Has been quite some time that I have been in France, at least properly.
I have actually been in France just a year ago, because I was in Geneva, walked around a fair bit and at some point crossed the border end walked a couple of kilometers in France.
Two years before that, also while visiting Geneva, I took a boat tour on the lake. The boat also stopped at the south side of the lake, which belongs to France.
The last proper visit to France was a trip to Paris in 2003, so it was about time...
Lyon turned out to be surprisingly nice. While it is the third largest city in France and I expected some big industrial city, the center of the town is nice and relaxed. Having two rivers helps, of course, since river banks always tend to open up cities and not having a real historic center is a bonus as well (since those tend to turn into tourist-only areas and are a kind of dead area as far as city life is concerned).
Of course, Lyon has its old buildings, like the basilica overlooking the city.
Even if you're not overly fond of the basilica, it is worth visiting to get a good overview of Lyon.
Interestingly (and very likeable), there is a television tower not far from the basilica, looking a bit like a smaller version of the Eiffel tower (more specifically like the top part of it), which was specifically erected at that place to have a secular monument to counter-balance the basilica.
Admittedly Lyon has a real historic center, which is even a world heritage site. The point is: the town is not defined by it in the same way, for example, Arles is.
There are also some nice oddities to notice while walking around, like some large murals or the deformed truck at the museum of contemporary art.
And Lyon has a giant penguin statue, which makes any town likeable. Pictures with penguin statues are always appreciated...
I didn't want to spend all the time in Lyon, so I tried to head for the Alps.
This didn't quite work out due to the weather. While the nice things about going to places off-season is that you get those places mostly to yourself, the not-so-nice thing is that there is usually a reason why it's off-season, which is usually the weather.
For example, this is a picture of a waterfall about 200 meters away, as seen from the 'Bellavista' viewing point for that waterfall.
Enjoying the views in the Alps isn't that much fun, if you can't see the sights, so it seemed like a good idea to head underground instead.
Luckily, the area got quite a few caves. And while some of them are not open in winter, a couple of them are.
So I went to visit the Grottes de Choranche, which is a fairly impressive cave with a large underground lake and very delicate stalactites, called 'soda straws' stalactite. There was an unexpected presentation of this, since a moth had come into the cave and, attracted by the bright spotlights in the cave, flew against one of the stalactites, which was visibly swinging back and forth. So a stray bumblebee could easily break the (thousands of year old) stalactites off.
Since it was off-season, nobody else was around at the time of the tour, so I got a private guided tour of the cave, which was a nice experience (and it was also less foggy and warmer than outside).
Nearby is also the 'Grotte de Gournier', another entrance to the same cave complex, which is not open to the general public (the whole cave systems is more than 30 kilometers long, but the public accessible part is only about 500 meters).
Even though you can't enter the cave itself, it's still worth a visit, since it has a lake that reaches out to the entrance, so it's an interesting place to see and also provides a good photo opportunity (provided you bring a tripod - exposure times were about 15 seconds for the two images below).
Next morning, I did a bit of walking in the hills north of Lyon. There are a couple of (partly overgrown) stone structures and tunnels in that area, so when walking down a hollow path through the woods, it might suddenly pass through a slippery tunnel, with icicles hanging from the roof.
The day started out a bit foggy, but around noon most of the fog had lifted and the winter trees looked surprisingly colourful.
But I was heading for another cave anyway, so I didn't care much about the weather outside.
This time the destination was "Les Grottes de La Balme".
Once again, I was lucky (it really was off-season) and got my own private tour of the cave.
The stalactites here are less spectacular, but the cave has impressive "water terraces" and also a neat looking underwater river. (Though the colour scheme of the cave lighting is something that could probably be improved...)
Unfortunately, the most 'fun things' in the caves are no longer possible. There used to be boat tours on that river, but after an accident in 1919, when ten people drowned, they were stopped. In one area there is also a chimney up to a second gallery above, where people used to climb a 12 meter iron ladder, walk along that gallery and descent on a second (15 meter) iron ladder down another chimney. But due to security concerns (and to protect the bats in the upper gallery), these ladders no longer exist.
But even without the added activities, the cave is fun to walk around in.
After the cave tour, I looked for nearby touristic sites and headed for the archaeological site at Larina. It's located on the top of a hill, near a cliff and, in addition to explanation signs and the remains of historical buildings, it also has a great view of the surrounding countryside.
At least a 'used to be a great view', until someone decided to put a large nuclear power station right in the middle of it, which somehow marrs the image of an idyllic countryside...
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