The Romans called it Lugdunum and made it the capital of Gaul. Today it’s Lyon, the third largest city in France and a unique metropolitan center with a 2,000-year history as a commerce, banking and industry powerhouse. Along the way, every phase of its evolution left substantial marks on its architectural and cultural heritage. From Roman ruins to Renaissance mansions to contemporary skyscrapers, few cities anywhere can boast such diversity in their urban structure.
Take it from the Top
Like the Romans before me, I head for the best vantage point in the area, the top of Fourvière, the steep hill that dominates the town and overlooks the confluence of the Saône and Rhone rivers. High above the west bank of the Saône, they founded the city they called Lugdunum, as a nod to Lug, a Gallic Zeus-type whose temple they appropriated for their urban development project. From here, the spectacular view over the red-tiled roofs of the city seems to go on forever. It illustrates clearly the march of history that shaped Lyon, from its Roman hilltop downward to the river then across it to the Presqu’ile district, the narrow peninsula that separates it from the Rhone, before continuing its eastward expansion.
Today, on the spot where the Roman Forum once stood, the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, a nineteenth century architectural extravaganza where neo-Byzantine style meets Gothic revival, looks like a distant relative of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle. It was built with private funds from the local population, to thank the Virgin Mary for protecting the city from a Prussian invasion during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The interior is a testimonial to the full extent of their gratitude. Venetian-style gold mosaics, gilt, marble work and soaring stained glass windows cover every inch of the structure. The Basilica is considered (for better or for worst) Lyon’s most emblematic monument.
A few minutes’ walk south of the Basilica, the Grand Roman Theatre, built in 15 B.C., is the oldest of its kind in France. Excavated and restored in the early twentieth century, it is now used through June and July for the Nuits de Fourvière (Fourviere Nights) Music Festival.
Downward through the Ages
From the Basilica I wander down toward the Saône into the Vieux Lyon (The Old Lyon), one of Europe’s largest (424 hectares or 1.63 square mile) and best-preserved Renaissance neighborhoods. Because the area is tightly constrained between the river and the steep Fourvière hillside, architects of the time must build upward. They develop for their predominantly Italian banker patrons a unique style inspired by the Florentine Renaissance palazzi. The resulting multi-storied mansions open onto narrow internal courtyards with open spiral staircases leading to arched galleries and loggias that make the most of light and air circulation.
The streets of the Old Lyon are few, narrow and running parallel to the hillside. To facilitate traffic and save time, another unique architectural feature develops: the traboules (from the Latin trans-ambulare or walking through). These warren-like arched corridors run mainly perpendicular to the river. By linking houses through their shared interior courtyards, they allow pedestrians to easily pass from one street to the next.
These Renaissance homes are still inhabited and the traboules still in use. Some of the passageways and courtyards are open to the public (maps are available at the Tourism Information Center), offering to visitors a rare glimpse at their remarkably well-preserved architectural heritage.
Nowadays the maze of narrow cobblestone streets of the Old Lyon, which still bear the names of their medieval past like Rue du Boeuf (Ox Street) or Rue des Trois Maries (Three Maries Street), are closed to traffic. Storefronts have mainly been taken over by businesses catering to the throngs of tourists, but it still makes for a pleasant stroll. In addition to window-shopping, every upward glance reveals facades with grinning figureheads, elaborate garlands or other historic details. One of my favorites is the Rue Juiverie with its many ancient signs recalling the shops of long-ago artisans.
The Cathedrale Saint Jean
Eventually my roaming leads me to the Cathedrale Saint Jean. Built in the course of three centuries starting in 1165, it has a Romanesque apse and choir, while the nave and façade are gothic. But arguably the most unique feature of the cathedral is the towering fourteenth century astronomical clock located in the north transept. A spectacular feat of technology, it springs into action at noon, 2:00 pm, 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm, with a cockerel singing, angels heralding, the archangel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Marie and God blessing the whole performance. Adjoining the cathedral, the Manécanterie (choir school) is notable for its twelfth century Romanesque façade.
The Bouchons Lyonnais
Following the thread of history is hungry work, and by now I have developped Bouchon-worthy appetite. The Bouchon is a quintessential part of the Lyonnais cultural heritage.
Named after the bunch of twisted straw that designated restaurants at the time, the first Bouchons originate on the Croix-Rousse hill, where the silk industry flourishes in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They are small eateries that cater to the workers with hearty meals based on local staples and washed down with a pitcher of wine. The wife is at the stove, devising thrifty ways to prepare the most humble cuts of the ubiquitous pork meat and put yesterday’s leftovers to good use, while the husband sees to the patrons and manages the wine cellar.
Le Bouchon des Filles
Today, there are hundreds of Bouchons scattered around the city, of varying degree of quality and authenticity. This being my first visit to Lyon, I follow the recommendation of a local acquaintance and head for Le Bouchon des Filles.
Opened a decade ago by two women chefs who wanted to “bring a lighter touch to authentic Bouchon fare”, this cozy little place tucked on a side street at the foot of the Croix-Rousse is definitely a keeper. Its stereotypical crimson walls, ancient beamed ceiling and checkered napkins are a perfect backdrop for the copious four-course set menu served at the friendly price of 26 Euros per person. The first course is a trio of generous shared salads: red cabbage with lardons, curried lentils, and carrots with pickled herrings on the day of my visit. Then the main course choices include local specialties like andouillette (tripe sausage) and boudin grillé (grilled blood sausage) or, for the less adventurous palate, pike croquette in crayfish cream sauce or hanger steak with peppercorns. With cheese and dessert yet to follow, I remark that if this is Bouchon Light, I can’t imagine ever considering Bouchon Classic!
Good to Know
- Getting there – Lyon is easily reached by rail, with several direct TGV (high speed trains) connections throughout the day from Paris (2 hours), Lille (3 hours) Strasbourg (3 hours and 30 minutes) and Marseille (1hour and 40 minutes) as well as Geneva (2 hours). Lyon Saint Exupery airport, with connections to Paris, Geneva and other major European cities is located 20 kilometers east of the city. The Rhonexpress light-rail link offers easy access to the centre of Lyon in just 30 minutes. Note: Lyon has two main train stations. All TGV high-speed train services come into the new Lyon Part Dieu station, on the east side of the Rhone. Some continue, along with many local trains, to the old main station at Perrache, on the Presqu’ile, one kilometer south of the main square in the city, Place Bellecour.
- Getting around – Lyon’s public transportation system, known as TCL is regarded as one of the most efficient in the country. There are four metro lines (A to D), five tramway lines (T1 to T5) and over 100 bus lines that cover the entire Lyon metropolitan area.
- What to do – With so much to see and do within the city of Lyon, it is a good idea to start with a visit to the Office de Tourisme (Tourism Information Center), Place Bellecour. Located at the southwestern corner of the square, it is open daily open daily from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: E-mail: email@example.com, Tel: +33 (0) 4 72 77 69 69.
- Where to eat – Le Bouchon des Filles, 20 Rue Sergent Blandan, Lyon, is open every day from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm as well as Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 to 1:30 pm. Reservations a must. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 78 30 40 44.