[As written for Travel Eye, hosted by The Huffington Post UK, December 2012]
I’m in Lyon for a weekend; a fleeting visit – which I know before it has started, won’t be long enough. Arriving early on a Saturday, the weather is grey and wet (well, we aren’t that far from home) and the sky is rumbling – it doesn’t look like there’ll be sunshine today. Normally, this would put me off on holiday. After all, I was looking forward to some Autumn sun by the peninsula (the Rhône and Saône rivers meet just south of the city). But even under a grey sky, Lyon looks incredible – and besides, this city is about far more than just the view.
Located in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, Lyon has, unfortunately, been unlucky in its positioning. Tourists can’t help but give in to the draw of the French capital, Paris, while those looking for better weather and countryside head straight down south to Marseille or Nice – which is the perfect gateway into the picturesque settings of Provence. This means Lyon gets overlooked time and time again. Even the Eurostar trains shoot right past while on their quest for blue skies and rolling hills, while city lovers don’t venture past the heart-shaped bubble that Paris offers.
I may have been one of those people. Over the years, I’ve popped over to France for numerous weekends away. As well as Paris, there’s been Reims, Mont Saint-Michel and even a brief dalliance with Calais. Yet, not once had I thought to stop off in Lyon – despite the fact it featured heavily in my Encore Tricolore French books at school.
I’m visiting now because of a dance festival, which is taking place this weekend. Frankly, it sounds awesome (my reason to be here), but now that I’ve arrived and taken in my first eyeful of this city, I can’t understand why I didn’t visit sooner. Lyon is beautiful… and standing high up on the Fourvière Hill, overlooking Vieux-Lyon, I’ve genuinely got a lump in my throat.
In front of me is a sea of old houses, churches, shops and museums; each boasting their own colourful shade. It looks pretty magnificent and realising I’m getting carried away with the photo-taking, my friend Emmanuelle says she’ll tell me all about her home city. “On y va,” she calls. And we’re off.
Vieux-Lyon, the city’s historic district, has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998 – and it’s not hard to see why. This part of the city, which sits at the foot of the famous Fourvière (“the hill that prays”), dates back 2,000 years, and everything remains as it did way back then. Standing proud on the hill is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Its bright white walls shine out like a beacon, and thanks to its prime position, it has become the symbol of Lyon.
It feels pretty grand standing up here, and Emmanuelle explains the reason for that. Fourvière was dedicated to the Virgin Mary by the Lyonnais, after she is said to have saved the city from a cholera epidemic in 1823. Each year, from the 6 to 9 December, Lyon gives thanks to her by lighting candles all throughout the city. This tradition has become known as the Festival of Lights.
And this is why December is a magical time to visit Lyon. Everyone comes out of their houses, to shine out their candles into the night. Lights are even shone onto buildings through huge projectors and the whole city spectacularly comes alive. I’ve already made up my mind to come back.
On the way down, we stop off at the gorgeous Villa Florentine for lunch. This hotel offers a special Renaissance charm, with a stunning terrace view of the city (albeit a view that we can’t make full use of today due to the rain). Grand Chef Davy Tissot cooks us up a treat, finishing the meal with delicious cheeses. Having eaten more than our bodyweight, we go for a little walk around the premises, and I get carried away at the sight of the rooftop pool overlooking the city. Then we head back down into town.
Back in the old days, when Lyon’s original silk manufacturers (canuts) were hard at work, there was an on-going problem of how to transport their products to the merchants. There were only few roads running parallel from the town down to the river Saône, where the merchants were, which meant it was a big task to move anything, anywhere. So some very clever Lyonnais folk built corridors directly through their buildings to connect the hill with the Saône River. They called them ‘traboules’ – a way of crossing through from street to street, without having to find the nearest road running in the right direction.
These little corridors came in handy for the locals in World War II too, because of course, no one else knew they existed – and today, many are still intact, now leading the way through apartment courtyards. Few are open to the public, but we find one that takes us through to the next street. It’s dimly lit and feels like a secret passage (which of course it was, back then). This is just another special piece of Lyon that can only be found if you dig around a bit.
