Lyon, France has been called many things over the years including “Gateway to the Alps,” “City of Gastronomy,” “Cuisine Capital of the World,” “Silk Capital of the World,” the and “Birthplace of Cinema.” As France’s second city by size, its past embraces a cultural vibrancy reflecting 2,000 years of history including Roman and Renaissance periods.
Funny thing is that Lyon is probably France’s best-kept secret. Only the French seem to know and appreciate its very French-style of living – one that embraces food, a rich culture, art, fashion, family, and everything French. It is urbanely elegant and sophisticated while having gained temporary immunity from requisite t-shirt shops that beleaguer other popular cities.
I came to Lyon on an included tour on Viking’s “France’s Finest” cruise and had a dock-side bed for three nights in this vibrant place. Strategically positioned at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône Rivers, Lyon has a long history of being a leading city in commerce, banking, and cuisine: the city is also the harbinger of change, having been the center of the French Revolution and where many resistance meetings took place during World War II.
Here, you’ll experience ancient Roman ruins, cobbled alleys and secret passageways of Renaissance-era architecture, quality museums, outdoor murals, and world-famous restaurants. You will also discover that everyone seems to ride a bike, so much so that pedestrians need to look before they walk. My experience is that bikes seem to have the right of way.
Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière
From a top a crowning hill overlooking the city and its two rivers the Rhône and Saône, sits the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière – a late-19th-century French ecclesiastical basilica. With four octagonal towers and crenellated walls, the white marble façade appears more fortress-like than heavenly-inspired. While the exterior may be somewhat austere, the inside showcases a contrasting richness with Byzantine mosaics and frescos that come alive with color when bathed in light.
The Basilica is the symbol of Lyon and the most visited attraction; it only makes sense that it is visible from almost anywhere in the city.
After marveling at the intricate ceilings, step outside to enjoy the panoramas of Lyon from the terrace. Then check out the Roman theater on your way back. Though some hike the distance from the city center to the hill top, be forewarned it is long and arduous.
Traditional Lyonnais cuisine
Since the historical city is strategically sandwiched between the Burgundy and Provence regions, the place draws on a wide swath of farm fresh products – embracing the best of wine, fresh produce and meats to lavender, olive oil and herbs. Together, these regional products help create very distinctive Lyonnais specialties.
The best way to sample Lyonnais cuisine is in a bouchon – a casual restaurant that serves traditional, rustic Lyonnaise cuisine such as blood sausage and St. Marcellin cheese at very reasonable prices.
One of France’s most famous chefs is Chef Paul Bocuse. Hailing from Lyon, Bocuse is known as the founder of a style of cooking known as nouvelle cuisine. By emphasizing fresh ingredients of the highest quality, he mastered the use of simpler recipes that emphasized natural flavors and textures. “It is this honesty, this taste of the measure, I like to find in an honest and healthy Lyonnaise dish,” said Bocuse. And though his recipes generally avoid the use of heavy cream and butter sauces, he is also known to have said: “Without butter, without eggs, there is no reason to come to France.”
La Fresque des Lyonnais
At the corner of 2 rue de la Martinière and 49 Quai Saint Vincent, close to the banks of the river Saône. lies a wonderful building with seven-storied walls painted full of intricate details and surprises. Figures and scenes in La Fresque des Lyonnais are so realistic, one needs to pause, look again, and think twice. That is what it is all about: it deceives the eye by creating the illusion of seeing reality.
The fresco technique used is one where paint is applied to freshly laid plaster, allowing it to dry as one integral piece. Painted in 1994/1995 by 80 mural artists known as Citè Crèation, the group is responsible for nine other murals found in Lyon. However, this particular one has become one of the city’s star attractions. A total of 31 famous people from Lyon and the surrounding area are depicted on the seven-story mural – 25 are historical figures with six who are contemporary people and citizens of Lyon.
Look and see if you can find some of the notables. They include:
Author/aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-44) (Le Pétit Prince)
Puppet Guignol and his inventor Laurent Mourguet
Socialite Madame Juliette Récamier (1777-1849)
Lumière brothers (pioneers of cinema) 1862-1954)
Bookshop and journalist Bernard Pivot (born 1935)
Abbé Pierre and Bernard Lacombe, former soccer player
Director, producer, and actor Bertrand Tavernier (born 1941)
Loom inventor Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752–1834)
Renaissance poet Maurice Scève (1499–1560)
Superstar chef Paul Bocuse (born 1926)
Renaissance poet Louise Labé (1520-1566)
Author Frédéric Dard (1921-2000)
Vieux Lyon is so revered that it has been declared a UNESCO World heritage site. Containing one of the world’s largest Renaissance neighborhoods – second only to Venice – the oldest district in Lyon is meant to wander and ramble about if you really want to appreciate the ingenuity of the times.
Cobblestone streets run parallel to the river, connected by secret covered passageways hidden behind inconspicuous doors. Called traboules, more than 200 of them run through hidden courtyards and spiral staircases. So deceptive were they to non-townsfolk that during World War II, the place was a haven for resistance fighters. Many strategic meetings took place in secreted areas safe from the prying eyes of the Nazis.
Save time to shop the many boutique and artisanal stores. Local products range from handmade soaps and sachets of lavender from Provence to artisan crafted-candies and chocolates special to the region. Then try a traditional bouchon lunch. Only then can you say you have experienced Lyon.
Written by and Photos by Karin Leperi for EuropeUpClose.com