French Alps and Lyon
-Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe -- this time we're in France. That's the summit of Mont Blanc; Chamonix is in the valley floor, the great city of Lyon is about an hour that way. And we're going to see them all. Thanks for joining us. [ Theme music playing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ France is a country with lots of variety from grand cities to awe-inspiring mountains. After exploring the proud city of Lyon, which at least in its mind rivals Paris, we head for Mont Blanc with one of the classic alpine resorts, Chamonix, as our springboard.
We'll join the bustle in a mountain resort, and chill in a rustic alpine lodge. We'll dangle over a sea of ice, sample a classic long-distance hike, be dazzled by neo-Byzantine art, celebrate the summit of Europe, and make some high altitude cheese. And this being France, we'll dine well -- hearty in the mountains, and fine in the city. France, the biggest country in Western Europe, has glorious Alps in the east. We start in Lyon, then head to Chamonix in the shadow of Mont Blanc.
We'll ride the lift up to the Aiguille du Midi, and then cross over to the border of Italy. Then we hike the Tour du Mont Blanc, a trail that circles that iconic mountain. ♪♪ We're starting in, Lyon, the gateway to the French Alps, straddling two mighty rivers and on the border between the regions of Provence and Burgundy, Lyon has been one of the leading cities in France since Ancient Roman times. After Paris, it's arguably the most historic and culturally important city in the country.
♪♪ Despite being one of France's largest cities, Lyon has an old center that feels peaceful and manageable. Traffic noise is replaced by pedestrian friendliness and lots of green transport. Along with its characteristic Old World lanes, Leone has grand quarters with 19th-century architecture that feels much like Paris. And it also has a modern cultural center. To sort it out, it's always nice to have a local connection, and I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide Virginie Moré. So what's special about Lyon? -Well, Lyon might not be the capital of France -- however, in Lyon, we're very proud and we tend to say that we have more capital titles than Paris has.
-Such as? -We were the first Roman ancient city of Gaul. -So the capital of Gaul. -Capital of Gaul. Then we were the city from where Christianity spread all over France. In the 16th century, we were the capital of the Renaissance.
During World War II, we were the capital of the Résistance against the Nazi oppressor. -So that's four capitals. -But let's not forget the last one, which may be the most important. We are the capital of food -- way before Paris. -Food! -Yes. -Bon appétit. -Bon appétit.
-A park showcases the city's archeological treasures. Its impressive ancient Roman theaters make the importance of Lyon as a Gallo-Roman capital clear. You hear the term Gallo-Roman a lot here in France. The Gauls were the original French tribe.
Two thousand years ago, the Romans conquered them and they were assimilated into the vast Roman Empire. In many ways, the France we know today grew from that Gallo-Roman civilization. -In the first century, the Roman city of Lyon had a population of 50,000 people -- which is four times as big as Roman Paris. So the city was a critical hub for transportation and it became the economic, religious and administrative capital of Roman Gaul. -And Lyon's grand churches attest to the city's importance as the leading Christian center. In about the year 1870, the Prussians (from Germany) were threatening the city.
The local bishop vowed to build a tribute to the Virgin Mary if the city was spared. It was, and construction commenced. This church, the Basilica of Notre Dame, was ready for worship just in time for the outbreak of the next war, World War I.
Inside, everything is covered with dazzling neo-Byzantine art celebrating Mary -- it's all about "Notre Dame --" "Our Lady." Amble slowly down the center aisle. Scenes glittering on the walls illustrate a Virgin Mary-centric sweep through history -- church history on one side, French history on the other. These scenes, like about everything else in the church, lead to the high altar where Mary reigns as Queen of Heaven. An unforgettable way to experience the church is to climb to its rooftop.
With a guided tour, we enjoy a close-up look at the architecture, a grand view of the city, and more reminders of how, here in Lyon, the Virgin Mary is golden. The streets of Old Lyon are lined with well-preserved Renaissance buildings. The city grew rich from its silk industry, trade fairs, and banking. -Lyon is famous for its "traboules," which are hidden covered passageway -- that enables you to cross from one street to another, being protected. So, 500 years ago, the noble families of Lyon used to live here -- if you look at this fine Renaissance staircase. -That's beautiful! -There are more than 100 of those passageways in the Old Lyon.
