We headed to Lyon to meet up with a friend from our previous travels for 3 nights of gastronomic wonders followed by a long walk in the countryside (see next post for details of that one).
Sitting at the confluence where the Saone River snaking from the north meets the Rhone River flowing from the east and onwards to the Mediterranean Sea, Lyon has been a strategic location for trade and travel since the Romans spread westward to trade with the Celts. The city still has remnants of the waves of cultures which followed. Romans in the first few centuries BCE, Francs in the Middle Ages, Italians fleeing civil war in their home states in the 15th century, and homegrown merchants and industrialists.
We stayed in Vieux-Lyon, a largely pedestrianised enclave abutting the Saone River. It is France’s largest Renaissance era neighbourhood, indeed one of the largest in Europe. Families of Italian bankers as well as Italian, German and Flemish merchants lived here, their wealth and trade fuelled by the silk and textile industries which existed initially as cottage operations based in the neighbourhood and later in more organised enterprises which moved to the adjoining ones.
One of Lyon’s oldest surviving neighbourhoods, Vieux Lyon was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998 because of its historical importance and architecture.
Perfect for strolling, it’s backstreets are best in the morning when many of the traboules are open. These are passageways or corridors which go through buildings, connecting one street directly to the next. They are unique to Lyon and were constructed in the 15th century so silk weavers could transport their delicate products between buildings in inclement weather.
True traboules connect two streets. There are also miraboules – passages that enter from the street and fan out into a cul de sac or courtyard. Our apartments were in one of these. A passage from the street led to a courtyard with an art gallery tucked in the corner and several sets of steps leading to apartments circling it.
The building was constructed in the 16th century by an Italian architect in Renaissance style. It’s a distinctive pinkish shade and it’s often referred to as La Tour Rose (“The Pink Tower”) for the staircase tower in the courtyard.
Our host owned the gallery and the two apartments we rented. Throughout the day, individuals and groups on walking tours would come down the portal to ogle the Rose Tower. It’s in a lot of tourist information literature. We asked him why this particular tower was so visited. With a classic Gallic shrug, he replied “Because it is the most beautiful”.
Vieux-Lyon extends up the hill above the Saone River with tiers of houses joined by snaking lanes rising up to Fourviere hill. We caught the funicular, which conveniently deposits visitors near the entrance to Notre Dame de Fourviere.
Sitting 170 metres higher than the river and rising to 280 metres, the basilica is visible from just about anywhere.
It was built in the late 1890s to thank the Virgin Mary for halting the Prussian invasion of Dijon in 1870. No, we don’t understand why build it here and not in Dijon, but here it is. It blends Gothic and Byzantine features as well as some flourishes of the designer’s own. An influential architect of the day disparaged it with the nickname ‘the Overturned Elephant’. It having been said, from certain angles, we can kinda see it.
It’s real attraction is the interior, which is literally covered in intricate mosaics. Everywhere from the floor to the walls to the multi-domed ceiling.
Even the crypt is mosaic-ed.
Next door, a steel tower caught our eye. We thought it looked a bit like a mini Eiffel Tower and it turns out we were right. After La Tour Eiffel made her appearance at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, the good citizens of Lyon decided they’d like one of their own. At a height of 80 metres, it’s a miniature by comparison – the Eiffel Tower tops out at 330 metres – but it did have a restaurant accessible by a hydraulic elevator, just like its Paris inspiration.
The restaurant is no more, and the structure was reconfigured as a signal tower in 1963. It’s closed to the public but it’s easy to see that the restaurant must have had a rather fine panorama of a view in its heyday. We took this shot from the terrace next to the basilica, and the tower would have given diners at least another 50 metres elevation.
A short walk from the basilica in the other direction are the remains of a Roman amphitheatre.
The site of modern day Lyon was of immense importance to trade between the Romans and Celts since at least the first century BCE. The Romans established a city on the Fourviere hills in around 43 BCE, including a theatre, forum, temples and even thermal baths. The well preserved Theatre Romain was built in about 15 BCE and later expanded to hold 10,000 spectators.
Lyon is a city of bridges and riverfront grandeur.
The Saone River is lined with promenades from which you can get perspective on the old buildings.
From Vieux-Lyon several bridges cross the Saone to the Presqu’ile – French for ‘peninsula’ – where the rivers meet.
The central square of the Presqu’ile is the Place des Terreaux. At one end is the Hotel de Ville. Every French city and town has one, and this is one of the most intricate thanks to an ornate facade added to the original building in 1702.
On another side of the square is the Bartholdi Fountain. In 1857, at the tender age of 23, Frederic Bartholdi entered and won a competition held by the Bordeaux town council to design a new fountain for the city, but then the council decided not to go ahead with the project. Almost 30 years later in 1886 when Bartholdi achieved fame for designing the Statue of Liberty in New York, Bordeaux reconsidered but again got cold feet due to the cost. It was finally built in 1888 and a model went on show at the 1889 World’s Fair. As well as the Fair stoking a desire for a mini Eiffel Tower, the mayor of Lyon took a shine to the fountain and promptly acquired it for his city. Made from 21 tons of lead, we doubt he took it home in his carry-on.
