A Stroll Through 2,000 Years of History in Lyon
By Michele Reed
Photos by Bill Reed
In the great French city of Lyon, history is around every corner. Wearing a new scarf that evoked hundreds of years of silk-making history, and with stomachs full of traditional Lyonnais foods that made it the gastronomic capital of Europe, we set out on a stroll to discover 2,000 years of history in Lyon.
We were staying on the Presqu’Isle, a peninsula nestled between the city’s two rivers, the Saone and the Rhone. Around the corner from our hotel was the Place Bellecour. At 62,000 square meters or 15 acres, it is the largest pedestrian square in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Romans used the area for military activities, and in 1708, Louis XIV made it a royal square. At its center stands an equestrian statue of King Louis, which was destroyed during the French Revolution but later replaced.
Nearby is the Cloche, a free-standing bell tower from 1666, and originally part of the city’s charity hospital. It looked different in every light — golden in the mid-day sun, backlit by the rose and violet of the sunset, and illuminated against the night sky, it became a beacon for us signaling that we were “home at last” to our hotel after our many walkabouts.
From almost anywhere in Lyon, we could look up and see the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, a 19th-century structure high on a hill overlooking the entire city. It was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who the people believed saved the city from the bubonic plague in 1643. To celebrate this, every Dec. 8, they light candles in a dramatic four-day Festival of Lights.
The basilica was built on the site of the old Roman forum of Trajan. The Roman settlement in Lyon dates from 43 B.C. The forum ruins are open to the public, and you can explore them on your own, climbing among the columns and stones of the ancient historic site.
From Presqu’Isle, we crossed the pedestrian bridge to Vieux Lyon, or the Old Town, home to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, begun in 1180 on the ruins of a 6th-century church. We marveled at its 14th-century astronomical clock.
Traboules, or covered passageways, link buildings in the Old Town. They were originally made so that silk makers could carry their wares sheltered from the elements. Now they are tourist attractions with guides to lead visitors through the covered maze.
And when the silk industry fell on hard times during the French Revolution, it spawned another creation that made Lyon famous. An out-of-work silk maker created puppets, starring a main character, Guignol. Wandering around the Old Town we came upon the Guignol Theatre featuring puppet shows and a museum devoted to the famous puppets.
On one adventure we were surprised to see the famous people of Lyon’s history looking out of balconies at us, including Antoine de Saint-Exupery, posing beside his creation “The Little Prince,” and the Lumiere Brothers, pioneer filmmakers. It was a mural, one of many celebrating the city’s past. On the wall of the city library is another, depicting many of the books written by residents of Lyon, the site of the first French printing center and the first printed book in France.
Around another corner is the Bartholdi Fountain, sculpted by the famed creator of the Statue of Liberty. He originally designed the fountain for the city of Bordeaux, but they decided it was too expensive. So Bartholdi sold it instead to the city of Lyon. The 1892 fountain depicts France as a woman driving a chariot pulled by four wild horses, representing the four main rivers of France. We were lucky to see it. It was removed in 2015 for a 2.75-million-euro restoration, and only re-installed months before our arrival.
With all this history, it may seem that Lyon is stuck in the past. Not so. A newer section of Lyon brings us right to the 21st century, where brightly colored modern structures stand a stone’s throw from all that history. The Confluence was conceived to be ecologically sound and also socially conscious. A certain percentage of residences were set aside for lower income people, who share the neighborhood with businesses and more affluent residents.
There’s so much history and legend in Lyon, that three days was not enough to take it all in. We made a promise to ourselves to visit again, when we can spend more time exploring the city’s history and enjoying its gastronomic delights.