-So, Lyon is honeycombed with these? -Exactly. And when silk was the main industry in the city, they used to transport the silk from one street to another -- being covered from the weather. -Okay. -And more recently
during World War II, the Résistance fighters used them to escape the Nazis. -That's right, because Lyon was the leading Resistance city. This part of the old town is Lyon's historic silk district. Lyon's silk industry was huge during the Industrial Revolution. At its peak, in the mid-1800s, it was churning with 30,000 looms.
The characteristic tall windows ensured that weavers working the looms had enough light for the longest workdays possible. And it was the Jacquard loom, invented here in Lyon in the early 1800s, that revolutionized this industry. This loom -- amazing technology for the time -- automated much of the process, allowing one person, rather than an entire family, to weave the precious cloth. With the shuttle loaded with colorful silk thread, the loom worker patiently wove the prized fabric.
This silk workshop welcomes the public to drop in to see silk printing and screen painting done in the traditional way. [ Banging ] Buckets of paint are artfully mixed by hand. ♪♪ A vast collection of 100-year-old print blocks still provides the patterns to decorate the cloth. Lyon helped establish the industry of such printing on silk and cotton. This technique made beautiful silk less costly and therefore more accessible to the masses. Upstairs, a boutique sells hand-printed silk -- with a delightful array of colorful ties and scarves.
Back in the old town, Lyon's characteristic "bouchons" are small restaurants that evolved from the days when mothers would feed the silk workers after a long day. True "bouchons" are simple bistros serving traditional dishes. Virginie is taking us to a favorite of hers.
With its tiny kitchen and hardworking waitstaff, it entertains an appreciative crowd of diners. And each dish is an adventure. Oh, that looks good. Wow! "Oui." "Merci."
Tell me about your salad. -So, I have a "salade du soleil" and it has the foie gras -- which -- the French love their foie gras. - OK. -Some duck, because you get duck here; duck there, and then a bit of salmon just to feel a bit healthier.
-I'm having one of my favorites: escargot. -...and twist to get it out. -And pull -- and we have our little friend.
"-Et voilà, l'escargot!" And then you enjoy it. -I think escargot deserves a little red wine. -So here we have some Beaujolais, which Beaujolais is considered as a third river of Lyon. We have the Rhône, the Saône -- but the Beaujolais flows even more into the city. "Santé!" -Here's to river number three! -River number three. -As I float downstream in the Beaujolais, our main dishes arrive including duck, the traditional quenelles -- or, fish dumplings -- and for me, tripe.
I was a little nervous to order tripe, but it's the local dish. -You're being very brave, but it is a local dish. -And I knew if I didn't like it I could have some of yours. -And you want some of mine? -But -- no, because I like it. -You like it? Very good. And I'm eating what we call the quenelle, and this is a fish dumpling.
And this is another specialty of Lyon -- I would never order quenelle anywhere else but in Lyon. -It's clear why Lyon is the food capital of France. From Lyon, we drive east into to the Alps -- into a valley dominated by Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest peak. The alpine resort of Chamonix, nestled in the valley, is filled with enthusiasm for the surrounding mountains. Tourists and avid climbers alike mix it up in the streets.
Statues celebrate famous mountaineers with their sights set on Mont Blanc. These men were the first to climb it, back in 1786. After that triumphant summit, mountain climbing became fashionable, Chamonix boomed, and to this day it serves the dreams of serious climbers and day hikers alike.
For advice on finding just the right hike, the helpful tourist office can get you oriented. The staff knows the weather patterns and can match your abilities with the most interesting hikes in the area. -...walk from here, you're going to across -- -We're heading for a station 12,600 feet high, just across from the summit of Mont Blanc. From there, we hop on a gondola and soar high over the glacier to the border of Italy. The well-organized lift handles huge crowds in peak season.
We are here on a sunny Sunday in August, and it's packed. Within minutes, the powerful cable car sweeps us up 10,000 vertical feet from Chamonix to a pinnacle called the Aiguille du Midi. From the top of the lift, a tunnel leads into the rock where we make our final ascent -- by elevator -- to a commanding perch. Before us spreads the Alps.
You can almost reach out and pat the head of Mont Blanc. At nearly 16,000 feet, Mont Blanc is that top of Europe. Up here, the air is thin. People are awestruck by the grandeur of these mountains. And, back on the floor of the valley, nearly two miles below, is where we started: Chamonix. The Aiguille du Midi station is a maze of tunnels and stairs leading to various thin-air amusements and stunning viewpoints.
