France’s second largest city after Paris, Lyon attracts visitors for the rich history and natural beauty it harbors within its modern fabric...
City of that great dreamer, Antoine St. Exupéry, Lyon is a little-known treasure tucked away in the French interior with a beauty comparable to that of Paris and Nice. This city, which dates back to the 1st century B.C., dazzles the eye both architecturally and as one of France’s leading commercial centers in almost every period of its history. Situated at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers, Lyon is one of Europe’s ideal cities for a relatively modest holiday.
FROM THE MIDDLE AGES TO THE RENAISSANCE
Lyon divides into nine districts; roughly speaking however the left bank of the Rhône (the area around the Saône) is the touristic sector and the right bank the commercial district. As with many European cities, here too there is an ‘Old Lyon’, which of course holds the greater allure for tourists. Market and commercial center in medieval times and residence of the French writer Rabelais while he was writing his ‘Gargantua’, Old Lyon is a first stop with visitors for its Palace of St. Jean and world-famous 15th century Cathedral of St. Jean. Like its counterpart in Prague from the same period, the cathedral also boasts one of Europe’s most impressive astronomical clocks. If you can afford the time, save an entire day for Old Lyon, which will take you back on a journey through time with its medieval and Renaissance houses and Church of St. George, restored in the 19th century.
We might mention here as an aside that when the French government decided to expropriate and build up the area following the Second World War, many writers starting with André Malraux stepped in to ensure that measures were taken to preserve its historical texture, which has thus been maintained unspoilt, at least in certain areas. With its monuments, the oldest of which dates back to the 4th century, the Archaeological Park to the north of Old Lyon is sufficient evidence of just how apt a decision it was.
ALMOST AN ISLAND...
Old Lyon is situated on the lower slopes of Fourvière Hill, an area not only of interest for its examples of Gallic and Roman architecture but worth seeing for the Notre-Dame de Fourvière Basilica as well.
My suggestion is that you explore the ‘Old City’ during the day and head up the hill at dusk to view the sunset. But if you say, no, I’ll be too tired to climb, then you can avail yourself of one of the many rail links. Another hill with an excellent view is Croix-Rousse, which is also teeming with bars and restaurants. The part of the hill that resembles Paris’ famous Montmartre is a special drawing point for city residents with its lively atmosphere, street artists, 19th century houses, and the Saint-Bruno des Chartreux Church, an example of Baroque architecture. Since Croix-Rousse was famous for the production and working of silk in its founding period, you can still come across shops selling silk today.
And besides all that, there is also an amphitheater of significance to Christians at Croix-Rousse where Lyon’s first believers (known as ‘the 177’) were martyred.
The Saône and Rhône Rivers that surround Croix-Rousse turn it into a peninsula known as the ‘Presqu’île’ or ‘almost-island’, a tongue of land that, we might say, would have been an island if the rivers had just tried a little harder. There is everything here, from Roman architecture and narrow medieval lanes to Renaissance structures and Napoleonic-style buildings. Perhaps the most important of all the buildings in the area are the St. Pierre Monastery, converted into a museum in 1803, and the Gothic-style St. Nizier and St. Bonaventure Churches, built in the 15th century. But the pearl of Presqu’île is the 12th century Basilica of St. Martin d’Ainay, which reflects all the features of medieval architecture. If you want to see examples of modern architecture as well, you will need to go to Gerland or Villurbaine. These districts, where you will find a fascinating array of modern buildings, are also the part of Lyon where you can visit the theme-museums (city museum, museum of industry etc), starting with the Tony Garnier, as well as seeing the Lyon Mosque, which stands in near-total contradiction to the city’s architectural fabric. The Gerland district, which acquired its present-day appearance largely between 1910 and 1930, enables visitors to observe the industrial revolution and its legacy in the form of villas, the Sewing School, the Vaudrey Telephone Central and the Tony Garnier building.
LOCAL CUISINE AT THE ‘BOUCHONS’
Lyon also boasts one of Europe’s most intriguing museums: the Musée des Automates. Located on the right bank of the Rhône, this museum houses paintings, puppets and examples of the plastic arts, all of outstanding beauty.
The puppets, which act out scenes from theater plays, the paintings by artists from Cézanne to Degas, and the 18th century china dolls are certain to delight visitors. And those who tour Lyon by night should not miss the City Library (La bibliothèque de la cité). This building, whose facade is covered with paintings of the famous actors, writers and painters who lived in and around Lyon, takes on a splendid appearance when illuminated by night.
As you engage in all these activities, you are naturally going to work up an appetite. And Lyon cuisine is said to be one of the best France has to offer. I say ‘said to be’ because Lyon cuisine has traditionally been considered to be ‘out of this world’ due to the high quality of the regional livestock and agricultural products raised in the Rhône region, especially in the 16th century. As you can imagine, however, with the rise of industrialization and the subsequent decline in farming and animal husbandry, it’s impossible nowadays to know if the meat and and vegetables you are eating actually come from the region or not. Nonetheless, in Lyon you will find food prepared with the utmost care at even the smallest restaurants. And the Old Lyon restaurants known as ‘bouchon’ are ideal for those eager to sample the local fare. These dishes, whose names end with the words ‘de Canut’ (Canut being the name of the silk weavers who once lived in the city), are available at restaurants with roots going back to the early 20th century, most of which include the word ‘Mère...’ in their names, where dishes are prepared from time-honored family recipes. So, get a move on. It’s high time you discovered and experienced Lyon, France’s second largest city, which is ready to vie with its rival Paris any day of the week.