Rhone Valley hub
www.lyon-france.com. Transport and communications hub of the Rhône valley, Lyon is the second largest city in France and a famous gastronomic centre. At the confluence of the rivers Rhone and Saône, the city is divided into three parts which offer a neat historical breakdown of Lyonnais history.
To the east of the Rhône lies the modern business district of La Part-Dieu, the TGV rail station and the airport. Local trains and buses arrive at the Gare Perrache. This is the 18th-19thC city centre, built on a peninsula between the two rivers with the old weavers’ quarter of Croix-Rouge in the north. Older Lyon is on the western bank of the Saone: medieval Vieux Lyon crouches beneath the Fourviere plateau where Roman Lugdunum was founded in 43 BC.
Lyon is easy to explore on foot and full of interesting nooks and crannies such as the traboules, secretive covered passageways which burrow between streets and beneath buildings in Vieux Lyon and Croix-Rouge. They once provided all-weather protection for bolts of silk woven by Lyon’s textile workers, the canuts, whose history is celebrated in the Maison des Canuts, maisondescanuts.com. They also served as escape routes for the war-time Resistance, commemorated in the Centre d’histoire de la résistance et de la déportation.
The only aspect of Lyonnais life without a museum is food, but there is no shortage of shrines to gastronomy or indeed of the traditional Lyonnais café-restaurants known as bouchons which offer a great value-for-money alternative to the big-city prices.
Place Bellecour is a sensible place to start exploring. To the south is rue Auguste Compte with its antiques dealers, and rue de la Charité, where the Musée des Tissus occupies 18thC hotel particuliers www.mtmad.fr. It displays a truly fabulous collection of rich and rare fabrics.
At the top of rue de la République, the extravagant Hôtel de Ville backs on to place des Terreaux. Robespierre’s thugs set up their guillotine here during the French Revolution. Off the square, the 17thC Italianate Palais de Saint-Pierre houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts, with a cool, green sculpture garden enclosed in its colonnaded courtyard www.mba-lyon.fr.
Across the Saône, Vieux Lyon is a delightful quarter with excellent shops and restaurants, and restored Renaissance houses such as the Hôtel de Gadagne, home of the Musée Gadagne, www.gadagne.musees.lyon.fr. It houses the Musée de la Marionette, which exhibits puppets from around the world, including the Lyonnais Guignol, a loud-mouth Punch and Judy character who delivers his blistering repartee in a thick Lyonnais accent at the Puppet Theatre, rue Louis-Carraud.
Rue Saint-Jean leads south past the gloomy, Gothic Cathédrale de Saint-Jean, cathedrale-lyon.cef.fr (worth a stop for its extraordinary 14thC astronomical clock) to the funicular station which makes short work of the climb up to the Fourvière plateau. Atop the escarpment, the 19thC Basilique de Notre-Dame, www.fourviere.org is all Byzantine mosaic and marble with lurid stained glass. To recover, take in the view which stretches east to the Alps, then stroll down to the Musée Gallo-Romain, 17 rue Cléberg, which is built into the hillside by two Roman theatres www.museegalloromain.grandlyon.com.
There are boat trips from 2 Quai des Célestins on the Saône; while back on the east bank of the Rhône, the enormous Parc de la Tête-d’Or makes a welcome inner-city escape.
Further afield, the quaint (but much visited) medieval hill town of Pérouges, (36 km E via the N84) is an easy excursion by car or train; or head into the mountains – insert link see Dauphine and Savoie – The French Alps.
An alternative onward route to the Riviera is Alpes Maritimes, [Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and the Route Napoléon]; or if you want to head west, see The Dordogne and Massif Central.
Villa holidays: Lyon’s surroundings, plus southern Burgundy and the Rhone valley, offer many holiday rental properties.