The city has so much old grandeur. You walk around a corner and there’s another spectacle. Nothing famous, but another fountain or a beautiful old building in tip top condition, presumably re-purposed into something useful.
Lyon competes with Paris for the title of gastronomic capital of France. Unique to Lyon, the culture of bouchons developed here in the inter-war period when many cooks were let go by bourgeoisie families who could no longer afford to employ them. Often women, they opened small restaurants catering to workers. A limited menu and their experience cooking with lesser cuts to minimise waste meant they were able to produce quality meals with hearty proportions at a low cost in a relaxed but authentically ‘restaurant’ environment. The tradition continues today, with an emphasis on dishes like veal head, tripe sausage and terrine. Don’t worry – if you aren’t a fan of offal there’s always a steak and usually a fish dish as well.
They are a must do in Lyon and we dined well.
As well as the bouchons, Lyon is famous for the sheer number of restaurants per head of population – over 4,000 in a city of 3 million people, 20 of them Michelin starred – and the number of chefs it has exported to the rest of the world. None is more famous than Paul Bocuse, the ‘inventor’ of nouvelle cuisine. It’s a concept which came to have a bad reputation for minuscule servings on absurdly large plates, but for Bocuse it simply meant a shift away from heavy traditional cooking toward lighter treatment of ingredients and a focus on simplicity. Quite radical at the time given the strictures of classical French cooking.
His influence stretched around the globe, in part because of the number of chefs who trained under him who went on to became famous themselves, and the chef training school he founded. His original and still running Lyon restaurant, now managed by his son, held 3 Michelin stars for a record unbroken 55 years. He died in 2018 in his bedroom above the restaurant, the same room where he had been born 91 years earlier.
There’s been a central market in Lyon since 1859. Originally on the Presqu’ile, the market was moved further downtown to purpose built premises in the 1970s. It was then extensively renovated in 2004 and named for the great man. Les Halles de Lyon: Paul Bocuse is a must-visit for foodies, full of delectable treats. There’s everything from the best butcher cuts, fresh and cured sausage, fresh fish and seafood, poultry and beautiful cheese.
There’s every kind of French bread, and of course, patisserie and cakes.
The chocolate creations are as much art as food, and look just too good to eat.
We spent quite some time meandering and drooling.
At the tip of Presqu’ile near the confluence of the Saone and the Rhone, a new precinct is being developed with museums, galleries and an exhibition centre. We came here to see an exhibition at La Sucriere, an art space dedicated to contemporary art. We have long been fans of Ron Mueck and Patricia Piccinini, two Australian sculptors from the hyperrealism school. The gallery had a temporary exhibition of hyperrealist works from many artists, including a few from them.
We’ve seen Mueck’s giant newborn before, but it never ceases to impress. At more than 1.8 metres long, the New York Times described A Girl as “the biggest human infant ever hatched”.
Other artists were equally impressive. Here’s a few of them. The last one is also by Mueck.
Freakiest of all was this intriguing piece. An image of the man’s face is projected onto the head from a projector hidden under the newspaper on his lap. An audio runs his side of a telephone conversation he is having using earbuds. The face really does appear to move, including facial twitches, wrinkling forehead, moving lips and eye movements in perfect synchronisation with what he is saying on the call. Mesmerising stuff.
And then to a different art form. Puppets. Laurent Mourget was born in Lyon in 1768 to a family of silk weavers. With the silk trade in the doldrums, he became instead a tooth puller. That’s a dentist without qualifications. But from childhood he also had a love of the theatre and puppets. He started with Punchinello puppetry but then developed his own specifically Lyonnaise characters.
We noticed a theatre with afternoon performances. John refused to go. He doesn’t share Julie’s fascination with puppets, and declared that given the time of day, it was likely to be a show for kids. He was correct about that. David and Julie thought ‘what the hell’ and went anyway. We were the only unaccompanied adults in the place.
Mourget’s puppets were three finger pocket puppets, and the three main characters in the show were his original characters. This show had some rod puppets as well. Note the big red nose signaling Gnafron’s drinking habit.
It was entirely in French and we had no clue what was going on. In the first scene the three characters appeared to binge drink, dance violently and then pass out. We wondered if that was suitable for kids. In the following scenes, Gnafron passed wind loudly, repeatedly and with much physicality every time he was on stage, much to the delight of the children. The whole thing seemed to have some kind of environmental/anti-plastic waste message. How that was related to the binge drinking or Gnafron’s flatulence was unclear. Despite these limitations, it was worth it to see the puppets. A little slice of Lyon history.