WHERE THE RHONE MEETS THE SAONE STANDS LOVELY LYON
Lyon straddles the confluence of 2 of Europe’s biggest rivers (the Rhône and the Saône), and is known as a gastronomic capital of France. It is also the birthplace of cinema*, home to some of France’s best preserved Roman ruins, and its old town (Vieux Lyon) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the capital of the Rhone-Alpes region and the third largest city in France; it is also our home-away-from-home for the next few days. We’re here to explore the city and its many sights, and enjoy some of its culinary and artistic delights, starting today with a walking tour through the heart of the city: Presqu’île.
*It was here that Auguste and Louis Lumière, originally from Besancon, first showed the world the cinematographe.
We arrived in Lyon around lunch time after a very scenic train journey from Dijon. The views as we moved South towards Lyon were all of rolling hills, cute little French villages, fields of ripening corn, and expanses of tilled soil lying fallow now until spring. All very picturesque, especially given how sunny the day was.
Arriving into Lyon’s Part Dieu station we looked at the map and decided to forgo the tram and walk the 2km to our hotel. BAD IDEA. It was stupidly hot and by the time we reached our auberge, we were sweaty and tired. Imagine our JOY then when we discovered that our hotel is in a lovely old building, oozing character and charm but with NO ELEVATOR – and our room is on the fifth floor (with great views)! Luckily we were able to check in straight away and, after a quick bower* and a change of clothes, were refreshed and on our way for the afternoon.
*Bath + Shower = Bower. It’s the only option you have in some European hotels where your bathing facilities consist of a bath with a shower nozzle that you can move around and spray yourself with, but no shower attachment or place to affix said shower nozzle while you stand underneath. It’s a bit like the human equivalent of a bird bath.
We started our walking tour in Presqu’île (French for “peninsula”), the area we’re staying in and the heart of Lyon. Presqu’île is a finger of land that sits between the Rhône and the Saône rivers; as one of the older parts of Lyon its streets are lined with 18th and 19th century palazzos and there’s a preponderance of cafés, restaurants, shops, banks, government buildings, cultural institutions, and historical buildings. It’s a beautiful area and, for the centre of a big city*, has a lovely, laid back vibe to it.
*Lyon’s city centre has a population of about 500,000; and its greater metropolitan area is home to about 2 million people.
Looking across the River Saône we could see the buildings of Vieux Lyon (we’re going to explore that side of the river tomorrow), and its grand churches.
North of Presqu’île, between the two rivers, we could see the red roofs of La Croix Rousse (i.e. The Red Cross – named after the red marble Christian cross erected there in the 15th century). This hilltop neighbourhood was once home to the silk workers (known as canuts) whose work made Lyon wealthy in the 16th to 19th centuries. Lyon was the centre of silk manufacture in Europe for many years and some silk weaves still ply their trade, working from workshops up in La Croix Rousse. We decided to forgo a visit to the silk weavers district as we’re not really in the market for any silk scarves or the like – silk isn’t really that useful when you’re traveling! Still, the views across the red roof tops was quite spectacular.
Our walking tour took us through Place Bellecour, Lyon’s large central square. Surrounded by beautiful old buildings this large expanse is centred around a 19th century equestrian statue of King Louis XIV. It’s all very grand, though unbearably hot in the baking afternoon sun.
Given the heat we didn’t linger in Place Bellecour, but found a quiet place to shelter around the fringes of La Place des Célestins. Named after the religious Order of the Celestines, the square was nice and cool, and proved to be a great place to grab a late lunch. We enjoyed some lovely views of the square and Le Théâtre des Célestins over an easy meal of salad and pizza.
After lunch we stopped by the Place des Jacobins, a square named for its central statue which is dedicated to Saint James and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (Jacobus in Latin).
Further on w ecame across the 14th century Church of Saint Nizier. Named after Nicetius of Lyon, a bishop of the city during the 6th century, this is one of Lyon’s oldest churches.
Continuing on we got to see Le Opéra Nouvel (the New Opera House), and Lyon’s city hall. The Hôtel de Ville de Lyon is one of the largest historic buildings in the city, and dates back to 1645.
By this stage all the stunning architecture and grand buildings were wearing us down, especially given the thermometer had topped 35C. Seeking respite from the heat we jumped at the chance to explore the nearby Musée des Beaux Arts, the city’s premier (air conditioned) museum and art gallery. Housed in a former 17th century Benedictine convent the museum/gallery has collections ranging from ancient Egyptian antiquities to the Modern art pieces. We happily spent a couple of (cool) hours wandering through the museum, admiring the life-like sculptures (being able to make marble look so ALIVE is truly a gift!) and paintings from artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso.
We left the museum as it was shutting its doors, glad to find the temperature outside had dropped a modicum. A stroll by the river brought us back to our hotel where we once again climbed the 5 flights of stairs to reach our room before collapsing in a sweaty heap after our day’s exploring. Lyon is so beautiful and there’s so much to see and do! Join us tomorrow for more from one of France’s most enticing cities…