When you visit Lyon you have certain expectations. Medieval architecture, the famous traboules (the covered alleyways which lead from narrow street to narrow street), silk weavers and outstanding cuisine were top of my list. But Lyon is a complex city with a pleasantly schizophrenic personality, a series of architectural contradictions and compelling ancestors that tease you into puzzling together its eclectic past.
The obvious starting point when discovering Lyon is the grand and elegant Fourvière Cathedral with its impressive mosaics, which keeps watch proudly over the city. That’s not through any sense of religious duty but because it offers fantastic views over the streets below and even Mont Blanc on a clear day, as well as having a scale model of the city, making it one of the best places to get your bearings before you explore the city’s secrets.
A dash of Roman
Perhaps if I’d read my guide book more carefully I wouldn’t have been quite so surprised as I climbed the Fourvière hill, to stumble upon the wonderfully preserved Roman amphitheatre, parts of which date back as far as 15 BC and stretch across the slopes of the Fourvière hill above the city and its two rivers.
Like so many southern towns, it’s a reminder that Lyon was of major strategic importance to the Romans and was a thriving and sophisticated community which set the bench mark for its status today. The smaller theatre was once home to opera, debates, artists and intellectuals and kept an eye on by the grand houses of the governors above, it’s not hard to image the rural beauty of the yet to be developed valleys below which they would have enjoyed. And it’s equally not hard to imagine (perhaps through the amused eyes of an Asterix fan), the probably less organised settlement of the Gaules who lived on the adjacent slopes of what is now the Croix Rousse (and where you’ll also find the vividly named Ampitheatre des Trois Gaules).
Today the amphitheatre has reverted to type and is open to the public as well as being home to the summer festival Les Nuits des Fourvière, which echoes the past by celebrating dance, theatre, music and opera. But for me, its pleasure was in walking in the thousand year old footsteps of its inhabitants and trying to see the changed landscape through their eyes.
The Italian influence
The Italians seem to have had a love affair with Lyon and the renaissance architecture and muted ochres and pinks of the rendering, along with the occasional unexpected but elegant tower in Vieux Lyon, tell of their influence when they returned in the 15th and 16th century. Once again, you’re transported back in time to colourful Italian merchants, unloading their imported silks and bringing with them their exotic and sophisticated culture. Lyon’s inhabitants included the illustrious Medici family and long after they’ve left, the love affair with all things Italian lingers on and the flavours and sense of their presence remain everywhere.
A spoon full of puppetry
The history of the silk weavers of Lyon is well documented and you can visit the Maison des Canuts and the Atelier de Solierie to get a sense of the trade’s past, present and an understanding of the city’s love of bright colours, fabrics and architecture. Tall buildings are a reminder of the Jacquard loom which they had to accommodate and narrow traboule speak of silk weavers carrying heavy cloth down the steep hill to the grand merchant’s houses below.
But there was one silk weaver with a peculiar talent and his presence is everywhere. Impoverished, Lauren Mourget took to the streets as a dentist pulling teeth for a living and to lure clients in, he also set up a puppet show. By 1804 the show was a roaring success and his first character Polichinelle, was the inspiration behind Punch of Punch and Judy fame. But his most renowned character by far was Guignol, who played out a cheeky social satire of the times and was the inspiration behind Paris’ Grand Guignol.
There are still three puppet theatres in Vieux Lyon as well as the International Puppet Museum for those that are intrigued rather than unnerved by these charismatic characters. But it’s the street signs, painted windows and trompe d’oeil that really hint at quite how much puppetry has woven itself into the fabric of Lyon’s culture.
But it’s not all about the past
If you think you’re getting a sense of the city’s eclectic personality with its cobbled narrow streets and ancient past then it’s time to visit the Confluence district which sits in the south of the peninsula between the rivers Rhône and Saône. Undergoing a massive regeneration, if you haven’t visited this part of Lyon in the last few years, be prepared for change on a huge scale. Originally a chaotic development of industry, dockyards, workers houses and a gaol, since 2008 a team of architects from across the world have been commissioned to design blocks of energy efficient, progressive and dynamic housing and offices and to re-invigorate the area’s old industrial docks.
The result is an enigmatic juxtaposition of styles. Buildings like the Orange Cube (a 7 storey office building clad in perforated orange aluminium with what might be described as a large mouthful taken out of one side), smile across the River Saône at grand old 18th century country houses dripping with wisteria. You’ll find the marina with its pretty array of yachts and houseboats which spill out down the banks of the river, basking in the shade of 22nd century housing blocks. And you’ll find bulging buildings and apartments that look like giant blocks of stacked silver Lego, towering over aquatic gardens and the sound of spring frog song.
As you head south, the vast and gritty silos and warehouse of the old sugar factory have been turned into a trendy exhibition centre with a roof top events venue, and the pretty pergolas hanging with wisteria over an outside restaurant, are in fact the remnants of the steel frame and concrete structure of a former salt factory. Where not so long ago, there were dirty tramways to the docks, now you’ll find sleepy riverside esplanades with fantastic views of the lush green banks on the other side. Until finally at the point where the two rivers converge, the area is crowned by the Musée des Confluences, described by my guide as a complex and geometrical cloud of glass, concrete and steel.
Lyon’s personality is not straightforward and you’ll find the clues to explaining it everywhere. A few days to explore only really show you the tip of what makes it tick but what my trip taught me was that Lyon is traditional, innovative, multicultural and distinctively French. And if you like diversity, then it’s also utterly irresistible.