There is so much to take in when it comes to Lyon’s history; Emmanuelle tells me of how the first ever film was made here by the Lumière Brothers in 1895. Their story is now told at the Musée Lumière and is a must-see for cinema lovers. At the church of Saint Francis of Sales, you’ll come face to face with a beautifully, large Cavaillé-Coll pipe organ which brings in visitors from all over the world. Even just taking in the vast openness of Place Bellecour, Lyon’s central square, is pretty special. Throughout the Croisse-Rousse (“the hill that works”) area you’ll find some splendidly colourful stepped-streets to meander through, and warm café’s offering comforting coffees and hot chocolate. Around every corner are Boris-style bikes for hire – a popular option with the Lyonnais.
Just south of the peninsula, industrial land is being converted into a huge new project – Lyon Confluence – which will see a whole array of restaurants, bars and shops open along the river front. The most enticing are the seafood barges. Of course, just strolling along the banks of Lyon’s two meeting rivers, the Rhône and Saône, is breath-taking.
Then, it was festival time. Every two years, the City puts on an incredible dance event called Biennial de la Danse which brings together artists and performers from all over the world. The whole thing is put together by famous choreographer Dominique Hervieu – and takes place across 30 Lyonnais theatres. 300,000 people show up each year to enjoy the three-week festival. This year, I’ve got a seat at the Japanese Delight show – and I spend an hour and half completely enthralled by hip-hip moves that have been weaved into an artistic form.
As I take in the performance, I notice how incredibly unifying this experience is. Extended families have come out together on a Saturday to see these shows; kids are open-mouthed at the talent they see before them, while parents and grandparents cuddle up and watch the spectacle unfold. It’s a far cry from my regular Saturday nights out in South London – and it’s really lovely. It’s a sense of community that I rarely encounter back home. I’m told this inspiring vibe will be resurrected for the Festival of Lights in December and then again in the Spring, when the Nuits Sonores electronic music festival kicks off and bring out the young crowds in their masses. I’m not an electro-music fan, but if the sense of community is anything like this, it’s definitely worth coming back for.
Having delved right into the spirit of this city, I spend my Sunday doing one of the best things a girl could do. Eating! Dinner last night was at a Bouchon, a traditional little Lyon restaurant which has the atmosphere of someone’s living room. There are also the Mères Lyonnaises – slightly more upmarket eateries serving delicious food the way maman would’ve cooked it.
Today, however, we’re going casual – and instead of opting for a sit-down meal, we head over to ‘Halles de Lyon: Paul Bocuse’ – an undercover food market in the heart of the city, which sells everything from fresh oysters and lobster to creamy cheeses and cooked meat. Chocolatiers will make your mouth water with their delicious offerings and there’s good wine on offer if you have the time.
There’s café-style service here too, so around every corner there’ll be friends catching up while grouped around a table, or a family get-together over some Lyonnais sausage and a glass of rouge.
The market is named after one of Lyon’s most famous chefs who often shops here for his dinner. Dotted around the place, you’ll find 56 stall owners who can tell you everything you need to know about their respective produce. I feel like I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything they have to offer and dramatically tell Emmanuelle that ‘I’m never eating again’.
Finally, as the rain clouds clear and make way for a simmering sunset, I say goodbye to this fantastic city. I’ve learnt so much about this place in a very short space of time, but there is far more to discover about Lyon.
As I head to the airport, I feel pretty blessed with my experience of Lyon. This is a city that is dripping with history, one which is encapsulated by romance and bubbling with spirit – and it does all of this naturally – without the power of an Eiffel Tower, champagne-producing wineries or a picture-perfect chateau.
What a wonderful, wonderful city.
Flights to Lyon with EasyJet start at approximately £110 return.
I stayed at Le College Hotel, which brings together the simplicity of classroom chic and a big comfortable bed. Rooms start at Euro125 per night.
To pre-book tours, visit www.lyon-france.com
PICTURE CREDIT: KAREN EDWARDS