Especially if you have lived in or have heard of Saint-Étienne before, you may find it almost laughable that I’m choosing to write about this city as a travel destination on this blog. I admit, even I have mixed feelings writing about it, as I equally had mixed feelings when I lived there for two years as a lectrice d’anglais. Saint-Étienne is certainly no Paris or Lyon, which makes this post on it baffling, to say the least.
With a population close to 200,000 people, Saint-Étienne is what you would consider a mid-sized city in France. It’s located south-central of the country, about 45 minutes from Lyon and 3 hours from Paris by train. The locals are known as “les stéphanois(e)s,” as the term “Étienne” translates to “Stephen” in English, and the city overall is affectionately nicknamed “St-É” (pronounced similarly to “santé”).
Besides being a university town with six different schools and several campuses under the Université Jean Monnet, the city also is known for its soccer (“football”) team, the AS Saint-Étienne. It’s apparently a really good team, as it’s categorized in Ligue 1 nation-wide and has won the title 10 times. Whenever I told people I met that I worked in Saint-Étienne during my travels in Europe, the first thing that comes to their mind about the city is the soccer team. I’ve always found it amusing, because I’m not a soccer fan, and I’ve actually never attended a single match while living there!
Saint-Étienne is historically-known for its coal mines, which helped catapult it to wealth in the region during much of Europe’s Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. However, many of its factories went into decline in the early 20th century, before closing for good in the 1950’s. After financially-struggling through the rest of the century, it has since reinvented itself as a “design city,” hosting plenty of abstract art and architecture in town through its Cité du Design school. Many of the works can be seen in Place Hôtel de Ville, Place Jean-Jaurès, the main university campus, and the train station.
Despite what I described about the city’s university vibe, soccer team, and mining history, Saint-Étienne gets a not-so-great reputation for being “boring.” True, there are things to do in town (e.g. bars, concerts, hikes), but they aren’t as numerous or as grand in scale as those found in larger French cities. Public transport, e.g. buses, trams, shut quite early (with the last ones around 23:50), as well as bars and restaurants (1:00, at latest), which can put a damper on nightlife fun, if you’re into that.
What I also found was that Saint-Étienne lacks historic character. Unlike the quaint, cobblestone streets and the distinctive regional architectures (e.g. Haussmannian buildings in Paris, half-timbered houses in Normandy and Alsace), Saint-Étienne appears rather concrete and grey. In fact, I was told that it’s due to coal remnants that “stuck” to the buildings decades ago, and they still remain to this day. The only part of town which has somewhat of a historic charm to it would be the streets in and around rue des Martyrs de Vingré, with its cobblestone walks and bars for that weekend nightlife.
The city has an overall industrial feel to it and, in spite of revamping as a “modern, design” city, Saint-Étienne remains quite poor today. I didn’t notice the poverty upon initially settling in, but after a while, the economic slump became evident. Many locals are of low-to-middle class citizens, with a notable immigrant Arab population. Plenty of people (especially middle-aged men) hung around in tabacs and plazas all day, smoking, chitchatting, and otherwise in no hurry to be anywhere. I also saw some day-drinking in plazas, some who appeared homeless and/or jobless, which was depressing to encounter. According to this website, unemployment in Saint-Étienne (21.6%) is well above the national average (just above 10%), at least in 2015. Perhaps it’s a bit better now, but still, it was both shocking and not shocking when I saw it while living there.
Even though Saint-Étienne is a poor city and lacks historic charm, I still found it fairly pleasant to live in. Granted, I would run into the same people multiple times (even my students) in town, but otherwise, I found les stéphanois to be incredibly friendly and open to foreigners, i.e. wanting to learn different cultures and practice their English. Along with expats in town, I also befriended a few locals, and having them not only help me adjust to Saint-Étienne, but also introduce me more to what the city had to offer.
If you’re a first-timer in Saint-Étienne, you’ll most likely tour around Place Hôtel de Ville and Place Jean Jaurès, which are considered the “heart of the city.” They’re the main plazas where many people tend to hang out, whether to have lunch, get a drink, or watch a film at les Méliès or l’Alhambra. Those of student age would also enjoy the nightlife at pubs like Soggy Bottom, or any of those on rue des Martyrs de Vingré (bars like Saint Patrick or Smoking Dog come to mind) before trying to hit a nightclub afterwards.
There are also a few museums to check out, including the musée d’Art et d’Industrie, musée de la Mine, and musée d’art moderne. I’ve only been to the first two museums listed during my time in town, and they were pretty cool. I’m not a huge fan of museums, but I did appreciate learning about the city’s history in textiles and weapons manufacturing, as well as its coal mining past. They were different from the typical musée des beaux arts in other French cities, as I got to learn more about Saint-Étienne’s industrial past.
*PS If you’re in town in December, take the time to attend the Fête de la Sainte-Barbe. It’s a brilliant fireworks show at the musée de la Mine which pays homage to the city’s mining history. Definitely go!
For the adventurous, there are plenty of hikes in the region. The city is actually at the foothills of the regional natural park, Parc du Pilat. I never ventured too deep into the park, but I did do a couple of hikes with colleagues and on my own, including to the charming medieval village of Rochetaillée, the powerful barrage du Gouffre d’Enfer, and the scenic vue de Guizay in Planfoy.
One can also sail or jet-ski along the lac du Grangent, dubbed “the beach of Saint-Victor sur Loire,” just 13 kilometers west of the city center, while also visit the ruined châteaux— Essalois and Saint-Victor– in the meantime. They’re also popular places for having picnics, playing soccer, and otherwise enjoying the nature during time off from work.
My personal favorite places that I’ve come to enjoy are focused within the city proper. The neo-Gothic cathédrale Saint-Charles in Place Jean Jaurès is an architectural pleasure: especially in the summer when the waterworks are turned on, there’s something majestic about it all. For city views, there are these narrow steps just behind rue Roger Salengro that show all of Saint-Étienne. It’s best at sunset, as you can see the silhouette of the buildings and regional hills behind it become shrouded in mystery. The last one has got to be Parc de l’Europe, located just a bit outside of the periphérique. It was my go-to spot for runs on the weekends, as there never seemed to be many people there and enough space to do a lap or two around before heading back.
There are so many other things that I’m sure I’ve forgotten to include in this post about Saint-Étienne. And I shouldn’t get started on the food options in town (limited, but there are a few gems, including Crêperie la Merise and Au péché gourmand). While the city isn’t what you would consider visiting on your grand adventure in Europe, its homeliness and pleasant atmosphere are worth stopping over, especially if you have friends there. Even if it was only my temporary home for two years abroad, I admit I’ve grown fond of it thanks to the memories made with the people, locals and expats alike.