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A Lion in Lyon


In August, the French like to abandon Paris to the tourists.  You can easily do the same.  Just grab one of the hourly high-speed, double-decker trains at the Gard du Lyon station.  The train whisks you south (at 300 KPH) through a fractured sea of green fields and pastures full of small white cattle, and tiny villages of rough-cut stone and red tile.  In two hours you arrive in Lyon, the ancient capital of Roman Gaul. 

Lyon Basilica

The sudden arrival from Paris may induce a brief fit of disappointment, if not outright shock.  The jarring stone-and-glass cubism of Lyon’s Part-Dieu station and the nearby Galleries Lafayette bears little resemblance to Paris’s magnificent empire architecture.  The central and southern parts of downtown Lyon look like a faded 1960s vision of what the future is supposed to look like.  The buildings are stark frames of steel, glass and stone skins.  Many of them are surrounded by sterile, empty spaces that pedestrians seem to avoid.  I was tempted to get on the next Paris-bound train.

Fortunately, Lyon is saved from its architectural present by its architectural past: Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon).  The old part of the city sits on the last finger of land separating the Rhône and the Saône rivers (the 2nd arrondissement of the city).  Vieux Lyon extends across the Saône’s western bank (5th arrondissement) and up the Fourvière Hill.  This part of the city looks like the Old World Europe everyone comes to see.  There are beautiful old buildings with red tiled tops, cobblestone streets, outdoor cafes and ancient churches.  There are also Roman ruins, some of which are still in use.

Place Bellecour

The Romans established Lyon (then called Lugdunum, the hill of light) in the middle of the first century B.C.  It was the capital of the three Gauls (France, the Rhineland and the Iberian peninsula) and remained an important city until the fall of the Empire.  The Romans are gone now, but they left behind a well-build amphitheater that still attracts summertime entertainers and audiences.  Other evidence of the Romans’ long occupation can be seen in the Musee de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine on the hillside (in the 5th arrondissement). 

At the top of the Fourvière Hill, and closer to the present, is the 19th century Basilica Notre Dame de Fourviere.  In a warm summer drizzle, I walked up the steep road toward the Basilica and then cut across the front of the hillside.  (There’s a trolley station nearby too.)  A footpath winds through gardens (Jardins du Rosaire) and a stand of trees.  Walking along the cool forest path, I found a wall and a staircase leading up to the Basilica’s grounds and the overlook.  At night, the Basilica is an impressively lighted landmark, but during the day this one-hundred-year-old edifice is not as interesting as the medieval cathedral of St. Jean below or even the modern gray-blue telecommunications tower standing beside it.  Most people probably come up here for the view.  Looking east you can see the two rivers, old Lyon below, and the extent of modern Lyon. 

It is a small city with an easy to use subway and trolley network.  (In keeping with the 60s futurism, the egg-shaped trams look like leftover props from Woody Allen’s movie, Sleeper.)  It’s also a town for the young and the educated.  There are five universities and enough motorcycle and scooter shops to supply the wanderlust needs of all the local students.  The intellectual atmosphere probably attracted a number of biotech and pharmaceutical companies to Lyon.  The famous Institut Pasteur has an outpost here, as does the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO).  France’s only “hot lab” for studying deadly pathogens like the Ebola virus is here too.   

I came to Lyon for the hot lab and the WHO offices, but the more reasonable traveler will probably come for the culture, the Roman ruins and the food.  Flying into Paris, the Air France stewardesses assured me the food in Lyon was even better than in Paris, but my fast-food-damaged palate couldn’t detect any differences between the two.  All of it was good.  Strolling along the narrow Rue Mercière is like passing through a gauntlet of small restaurants and outdoor cafes.  Each seems more interesting and tempting than the last.  One block west is a modern footbridge over the Saône River to the Vieux Lyon neighborhoods and another cluster of outstanding restaurants and cafes.  The “Hill of Light” is also the city of walking and eating.

Roman Theatre, still in use

On weekends, residents sleep late behind sun-shuttered windows, and in August most of them disappear entirely.  (You can find them in Spain and Italy.)  By the afternoon, those remaining in town head for the huge park, Parc de la Tete d’Or, between the Rhône and the northern end of the city.  The winding paths and sidewalks make it a great place to jog and bike.  Just remember to behave in the park.  For some reason Interpol, the European police agency, has its headquarters at the northern end of the park on the Quai Charles de Gaulle. 

During the French Revolution, radicals decided the city was too royalist so they erased it from the maps, saying, “Lyon n’est plus” (Lyon is no more).  Travelers should ignore that piece of history and be sure to put Lyon on their travel maps.

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