Riding a pousse-pousse in Lyon

By Zubeida Mustafa

LYON (France) is not exactly new to me. Having visited this quaint town of 1.4 million a number of times since 2009, I have already been through the routine exercises a first time tourist is expected to go through. The city tour in the bus, visits to museums that bring a smirk on my daughter’s face, long walks in the parks, look at archaeological sites and buildings protected under the heritage law and so on. Even the novelty of a ride in the ‘driverless’ metro run by a computerized system has worn off.

So I wanted my trip to Lyon in the wintry February of 2015 to be different. The weather with temperatures ranging between -5 and 5 degrees Celsius provided a new topic of conversation but that changed fast when for a week it was bright and sunny as the day temperature touched 12 degrees Celsius. The dry weather more than the sunshine became an inducement for me to venture out for walks.

Pousse-pousse in Lyon
Pousse-pousse in Lyon

During one such strolls in Bellecour, an open square in the centre of the town which is also the largest pedestrian zone in Europe, I had seen little vehicles that resembled our rickshaws. We decided to take a ride in one of them. That is how we landed up with Yousuf, a Moroccan, who was on the lookout for passengers. Yousuf proved to be a delightful tourist guide who kept up a running commentary on the places he drove us to. I could understand, with a fairly good amount of interpretation from my daughter, his Arabic accented English liberally interspersed with French. He said he had spent his whole life in Morocco where he had received his education and had come to France three years ago. He appeared to have familiarized himself pretty well with Lyon and thanked me for providing him the opportunity to brush up his English which was a third language for him.

He told me that the contraption we were riding was called a “pousse-pousse” (as they do in India, according to him) but it was shaped like our Chinese CNG rickshaws and was operated like a cycle with power pedals. Yousuf constantly had to push the pedals but not as strenuously as the cycle rickshaw-wala in Lucknow which I had used when trying to locate my uncle’s ancestral pre-partition home there. The Lyonnais pousse-pousse was certainly kinder on the driver.

That is how I found myself doing something new on a wintry afternoon in Lyon. Yousuf told me that there are two companies with eight vehicles each operating these vehicles. The sights we saw from the wide open window of the pousse-pousse had something new about them. Located between the two rivers that make Lyon so scenic – the Saône and the Rhône – Bellecour (literally meaning beautiful garden)  looks majestic with a statue of Louis XIV, the Sun King and better remembered for the Palace of Versailles, standing in the centre.

Yousuf took us to the old town known as Croix-Rousse with its narrow cobbled streets and covered passageways called traboules. This was the area where the famous silk weavers of France lived and worked, producing their fabulous material worn by royalty and the elite class of the day. The district is located on a hill and from the height one got a panoramic view of the town. That was in the summer of 2011. But when we approached it via the traboules this time, the buildings lost their charm I could understand why the weavers had revolted against the oppressive conditions in 1831. This was said to be the first workers’ uprising in Europe.

This area has been declared a protected heritage by UNESCO and the façade of the buildings cannot be changed.

Our half-an-hour pousse-pousse tour ended at the Haagen Daas ice-cream parlour in Bellecour. Ice-cream in winter? Why not. Lyon had its worst winter three years ago. On 11 Feb 2012 the Bartholdi (of the Statue of Liberty fame) fountain in Place des Terreaux had actually frozen. When we rode pass it in our tour with Yousuf the water was flowing and the sun was bright. So winter also has its variations! So do the pousse-pousse. In Lyon it is a tourist attraction while the mechanized version in Karachi is an essential public transport item.