There are times when I wonder where I am going and why, and what I’m going to do when I get there. For example, why am I sitting on the 7.19am Eurostar from London to Lyon? And why am I not flying when easyJet can get me there in 90 minutes for around fifty quid (and my ticket, travelling Standard Premier, has cost £180)?
Whoever bought the ticket must believe in the romance of rail, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to disillusion them. It’s been a while since I’ve been on Eurostar and I’m afraid it’s a while longer before I can climb on board. There are long lines to get through security channels which, despite the efforts of hard-working staff, aren’t quite up to the job.
The train itself is much as I remember it, though it’s beginning to look a little tired. It leaves exactly on time and rushes through the English countryside. Breakfast is served, and frankly it’s not nice: a tiny tub of orange juice, a tiny yoghurt, a tiny cup of coffee and a croissant so cold and lumpy that the entire French nation might hang its head in shame. I know I shouldn’t complain – I haven’t paid for my ticket – but I’m a little depressed when I arrive, five hours later.
Quite often my travel costs are paid for when I’m speaking at a literary event or reading from one of my books. My James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis – or Déclic Mortel in French – was published recently, so I’m talking on two panels at a festival of crime-writing, introducing a screening of Goldfinger and signing books for five hours.
This doesn’t leave me a lot of time to visit France’s third largest city and this is always the tension of book tours: doing the work for which I’ve been invited while also trying to see something of the place. So at the first opportunity I slip away and engage in a form of “lightning tourism” which I’ve perfected over the years. Instead of strolling I sprint. There’s no time for lunch or even coffee. But it’s better than nothing.
Lyon is divided by two rivers and I cross one of them, the Saône, to dip into the old city, walking past the neoclassical Palais de Justice with its 24 columns. I’m even more impressed by the Jeep that comes screeching in, filled with grim-looking armed men from Mission Vigipirate, France’s anti-terrorist squad. They refuse to pose for photos.
From there I dip into the Cathédrale de Lyon, a handsome, 15th-century building with some good stained glass and an interesting astrological clock – although it strikes me that there is a perhaps an overabundance of widescreen TVs… five of them in fact.
Never mind. I dash down narrow cobbled streets filled with bouchons – traditional Lyonnaise restaurants often run by elderly ladies selling bits of the pig you don’t want to know about – interspersed with nice-looking cafés and bookshops.
I stumble across the Museum of Miniatures and Cinema and although I have to be back at my signing table in an hour, I look in. It’s a total delight. Spread out over five floors in a charming building, it contains props and costumes from many well-known films. I see Arnie’s face from The Terminator, the alien queen from Alien and the entire construction of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Best of all are the miniatures on the top floor, painstakingly made (some of them take up to 15 months) by Dan Ohlman – and they are quite simply amazing. Maxim’s from Paris is there – complete with the flowers and the bread rolls on the table – but it’s the dining room on the Paquebot Normandie that blows me away.
But I’m giving a talk. Fortunately, it’s in the Hotel de Ville which is also incredibly beautiful and not often open to the public. I’m in the Salon Rouge, surrounded by mirrors and murals, dripping in gold marquetry and with about 20 dazzling chandeliers. The room, reached by the world’s most magnificent staircase, would make a great setting for a James Bond film and I get a feeling that my audience is much more impressed by the surroundings than by anything I have to say.
At the end of the day, I manage to grab another couple of hours and take a more leisurely stroll. That’s when I begin to realise how much I like Lyon. The secret of this noble city is its sense of proportion, its use of public space. Everything is remarkably clean. The two main shopping streets, the Rue de la République and the Rue Victor Hugo, are both pedestrianised. They’re wide and spacious and the shop fronts are discreet so they don’t interfere with the architecture. Cars ruin cities – but Lyon, which has an excellent metro system, has been given back to the people.
And then you come to the Place Bellecour, which feels utterly unspoilt and cannot fail to impress with its size and sense of restraint. At one end it is dominated by a handsome 17th-century bell tower, all that remains of the old hospice. At the other, the Fourvière hills rise up to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur and the strange TV tower which they call the little Eiffel Tower.
Sadly, I didn’t have time to take the funicular railway which would have brought me to the church and to the huge Roman amphitheatre. But with the sun beating down on the blush-coloured gravel, the lawns stretching out and the fountains playing, Bellecour is a fantastic place to walk and take in the atmosphere.
I stayed at the Sofitel, on the edge of the Rhône. There was a bit of confusion sorting out the room and I was held up at reception for about five minutes. By way of an apology, and without asking, they upgraded me to their presidential suite: a bedroom, two bathrooms, sitting room and office – all with lovely views over the river. Even without this generosity, I’d recommend the hotel. It was chic, comfortable and the staff were charming. I’ll be back.