♪♪ This is one of the highest lifts in Europe. Everything's breathtaking. At 12,000 feet, even the stairs are breathtaking. For an easy thrill, don't miss that glass box.
You can stand in midair with no risk...but plenty of fear. This ice tunnel -- like a gateway to oblivion -- is from where skiers and climbers depart. From here, tourists get to see why Chamonix attracts climbers from all over the world. ♪♪ For your own private glacial dream world, happen to the petite gondola and head south to Helbronner Point, which marks the border of Italy. Dangling silently for 30 minutes, we glide over the glacier.
From here, it's clear why the glacier is called The Mer de Glace -- the "sea of ice." And below us, safely navigating deadly crevasses, small groups with mountain guides enjoy the challenge of their choice. We're surrounded by a majestic world of jagged rock needles -- called "aiguilles" in French. ♪♪ The Giant's Tooth, not climbed until 1882, was one of the last to be conquered. The cable stretches three miles with no solid pylon for support. It's as if we're floating.
And here comes Italy. ♪♪ Helbronner Point is the French/Italian border station. From this 11,000-foot-high station, the lift descends into Italy's remote valley of Aosta. Hikers from both countries enjoy the sun and the views.
♪♪ Among countless peaks, you can pick out the perky Matterhorn in the distance. And you can look down on the classic hundred-mile trail that circles Mont Blanc -- part of which we'll be hiking later. But today, we're heading back to Chamonix.
♪♪ Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 -- and it still feels like an international festival. Whether it's après-ski or après-hike, the streets of Chamonix are always lively. And with all this strolling ambience, one of my favorite valley walks is simply through the town. Chamonix was one of the original alpine resorts. Until about the year 1800, people didn't climb, or hike, or even paint mountains much. Mountains were a pain. Then, in the 19th century, the Romantic movement had people all across Europe communing with nature.
Eventually, engineers constructed a state-of-the-art array of trains and lifts to get the influx of nature-hungry city folk high into the mountains with ease. One of the first, this two-car cog-wheel train -- inaugurated in 1989 -- transported turn-of-the-century visitors to the edge of the Mer de Glace glacier. And it's thrilling visitors to this day.
This train was built over the objection of a couple hundred mule owners who figured it would put them out of business. I'd say they were probably right. The Mer de Glace is France's largest glacier -- four miles long. In the 1600s, the glacier extended much farther downhill -- actually threatening to block off the valley.
But now, it's going in the opposite direction: receding -- dramatically. When we travel, we see and experience vivid examples of climate change. For me, this shrinking glacier is one of the most poignant. When I first came here, back in the '80s, the Mer de Glace was hundreds of feet higher than it is today.
From up above, on the observation deck, it's hard to imagine that just a few decades ago, the glacier was so much higher, nearly filling this narrow valley. A cable car descends, taking visitors closer to the glacier. From there, the hike down to the receding "sea of ice" gets longer each year. Disturbing markers show where the glacier was just a short time ago.
A touristy tunnel is carved deep into the ice. Hiking into it, you find yourself in a cool, dripping world of translucent blue. And, on an ice carving meant to call attention to climate change, tourists pose obliviously. I'm meeting up with Cassandra Overby, author of "Explore Europe on Foot" and an expert on Europe's long-distance hikes. We'll join her for a couple of days as she hikes the classic Tour du Mont Blanc. Before any serious hike in this region, it's smart to drop by the mountain guide center in Chamonix to review plans and be sure you know all the latest.
You can get an individual consultation to tailor your hike to your time frame and ability. Europe has many iconic long-distance hikes, and one of the most popular is the Tour du Mont Blanc. While the Mont Blanc massif offers some of Europe's most demanding mountaineering, this accommodating trail is flexible -- enjoyed by hikers with a wide range of abilities. It's like a huge park -- part in France, part in Italy, part in Switzerland -- and it's busy June through September. -Tour du Mont Blanc circumnavigates Europe's highest peak. So you go around it in about 10 days, each day about 10 miles for a total of 100.
Each day you see a different valley, a different glacier, a different view of the great mountain. -The Tour du Mont Blanc is partly in wooded farmland and partly above the tree line in the company of glaciers. The appealing thing about it for American hikers is the delightful mix of nature, history, and culture. The people you meet on the trails come from many lands, and your days are filled with cheery greetings. We're in France for this section, so it's ""bonjour."" -Bonjour.
