Finding the soul of the city…
France’s second city drips with so much charm that you will gush about it to everyone you meet, specially those who are infatuated by Paris. The two cities have much in common…grand opera, chic shops, river cruises, world-class museums. But Lyon offers you more: ancient Roman ruins, exemplary cuisine and quality of life, all cloaked in a gracious air of modesty. Tempted to read on?
The best way to connect with the soul of the city is to spend a full day in the UNESCO world heritage site of Vieux Lyon. I recommend you to hire an audio guide from the tourist centre at Bellacour and transform your walk into an enchanting history lesson. As you switch on the audio tour, cross one of the bridges over the Saone to reach the foot of the Fourvière Hill. Trace the contours of the hilltop cathedral and decide whether you love/hate the idea of that Eiffel-clone (now a TV tower). Now consider the surprising legacy going back to 43 B.C. when Romans established Lugdunum (city of crows), the capital of Roman Gaul for 300 years! Hmm…not many crows here now, but isn’t that name fascinating?
The first landmark to stop at is the Saint John Cathedral at Place Neuve St.-Jean, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to 1180. In the square outside, stands a beautiful fountain in the centre, crowned by a Neo-Renaissance styled temple-like structure within which nestles a sculpture of Christ’s baptism. Lean over to touch the water trickling into one of the four stone bowls of the fountain. This was once the water of life for inhabitants of ancient Vieux Lyon! Drink up…it’s potable perfect.
Admire the mélange of architectural styles inside…Romanesque to flamboyant Gothic, and I dare you not to gawk at the remarkable stained-glass rose window. Look for the famous for the 14th century astronomical clock built by monks to calculate their feast days. This engineering masterpiece was designed to last only 700 years…it is expected to stop working by 2019. Play the guessing game…will it, won’t it?
Back in the square, crowning the hill in front of you, is the majestic Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere. The cathedral can be reached either by a steep-staircase street or the convenient Funicular. Make a choice. Its a charming, but lung-straining walk up. On the other hand, you may just encounter a group of naughty school children in French berets in the funicular. If they happen to scream their lungs out in mock fear when the funicular stops midway in pitch dark, don’t jump out of your skin. You had fair warning!
Up on the hill, the grand Notre Dame Basilica (with its four towers, a tall bell tower and a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on the top), will dazzle you with its pristine whiteness. Another UNESCO world heritage site, built in 1870s, that attracts over 1.5 million visitors each year, and for good reason. It stands where the former Roman Forum used to be…another unusual slice of history.
The exterior offers no hint about the magnificence that lies within. Prepare to swoon over wall-to-wall-to-ceiling mosaics in shimmering gold and pastels, intricate marble work and stunning stained glass filling every inch, ornate archways and ceilings covered in gold leaf. Clearly one of the most opulent basilicas you would have ever seen. Survey every nook and cranny. Drown in the splendour. Shake your head in disbelief. Then, once you’re back from divine heaven, take a trip to the crypt of Sainte-Jean or a hike up 287 steps to the observatory for a magnificent panoramic view.
Then wander over to the church’s terrace for astounding views of Vieux Lyon, the old town below, and the modern city dissected by its two rivers, the Rhône and the Saône in the distance. Seek out the archaeological area with ancient Roman remnants, including the ruins of a 10,000-seat amphitheater (the oldest in France), the foundations of a temple and the Musée Gallo-Roman, with statues, bronzes and mosaics from ancient times. This bird’s eye view will whet your appetite to explore the second-largest Renaissance district in the world.
So head back down, and stroll around the narrow cobbled streets, lined with arty boutiques, galleries and inviting restaurants leading to picturesque squares. Observe the charming details the audio guide won’t point out: solid oak doors with ornate brass carvings, old-style rainwater pipes, antique roof chimneys, pretty curved oil lanterns and hidden alleys with criss-crossing strings of fluttering paper leaflets. This area was once the centre of the silk industry and the home to Lyon’s silk workers had as many as 180,000 looms. Today, only a fraction remain, but tourists continue to flock drawn by the area’s character and charm.
The air is filled with the pleasant sound of chatter. In this part of the city of just under 500,000, you will be deep conscious of the French art of living…the meaningful things that matter to the French: food, wine, culture, friends and family. It would be a crime to not eat at one of the Lyonnais bouchons, those small bistros that serve outstanding traditional cuisine in communal style. Once rustic family-run taverns used to feed the silk factory workers, they are now frequented by locals, tourists, elite and public figures alike. Not all bouchons are authentic, so pick one with a sign stating ‘Authentique Bouchon Lyonnais’ and sit at one of the outdoor tables under the typical red awning. Spend an hour over a leisurely lunch…after all, this is the country’s gastronomic capital…relish the moment in every way you can. Thankfully, in France, they don’t get you the cheque unless you ask for it, so linger, wait for the pitter patter of the rain to subside.
The best is yet to come: Lyon’s traboules, famed secret narrow passages connecting the old streets through buildings. Originally built to transport silk safely to the waterway, they were used by the Resistance in war time too. About 200 are hidden away in Fourvière as well as the Croix-Rousse area (old silk weaver’s quarter). Its like a treasure hunt, opening a door to discover a traboule. Look for a plaque marking the entrance, (most are behind unmarked doors) and just walk in. You may feel like an intruder…invading the privacy of the residents, standing there in the middle of a beautiful courtyard, with its sixteenth-century spiral staircase and balconies. A resident may look out the window and smile at you graciously…so revel freely in the heritage that is part of her everyday existence.
Continue to roam around, explore the long climbing stairways that open onto sprawling vistas, the squares that suddenly appear and the never-ending row of shops and traditional biscuiteries tucked into every corner. Stop for that essential coffee break and let the liveliness permeate through your very core. By the time its evening, your heart is beating in sync with Vieux Lyon, and you don’t want to leave just yet. The magnetism of everyday life is irresistible…a man carrying a loaf of bread, a lady packing up her art shop, a lone guitarist on the steps of a small church lost in his own music. Restaurants are getting ready for night business as you pass by, waiters are holding out menus and inviting you, maybe offering an early bird discount. Stay on. Choose a traditional creperie this time for a quintessential French meal.
Finally, when you exit the old town, you will find yourself lingering on at the river banks. The moon will throw its own bluish tinge on the Saone and the sheen of its broad powdery scatter will stand out from amongst all the myriad colors of the lights reflected on the waters. Give in to the tranquil allure. And you will feel what I felt…at home in Lyon, its hallowed history, its charming culture and its fantastic food. Could the day be more perfect?