serviced at low(er) speeds using trains from the existing Thalys service.

Once the new trains are delivered, what will this mean for European travelers? Well, from the city center of Amsterdam to the city center of Paris in just over 3 hours. Or from Rotterdam to Brussels in just 30 minutes. Some times have been cut by more than 50%.

Flying the Amsterdam – Paris route takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes, but once you add the trip to the airport, check-in time and security, you are easily looking at 4 hours, so it is obvious that the airlines are really going to feel the pain from a 3 hour high speed trip. At the moment though, the current Amsterdam – Paris train takes about the same time as flying (4 hours 10 minutes) so there is no time gained.

French TGV operator goes kid friendly on 2 routes

During the summer months, families with kids can take advantage of special kid-friendly TGV trains on their Paris-Marseille and Paris-Montpellier routes.

Once on board, kids will be entertained by characters from Disneyland Paris, and all children will receive a goodie bag. Kids will also be able to borrow portable DVD players, gaming consoles, books and comics.

In total, 4400 seats are put on sale for each train, with tickets for children under 12 going for a nice 60% off their normal price.

This is of course good news for people taking the TGV cross country with their children, but if you are traveling without kids on those trains, it may be a bit of a madhouse, unless of course you love the sound of screaming kids running up and down the aisles.

The special trains are running from July 4th till August 1st, and depart from Paris Gare de Lyon at 9:20 am and 2:16 pm, tickets are available from the SNCF website.

Are the trains in Spain faster than the planes?

If you’ve ever had a chance to travel around Europe, you’re probably familiar with its various high-speed rail networks. In France, the TGV and AGV lines whisk passengers between Paris and points beyond including Brussels and Lyon at speeds over 200 miles per hour. And in Spain, the AVE rail system connects Madrid to Seville and as of 2008, to Barcelona as well.

According to a recent post at Wired, the new high speed link between Spain’s two biggest cities has had a dramatic effect on the country’s transportation network. In 2007, the airline route between Madrid and Barcelona was the busiest in the world, carrying over 70 percent of the passengers traveling between the two. Yet upon the opening of the new Barcelona rail line last year, that percentage has already dropped to 60 percent, and experts predict the number of plane and train passengers on the route will be equal within the next 2 years.

Aside from the obvious environmental benefits of traveling by rail instead of air, there’s a significant convenience advantage as well. As heavy airplane traffic continues to choke airport runways worldwide, it’s likely many of us will be turning to the railways for trips shorter than three hours. And when you think about it, by the time you’ve made it through TSA clearance, located your gate and fought for an overhead bin spot, your quick two hour plane trip has often turned into four or five. Here’s hoping the U.S. continues to look into similar high-speed rail solutions like Acela. It’s no AVE yet, but certainly a good first step.

[Via PSFK]

China plans 236 mph rail link between Shanghai and Beijing

The Chinese rail Ministry has announced plans to link the nations capital with its financial capital. Beijing and Shanghai are a little over 650 miles apart, and the current rail link takes over 10 hours.

The Chinese claim to have mastered the technology required to build their own high speed trains, and plan to operate them on the new line at speeds up to 236mph (380 km/h) which should cut the current journey time in half.

Previous high speed rail projects in China include one of the first commercial Maglev links which operates between Shanghai and the airport. In 2005 a regular high speed link between Beijing and Tianjin was opened and is based on the highly successful German ICE rolling stock.

High speed rail links have changed the landscape in Europe, and dedicated high speed lines already link the UK with France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany.

Being able to commute from city center to city center in under 5 hours will prove to be a very efficient solution in China, and will most certainly eat away at the airline market. The line is scheduled to be completed in 2012, a mere 4 years from now.