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Lyon, France: Past to Present

When I say Romans, Gauls, Christians and Murals… you say Lyon. Romans, Gauls, Christians and Murals: Lyon. Romans, Gauls.. you get the picture.

Now that I’ve got your attention…

We began a three week early-spring trip to the southeast of France in Lyon which sits at the intersection of the Rhône and Saone rivers. This area has been inhabited since prehistoric times and the Roman Empire saw the value of this strategic location and its proximity to two rivers. As such, when visiting Lyon for the first time, where to begin? With some Roman ruins of course.

The Amphitheater of Lugdunum

Atop the Fourviere Hill behind Vieux Lyon sits the former center of the settlement of Lugdunum. We strolled amidst the amphitheaters and then visited the well worth it (can’t emphasize this enough, well worth it) museum. Inside, you’ll find artifacts from the Iron Age, the Roman settlements, religious relics from the Roman age and early tombstones from the beginnings of the Christians in these parts. But the mosaics… the mosaics are worth the price of admission by themselves. Take some time to roam around the ruins as well and take it all in toga or not.

Traversing through time from the Roman era we continued further uphill to the Basilique Notre Dame which overlooks Vieux Lyon and the rivers and city beyond. This magnificent church has come to be a symbol of Lyon itself. Inside, the six 50 square meter mosaics on the walls are, in keeping with those of the earlier Roman era, stunning. We returned to Vieux Lyon, down the hill through the Parc des Hauteurs amidst lunchtime exercisers running the opposite direction.

Baslique atop Fourviere Hill

Over the river Saone we went and up to the neighborhood of Croix Rousse. We concluded our day one tour with the very contemporary mural of Canuts. First painted as a tribute to the city’s silk weaving tradition in 1987, it was updated to reflect neighborhood changes ten years later and again in 2013 to reflect further updates and age the subjects in the mural. We concluded with a sip of vin rouge overlooking the river as the sun set behind the basilique to the west.


On day two, our planned walking tour was canceled when our hosts tested positive for COVID. Leaving us to ourselves, we explored the city further, crossing the Rhône into the very urban Part Dieu neighborhood. Crossing into Part Dieu is almost like crossing into an entirely different city. We meandered through the halls of the Les Halles food court which is much like the Mercado in Barcelona and similar to but better than the Time Out markets we’ve visited. Afterwards, we turned north for Lyon’s Central Park, Le Parc Tete d’Or. It’s expansive, with a zoo, large lake with boats to rent and a botanical garden. Mid-week in pre-spring, it was mostly filled with lunchtime runners and families visiting the zoo as the crocuses and daffodils were blooming but much of the rest was still immersed in winter.

On our last day, we went to the Museum of Fine Art of Lyon near the Place des Terreaux square. We began with the temporary exhibition which was called “A La Mort, A La Vie” (to death, to life). It was more death than life (by a lot) and was pretty dark and morbid. We cured the depression with a stroll through the galleries of the impressionists and concluded our visit in the gallery of modern art. Filled with the spirit of the brush, we adjourned for lunch and continued our walking tour, returning to the park of Croix Rousse, a stroll by the Saone and a verre de vin rouge at the oldest wine bar in town, the Cave des Voyageurs.

Our favorite neighborhoods were Croix Rousse and Vieux Lyon. Lyon has the second most murals of any city in Europe, surpassed only by Berlin. The Cavuts Mural is popular, but our favorite was the Fresque des Lyonnais which depicts important citizens of Lyon through time. There are street art and murals everywhere which are best explored by stumbling upon them (for pictures and to read a little more). The Traboules, secret covered passageways, throughout the city lead to restaurants, apartments, and courtyards (our AirBnB was accessed through one), originally used by workers and craftspeople to transport clothes and textiles sheltered from bad weather they were later used by the resistance to the Nazis preventing Germany from taking all of Lyon. As you wander through them, imagine yourself in a secret meeting in the dark of night and watch your step. You can even take a tour of the ones which are open to the public. And, of course there are lots of cafes, restaurants and bars and walking paths along its two rivers. A great city for walking, eating, sipping and repeating. We plan to repeat again in spring, summer or early fall when all is open and in bloom.

Merci beaucoup Lyon. Tres Bon!

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