VIEWS OF VIEUX LYON
Founded by the Romans in 43BC Lyon has a 2,000 year history that’s still visible today in the city’s architecture and cultural heritage. Walking around Vieux Lyon today we saw everything from Roman ruins to Medieval homes; from Gothic cathedrals to Renaissance palaces. Very few cities in the world boast such diversity in their cityscape, and such a beautiful setting as Lyon. After another day of exploring the sights we are absolutely loving this town!
Following yesterday’s scorching heat the prediction was for today to be even hotter; keen to escape the worst of the late summer sun we decided to set an alarm for 6:00am so that we could have our exploring done before the hottest part of the day. As hard as it was to get ourselves out of bed at that early hour, it was worth it, not just for the decidedly cooler temperatures at that time of day, but also for the sheer joy of seeing Lyon painted golden by the morning sun.
Our goal for today was to cross the River Saône and explore Vieux Lyon, the oldest part of town. Not far into our walk we were fortunate enough to stumble across one of the ubiquitous morning markets that are so popular here in France. Fresh fish sat alongside home made bread, salami, and cheese; and stall after stall of fresh flowers, fruit, and vegetables helped welcome the morning with colour. Even at that early hour of the day there were a few shoppers about, filling their baskets with supplies for the next 1-2 days*.
*Unlike Aus, where most people shop once a week and rely on preservatives and freezers to keep their food “fresh” for the week, most French people prefer to shop almost daily. It’s something I remember my grandmother doing in Italy too and seems to be integral to the Southern European approach to food, where fresh and seasonal ingredients are prized, and dishes are prepared from scratch (rather than coming out of a packet).
Passing through the market we crossed into Vieux Lyon proper, which is classified is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here we wandered through the still-sleeping streets, admiring the mix of Medieval and Renaissance buildings. Beneath some of these streets, we knew, were hidden tunnels and lanes. Known as traboules these tunnelled passageways were originally built to facilitate the transport of silk cloth between workshops and shop fronts, helping them stay dry even in rainy weather. The tunnels were also used by the French Resistance during the World War II German occupation of Lyon. Today the traboules are hidden under the courtyards of buildings and inside homes; some of them are open for viewing but you need to knock on people’s doors so they can give you access to the tunnels. Given the early hour we decided NOT to wake people up for the sake of our exploring and instead focussed our attentions on the sights above ground.
Of the many churches scattered around Vieux Lyon the most significant are Lyon Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint Jean Baptiste de Lyon) and the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière. Lyon Cathedral is the older of these two, dating back to 1476 (part of it was rebuilt in the 19th century). Until the construction of the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, it was the pre-eminent church in Lyon.
The OTHER significant church in Lyon is the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière. It’s huge and sits right at the top of Fourvière hill – you can’t miss it as its prominent position means it’s visible from all over Lyon. Getting up to see the Basilica is usually just a matter of jumping on the funicular train that climbs up the 300m hill in just 6 minutes. When we got to the funicular station however it was cordoned off and there were 3 or 4 fire trucks around. Knowing that didn’t bode well, we crossed our fingers and asked what was going on. Turns out there was a fire in the building above the funicular station last night and the train wasn’t going to be running until they sorted the mess out. Which meant the only way you the hill for us was the old fashioned way: foot power. The hike up was rather more arduous than we expected, but the views from the top were spectacular! We could see all the way across to Presqu’île, Croix Rousse hill, and beyond to the modern city of Lyon.
The walk up Fourvière hill was absolutely worth it, not just for the views, but also for the church we saw up there. The Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière is one of the most beautiful churches we have seen, and was so incredibly peaceful (we had the place to ourselves). Not since the Church of Spilled Blood in St Petersburg have we seen a church so ornately decorated and richly adorned.
Built with private funds in 1884 between the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is said to have saved the city of Lyon from the bubonic plague, the Black Death, that was sweeping Europe in 1643. The Virgin is also credited with saving the city a number of other times, such as from a cholera epidemic in 1832, and Prussian invasion in 1870. Unsurprisingly this stunning edifice has become an iconic symbol of Lyon.
We were mesmerised by the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière and would have happily spent more time there, except 6 bus loads of snowy haired tourists* descended on the church at around 10:00am, and that was it, we were outta there! Down the hill we went, towards out last site for the day: the Roman Amphitheatre of Lyon.
*Turns out they were all on a “shore excursion” to Lyon for the day from their Viking river cruise ship. The joy of mass tourism hey?
Lugdunum, the name given to Lyon by the Romans, was officially founded in 43BC. It’s location at the confluence of 2 major rivers meant Lugdunum quickly grew into an important centre. Lyon became the capital of Roman Gaul in 69AD and had a population of 80,000 people by 192AD. To keep all these people entertained a large amphitheatre was built. Able to seat 10,000 people the Amphithéâtre des Trois Gaules, as it became known, was the first place in the world Christians were thrown to lions (literally). Nowadays there are no fights to the death or maimings, though occasionally the theatre is still used as a cultural venue. When we were there today there were preparations being made for a classical music concert that’s being held there tonight.
After exploring the Roman ruins around Fourvière hill we resolved to head back down the hill and across the river to Presqu’île. About half way down the hill Shane had a major shoe malfunction – seems his Birkenstock sandals were only good for 1.5 million steps*. Next stop was, therefore, a shoe shop that stocked replacement footwear. Can’t have Shane walking around unshod can we?!
*As I’ve mentioned before my husband is somewhat obsessed with the phone app he has which records how many steps we take every day and the distances we travel. Seems we hit the 1,500,000 steps (for this trip) yesterday.
After a leisurely lunch at one of the city’s many bouchons*, we decided to call it a day and go hide from the day’s heat in our hotel room….. Which is where we are still, waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon and the temperature to ease below 30C so we can venture out to enjoy a bit more of lovely Lyon!
*A bouchon is a uniquely Lyonnaise type of restaurant that specialises in traditional, rustic fare unique to the region. Some of the offerings tend to be a little TOO “unique” for us (think spiced lamb’s brains served cold, tripe cooked with oodles of onion, etc), but much of the food here in just plain delicious! Rich, but tasty. Mind you we are a bit concerned that, between croissants and pain-au-chocolate for breakfast and rich French food for dinner, we’re going to be waddling out of this country in a few weeks’ time!