Passerelle Saint-Vincent, Saône River - Lyon Tourism and conventions
By Euan Ferguson
If you're starting to suffer déjà vu from too many romantic weekends in Paris, then Lyon – a mere five hours from London by train – makes for a very respectable city break alternative
The English Riviera, The Venice of America, The Biarritz of the North. Towns and cities are forever trying to compare themselves to better-known destinations to lure in the tourists (that last one was North Berwick’s optimistic slogan in Victorian times). In Lyon, I lost count of the number of people who described their own city as ‘Paris on a smaller, more human scale’. They’re selling themselves short – the second biggest metropolitan area in France has charms aplenty of its own. The problem is, Brits love the French capital too much to see past it sometimes, conveniently ignoring the hordes of foreign visitors, unconquerable size and ready opportunities to get ripped off. But just two hours away on the TGV is a city that offers a completely different perspective on France, and a chance to validate any romantic and culinary Gallic stereotypes you might have. As in Paris, new building in Lyon has been confined to the outskirts in recent years, which might not do much for social integration but leaves a beautiful centre-ville rich in history and drama.
Lyon is far enough south to enjoy an almost Mediterranean climate and sits at the confluence of two great rivers, the Rhône and the Saône. The city’s expansion to the west and north has been limited by hilly topography, and to the south by industry, meaning it has spread slowly in one direction over two millennia.
It was established by the Romans in 43BC as Lugdunum, on the hill of Fourvière, and a well-preserved paired theatre and odeon, or auditorium (17 rue Cléberg), were excavated in the twentieth century (the banked theatre is used today for concerts). Here on the hill you'll also find the basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, an impressive structure completed in 1876 to thank the Virgin for the safe return of men from the Franco-Prussian War. The best approach is by foot through the peaceful Rosary Garden, although the more devout can climb the steep paths on hands and knees, proffering thanks to the various saints remembered in statuary along the route.
Clinging to the slopes of Fourvière is Vieux Lyon, with its ornate cathedrals and pink-stuccoed renaissance buildings rising high over a cobbled medieval street pattern. This Unesco World Heritage site is the most pleasant part of the city to wander around, although without a guided tour (from €10, book at the tourist office) you might miss some of its most fascinating aspects. Traboules are narrow passages that connect the old streets and often hide beautifully restored courtyards and sixteenth-century spiral staircases. Many are open to the public during the day, although as most are behind unmarked doors you need to know where to look.
Vieux Lyon (and the district of La Croix-Rousse to the north east) was the centre of the silk-weaving industry that tied the city so closely to renaissance Italy; it was from here that some of the 10,000 Protestant Huguenots fled to Britain following religious persecution in the seventeenth century. What was once a city-wide trade has shrunk to just nine practising canuts (Lyonnaise silk workers): you can visit a workshop at Soierie Saint-Georges (11 rue Mourguet, 69005 Lyon).
In the same area is a museum dedicated to another Lyon tradition: guignol, the hand-puppet shows copied by our own Punch and Judy. Guignol himself is often a silk-weaver, and his cast of pals includes Gnafron, a red-nosed gourmand whose picture graces the walls of all good bouchons (see below). The Musée des Marionette du Monde (1 place du Petit Collège, 04 78 42 03 61) also holds more than 2,000 puppets from around the world.
Further east, in the more modern Monplaisir area of the city, is the absorbing Institute Lumière (25 rue du Premier-Film, 04 78 78 18 95), on the site of the factory where the Lumiére brothers invented the cinématographe. As well as a history of cinema, the institute holds film screenings and the annual Festival Lumière – this year’s is October 3-9.
Lyon’s location gives it justification in calling itself the capital of gastronomy: it's north of Provence and Languedoc, west of the Alps, south of Burgundy and next-door neighbours with the viticultural strongholds of Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône (rustic products of the two are served in pots, usually 46cl). Famous dishes include charcuterie, pike quenelles with crayfish sauce and every kind of offal. The food is unquestionably rich: a typical side order in restaurants, usually served gratis, is macaroni gratin and sautéed potatoes. And salade Lyonnaise tempers the healthy qualities of its veg with lardons, croutons and a poached egg.
