Lyon is not at all like Paris. Just in case you were expecting something similar. A walking tour of Lyon Vieux is a glimpse of a medieval town that was not given the 19th-century makeover the French capital received (essentially to enhance authorities’ ability to control crowds and impose anti-revolutionary measures).
In Lyon, the authorities instead built elegant new city buildings on Presqu’ile – the point where the placid Rhone and the more volatile Saone rivers meet – leaving the old town unspoilt.
The result is that France’s third largest city is the biggest intact medieval/renaissance urbanisation in western Europe, and as a result bursting with character. It has been on the Unesco World Heritage Site list since 1998.
Before the medieval town, as in many places, was a Roman town. Lugdunum was a major trading hub in Roman Gaul and multiple Roman roads lead to Lyon. Subsequently, the Venetians and then the Florentines also found this an exceedingly convenient place to do business and Lyon became a treasure house of exotic goods from the east, coming via the Silk Roads.
Start your walking tour of Lyon in the place outside the Sant Jean Cathedral, a magnificent Gothic structure that took 300 years to build. To the side you can see the remains of the two preceding churches.
Look out for the glorious astronomical clock. This nine-metre-high reconstruction of an earlier clock was made in 1661 and includes an astrolabe showing the date and position of the moon, sun and stars. Automated figures such as angels, the Virgin Mary and a Swiss Guard appear and it also shows the story of Jesus.
Emerging from the cathedral, from the nearby Vieux Lyon Metro station take the funicular to the hilltop Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière for views over the whole city.
When you get back down head along to Rue Mourguet and take a look at one of Lyon’s famous silk ateliers – Silk Saint Georges. An important silk industry grew up in Lyon to satisfy the enormous appetite for the beautiful fabric, of which only two houses remain where you can see silk worms hard at work munching on mulberry leaves. If your budget allows you may be tempted by the exquisite scarves and other goods.
Then its time to plunge into the narrow streets of Lyon Vieux. You will quickly notice the unusual colour scheme of the buildings. The warm pinks and ochres are a reminder of the Tuscan merchants who prospered here in the Middle Ages. There are even a few Tuscan-style arches and towers on the mansions.
The most fascinating element of Lyon Vielle is exploring the ‘traboules’, a rabbit warren of tunnels and passageways connecting courtyards that lead through the town and down to the riverside.
The word comes from ‘trans ambulare‘ – latin for ‘to cross’ – and they were built in the aftermath of the Roman empire as citizens built new homes on the river bank after the Roman aqueducts failed and needed to fetch water from the river. They were also used to transport goods and materials for industries such as the silkmakers. Look out for the shield-shaped bronze plaques that mark the entrances.
La Longue Traboule is obviously the longest traboule in Lyon. Follow it from the entrance on Rue Sant Jean, through four houses to Rue du Boeuf. On this street you will find the most famous Traboule de la Tour Rose, with its lovely warm colours and pink Renaissance watchtower with its beautiful spiral staircase.
For centuries they were used by people to fetch water from the river and then by craftsmen and traders to transport their goods. By the 18th century they were invaluable to what had become the city’s defining industry: textiles, especially silk.
Finally, continue through the narrow streets of Lyon Vieux, heading north and east towards the river, looking out for the medieval guild signs above the chic shops.
Cross the river by the Passerelle Saint Vincent bridge. Lyon is famous for its murals or street art, many of which really capture something of the vibrant uniqueness of this city.
The most famous is just across the bridge on Place Saint Vincent. At first glance this building on which La Fresque des Lyonnais is painted ooks quite ordinary, apart from the many people hanging out on their balconies. But as you approach you see that it is a mural painting.
It features many famous people who have hailed from Lyon. From journalists and chefs to artists, poets, scientists, and more. The one I recognised immediately was Antoine St De-Exupery, the author of the wonderful The Little Prince.
Why plan a Lyon city break?
Apart from the fascinating history of Vieux Lyon, the city is also famed for its gastronomy. Eating is at the heart of life in Lyon and you will find exquisite boulangerie/patisserie and excellent restaurants serving delicious plat du jour everywhere. The city does boast over 20 Michelin stars. Washed down with a carafe of wine from the nearby Beaujolais region of course (a perfect day trip from Lyon).
Lyon also has a vibrant cultural calendar. Some events hosted by the city, such as the spectacular Fête des Lumières (December) to the Nuits Sonores electronic music festival (May), are simply amazing.
Enjoy your walking tour of Lyon!
By Natasha von Geldern
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