France is a very centralized country. Just about everything revolves around Paris. The French even have a tendency to split the country into two parts: Paris and Province. Province is simply anything that isn’t Paris, or at least isn’t in the Paris area (not to be confused with Provence, which is a specific region in the South). Province can mean Pau, near the Spanish border, or it can mean Gisors, only an hour away by car. Neither are Paris, therefore they are Province.
French places in Province often suffer from a stigma of being kind of slow, laid back, a bit outmoded … provincial, in a nutshell. And it must be said that there’s a bit of truth in this. Paris leads a harried life, and Parisians get all caught up in it, whereas if you head out to Dijon, for instance (I must write about Dijon soon), then there’s a hell of a lot more strolling as opposed to running, and while perhaps they don’t actually drink more wine than the Parisians, they do seem to enjoy it more. Come to think of it, they probably do drink more wine.
France’s second-largest city, Marseille, doesn’t really fit with the idea of Province. It’s a bustling, noisy, growing place in its own right, and the culture in the South of France (not to mention the accent) is so very different from that in Paris that if you were to say to a Frenchman, “I’m going to Province this weekend,” he wouldn’t imagine that you mean Marseille.
But Lyon, France’s third-largest city, could make a pretty good case for being the archetypical Province city. What’s more, Lyon (like Marseille) has a history much longer than that of Paris, as it was one of the largest cities in Gaul at the time of the Roman conquest and became a thriving Roman town (by the name of Lugudnum).
Lyon is wrapped around the confluence of two rivers: the Rhone and the Saône. Both are big and fast and powerful, and when they meet, it’s a sight to see. Particularly since the city itself is enticing. It’s easy to become infatuated with Paris, what with her flashy clothes and her beguiling ways, but after she’s worn you down, it may behoove you to take a look at her little sister. You might realize that she has a hell of a lot of charm as well, even if she is more discreet.
A lot of that charm is over in the “old city,” which has its requisite winding cobblestone streets, centuries-old buildings, and red-tile roofs with eaves that hang overhead. It also has a great big tall hill that sports a striking white cathedral and some appealing Roman ruins. The cathedral was built by the Lyonnais when they promised the Virgin Mary they would do something nice for her if she kept the Prussians from invading the city in 1871. She held up her side of the bargain, so a few years later she got a cathedral. I don’t know if they tried something similar in 1940. If so, maybe they didn’t ask nicely enough. Anyway, I strongly suggest walking up one of the streets with the preface “montée,” such as the montée Nicolas de Lange. This street includes one of the longest stairways I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty, though—lots of plants hanging over the walls on either side of the stairs, and numerous twists and such.
Back down in the old city, head over to the Palais de la Miniature. It must be said that this is a relatively obscure place, but look for it. It consists of lots of little worlds, most of which were created by Daniel Ohlmann.
Dan Ohlmann started out as a sculptor, then became an interior designer. He did a lot of theater work, and realized that the scale models he was building of proposed sets were more fun to make than the sets themselves. For the past 20 years or so, he has therefore devoted himself to the creation of miniatures—initially for the movie industry primarily (he collaborated on many films, including, for instance, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element), but for the last few years he’s been building miniatures mostly for their own sake.
Ohlmann calls these dioramas “realities,” and it’s hard to argue with the appellation. They tend to be about the size of two large breadboxes (why on earth do people still describe the size of things by comparing them to breadboxes? Steve Allen’s famous question “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” can still be heard on late-night reruns of What’s My Line?, but how many people are familiar with breadboxes these days? I remember we used to have one, but it’s quite possible that you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about), and they consist of three-dimensional representations of real places. The museum he’s created on the rue Juiverie in Lyon contains a number of them, and they can wreak havoc with your brain. For Ohlmann, they are like three-dimensional photos; he wants the viewer to enter them in his mind. This is why he never includes images of people.
The “realities” range from the dining room of Maxim’s, in Paris, in which every tiny glass, every fork, every rose on every table, as well as the stained glass in the walls, is rendered in perfect detail (2,700 hours of work), to a highway tunnel. There seems to be little rhyme or reason in his choice of subjects, but Ohlmann is an artist, and who’s to question an artist’s whims? It certainly does make for a varied experience.
The museum, which is relatively new and very undervisited, is expanding as well. Through his contacts in the world of cinema, Dan Ohlmann has acquired a number of props used in various films and is setting up a new exhibition in which he’s going to display the props and show films explaining how they were used. The props range from a gruesomely lifelike foot, run through by a nail, to—are you ready?—a lightsaber.
Yes, a real lightsaber (well, except for the glowing part that slices through bad guys). Now, since I have a valid excuse for passing myself off as something of a journalist, not only did I get to interview Dan Ohlmann, but he even gave me a tour of this new, unopened part of the museum, where he showed me the lightsaber, and he let me hold it.
As is often the case with men, I was once a boy, and back then I really wanted a lightsaber. Not a toy, mind you, but a real one, and there I was, with a lightsaber that had been used during the filming of the original Star Wars movies. Of course, I waved it around a little, and discovered that it’s really heavy. Apparently, Lucas didn’t want his actors to feel like they could just wiggle the thing in some sissified little way, so he made sure the lightsabers had some heft to them. I’m very glad he did; I would have been desperately disappointed if the thing had felt like it came in a cereal box.
And that wasn’t all: Ohlmann also has that little golden head they used in the filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know, the one at the beginning that Indy swipes off an altar and replaces with a bag of sand right before being chased by a giant marble? That’s the one. I touched that, too, although I did manage to resist the considerable urge to try and swipe it, replacing it with a shoe or something.
All that in itself would be worth the visit to the museum, but let’s not forget the miniatures, which are also worth a visit.
And, of course, there is the city, with its aforementioned little-sister charm, and its fantastic food, and its big rivers, and its Roman amphitheater (where you can attend concerts and ballets), and its not-quite-so-harried lifestyle.