There are more than 1,800 places to eat out in Lyon; if you’re a diner dazzled by Michelin stars, the city has sixteen holders. The culinary king of the city is Paul Bocuse, whose eponymous three-star restaurant is just to the north of the city (40 rue de la Plage, Collonges au Mont d’Or, 04 72 42 90 90). Another of the most celebrated (one-star) addresses is Les Terrasses de Lyon (25 Montée Saint Berthélémy, 04 72 56 56 56), a light-filled room with the titular terraces offering fine views from Fourvière over the whole city. As part of a lunchtime tasting menu there I had risotto with truffle and pecorino, duck liver with port-soaked cherries, followed by one of the cleverest dishes I’ve had in a long time: calf’s brain with peas and bacon. I waved on the cheese trolley as by this point my own foie felt gras enough to be served as a delicacy itself, but the chocolate mousse with confit orange, on the other hand, couldn’t be ignored.
But it’s the genuine democracy of Lyonnaise dining that makes it so special. Particular to the city are its bouchons, small, family-run places with limited, changing menus of specialities and an informality that encourages locals to visit at least once a week. Some of the best include: the low-beamed and bustling Café Comptoir Abel (25, rue Guynemer, 69002 Lyon, 04 78 37 46 18); the long-established Daniel et Denise (off the tourist circuit at 156 rue de Créqui, 69003 Lyon, 04 78 60 66 53), where I ate lamb and cucumber terrine followed by boudin noir (black pudding) with apples; and the tiny Chez Georges (8 rue du Garet, 69001 Lyon, 04 78 28 30 46), a husband and-wife operation with her in the kitchen and him at the tables.
It’s easy in Lyon to get right to the heart of the culinary tradition and explore the markets that encapsulate all that’s superior about French attitudes to food. The east bank of the Saône around quai Saint-Antoine springs to life with stalls selling cured meats, fabulous local fruits (piles of cherries when I visited, €3.60 a kilo) and boulangerie. A modern building in Part-Dieu houses Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse (102 Cours Lafayette), a permanent market and tribute to the big man where stall after stall proudly shows off its impeccable produce. Look out for the sweetshop-pretty displays of crottins (goat’s cheese) and the improbably glamorous Madame Sibilia, who runs the best sausage stall in the market.
On December 8 (Feast of the Immaculate Conception, an important date in this religious city), the annual Festival of Lights is held. What began in 1852 with thousands of citizens putting candles in their windows now sees many important buildings lit up over four days in spectacular fashion.
Other events throughout the year include Les Nuìts de Fourviére (until July 30), a celebration of dance, theatre and music in the open-air Roman theatre, and Lyon is also close enough to Beaujolais (you'll need a car to visit some of the famous villages themselves) to host a proper Fête du Beaujolais Noveau: this year’s celebration of the young fruity wine is November 18.
By train, Eurostar takes 1hr 20 minutes from St Pancras International to Lille, followed by a relaxing three hours on the TGV to Lyon. You can also travel via Paris, with a transfer from Gare du Nord to Paris Gare de Lyon. Prices from Rail Europe (1 Regent St, London SW1Y 4XT, 0844 848 4070) start at £108 per person for the entire trip. You can also fly direct to Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport from London Gatwick and London Stansted airports with Easyjet, from London Heathrow with British Airways, and from Manchester with bmi.
With stunning views from Fourvière across the city, Villa Florentine, in a restored seventeenth-century convent, is a real treat. The terrace pool and Michelin-starred restaurant make the most of the hilltop position; rooms (from £225) have interesting historical features.
Buy Lyon City Cards (€21/€31/€41 per person for one/two/three days) offer free guided tours, including of Vieux Lyon, free entry to 18 museums, and unlimited travel – the calm and efficient metro is a pleasure to use. Buy City Cards and book accommodation via the Lyon Tourist Office.
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