♪♪ -Hikers here have plenty of options. You can hike as little or as much of the route as you like. But you must reserve your beds well in advance.
One thing I really appreciate: You can hire a transfer service to take your luggage to the next hut. That frees me up to hike with just the essentials in a small day bag. And with Cassandra's help, I've chosen a route I'm comfortable with.
A typical day on the trail is about 10 miles and around six hours of walking -- and the route is never dull. This bridge actually dates back to Roman times, and for much longer than that, its river has been carving this gorge. -So one of the really interesting parts about this route is that it used to be an old Roman road. And there was a Celtic settlement just down the way, so in addition to Romans and Celts, these paths were also used by shepherds taking their stock to different fields. -Mountain huts -- called "refuges" -- are placed conveniently a day's hike apart.
Our first night is at Nant Borrant, a mountain lodge dating back to the 1800s. Huts are basic -- like hostels for adults. Hikers share coed dorms and follow the mountain hut etiquette: Bring your own sleep sack, no boots inside, and so on. Personal chores are done upon arrival; then it's time to relax.
While very simple, up here the little things feel luxurious. A refreshing beer after a day on the trail hits the spot. Dinner is rustic.
There's no menu -- hikers enjoy whatever's served. And here, way up in the French Alps, I'm happy to consider this "high cuisine." Soup with mountain cheese, tasty sausage with potato "au gratin" , and, to compliment it all, a hearty red wine from Savoy -- that's the region we're in. The culture of the Tour du Mont Blanc is one of respect for nature, a "joie de vivre," and an international camaraderie.
[ Indistinct chatter ] In the huts, it's early to bed and early to rise. After a quick breakfast, we're on to the next leg of our route. Since each day you try to cover about 10 miles, it's important to eat and stay hydrated as you go.
Fortunately, the Tour du Mont Blanc's enjoyable combination of wilderness and commerce means the trail is well-developed for the needs of hikers along the way. And small shops are ideal for assembling a rustic picnic. -Okay, "merci." -Thanks again. A day's hike is punctuated by encounters with the mountain culture, like a dairy farm making cheese pretty much the way they have for generations. The farmer's focused on his work and proud of his product.
[ Farmer speaking French ] He treats us to a sample, Mmm! And we buy a nice slice for the trail. Clearly, cheese is the energy bar of the Tour du Mont Blanc. Tonight we're sleeping in a bigger refuge. This one's a bit more remote, high above the tree line, but with the same hearty food, simple dormitories and great company.
The next morning, the convenience of the baggage transfer service is obvious, as bags are taken to a variety of destinations, depending on each hiker's plan. As we head out on what will be my last day on the trail, I realize that after so many decades, I'm enjoying a brand-new European experience -- an experience I wouldn't have found without a great guide like Cassandra. Cass, what are the most important things people should know when they're hiking like this? -You know, they're only really three big things that you need to think about. The first one is: Be prepared for time in the outdoors. So, at a minimum, you need good shoes, some great layers, a solid backpack, and a good map. Number two is be really proactive about your comfort when you're on trail.
So, eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty, and the moment that anything feels uncomfortable -- if it's your backpack or your shoes -- just stop and take care of it before you go on. -And finally... -Don't be intimidated by all of the gear, or the athletic nature of walking.
You don't need to be a hiker. You don't need to be a super athlete to enjoy this kind of travel. -Because look at my gear and look at what shape I'm in -- and I'm having a blast. -Right. It's not about exercise, this kind of thing is best when you slow down.
So, there's a hut around every corner -- stop and take a coffee. Or in the afternoon, have a victory beer if you had a big climb. When you find a stream, soak your feet. That's really how you enjoy this.
-It's like you're on vacation. -It should be fun. ♪♪ -Cassandra's hiking the rest of the route, but my luggage is back in Chamonix -- and I will be too, in time for dinner.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at this corner of France -- the great city of Lyon, the mountain resort of Chamonix, and something new for me: a sample of a classic European long-distance hike. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.
-And it's time to... It's time to come... -Did you eat that one already? I think so. [ Both laugh ] -Nobody home, nobody home there. ♪♪ I cannot eat.
I love it! ♪♪ [ Laughs ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