I live in La Guillotiere but I’m really a Brotteaux man. Sleepy, dreamy, pretentious Brotteaux with the famous Parc de la Tete D’Or on your doorstep. Roughly the size of Clifton Downs in Bristol, it acts as a sanctuary for us Lyonnais. Complete with boating lake, running track, cycle paths, restaurants, cafes, an orangey, a boules court, mini-golf, horse riding, and even a miniature train, it’s the place to be. I go there a lot to lose myself in my thoughts and dreams. Wandering aimlessly, but quite happy, among the exotic trees and neatly kept gardens. Or a visit to the zoo. Yes, the zoo.
I’m here now looking up at a 14 foot Giraffe with frost underfoot and a cold fog in the air. It’s only 10 o’clock in the morning, so nobody’s here yet. Just me and the giraffe. He’s in his enclosure but as there’s only one fence, he’s only a few feet away from me. The fence isn’t even that high and I’m sure he could happily step over it and take a walk round the city if he chose to. In honesty he doesn’t look that happy and that disturbing sensation I always get in zoos washes over me. Something isn’t right. It’s mid winter, I’m in France, and I’m looking up at a Giraffe.
He eyeballs me perhaps hoping for a bite to eat, but a giant sign overhead reads N’ALIMENTEZ PAS LES GIRAFES, so I decide against it. Not that I have anything to give him except a stick of chewing gum. And I don’t want him choking to death and alerting the police.
The park is the best thing about Lyon but the only thing that ruins it are the police patrols that whiz round and round every fifteen minutes in their little Citroens. This is despite common knowledge that nothing remotely criminal ever happens here. This is Brotteaux, not La Guillotiere. In fact, the worst felony I’ve seen is someone throwing a coke can into a bush.
I remember the first time I came down here one scorching September day. It was a Saturday afternoon and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than with a warm pack of lager and a book. So I’m sitting on my bench reading when I hear a guttural ‘Monsieur’ a few steps behind me. Quickly followed by C’est interdit de boire de l’alcool dans le parc. Turning around I see a short, stiff looking policeman sporting a pencil thin moustache – more Poiret than Closeau – shaking his head and pointing to my can. I like arguing with security guards because they have no real power and it’s fun, but with the police I’m a total pussy, and so I start mercifully apologising, explaining that I didn’t know it was prohibited and that I’m English. He seems OK about it, especially when I gesture my can towards the nearby bin. He almost smiles. I then ruin it by rather cockily saying that, ‘in England, it’s normal to drink beer in parks.’ His half-smile drops from his face and for a moment I think he’s going to reach for his gun and shoot me. ‘Take that you English merde!’ Instead, he utters a low pitched grunt, ‘Pas en France!’ and walks off back to his Citroen.
After realising that he’ll never get fed, the Giraffe glides back to his barn, presumably because being a creature from central Africa, he’s freezing his knackers off. Other animals on view here include elephants, tigers, gazelles, a few token flamingos, sand cats, mongooses, and a Barbary Lion – extinct in the wild since 1922. And it’s all free. It’s just part of the park, so you can walk in and out as you please. It was originally built as an educational facility and is somewhat of an institution among the Lyonnais.
You can play boules or mini golf in the morning (OK, so the mini golf is a bit naff), have a spot of lunch, visit the zoo, have an ice cream, play French cricket on the lawns, have a beer, and then walk along the Berge du Rhone back home. In fact, for the record, it’s the best park I’ve been to. So there we go.