À la Lyonnaise
31 July, 2017
Where in the world…?
Lyon is the third-largest city in France and the capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. It is located in the centre-east of the country, roughly150 km southwest of Geneva and 114 km northwest of Grenoble. The Rhône and Saône rivers run through the city and converge to the south, where they define the “Presqu’île.” The city also features two hills, north and west, one of which is the Fourvière hill that hosts a basilica at its top and the historic city, Vieux Lyon, at its foot.
Before my week-long visit to Lyon, this past June, all I knew about the city was that it is considered the gastronomical capital of France and that the author of The Little Prince, Antoine Saint-Exupéry, was born and raised there.
Here’s what else I learned about Lyon, during my stay, that sets it apart from all other cities I have ever lived in or visited:
How in the world…?
Brothers of Cinema – I discovered that the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, invented the cinematographe in Lyon, and that Lyon is fiercely proud of this legacy. Posters of the brothers, their invention, and scenes from the world of cinema are decorated all over the city––on walls, in bars, in hotels, in metro stations…. Lyon also holds an annual light festival on 8 December called Fête des Lumières, whose significance the wonderful volunteers working up at the Nôtre-Dame de Fourvière basilica on Fourvière hill will be happy to explain to you in detail.
Ampère – I also discovered that the man whose name has been given to the units for electrical current, French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère who also invented the electrical telegraph among other innovations and who is one of the founding fathers of the science of electromagnetism, is from Lyon and has a statue erected in his honour in the city centre.
UNESCO – I discovered that the Roman district near Fourvière hill, the Renaissance district that is also known as Vieux Lyon, the silk district encompassing most of the Croix-Rousse, and parts of the Presqu’île are collectively designated as a historic site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site and date back more than two millennia.
Silk – I also discovered that Lyon has played an important historical role in the global silk trade, and celebrates this history in the Croix-Rousse district, where its silk industry was centred and where you can still find small silk workshops with works on display.
What in the world…?
The people of Lyon, or Lyonnais, were some of the most culturally fascinating inhabitants I have seen in some time. Here are a few things the Lyonnais did that stopped me in my tracks:
Scooter traffic – there are so many people using scooters in Lyon that there is a veritable traffic of them on the sidewalks. I have always associated those two-wheeled transportation devices with children and young teenagers just fooling around in a backyard or on a neighborhood street to keep themselves entertained. In Lyon, scooters are THE transportation mode of CHOICE for everyone from retirees to working men and women to mothers and fathers double-stepping it to take their kids to daycare to boys and girls headed to school.
Crazy bike delivery guys – Lyon is popular not only with cyclists (and there are always a ton of them on the streets) but also with food-delivery bike runners. Sometimes, I would see three different food-delivery runners from competing companies biking like crazy down the street.
Traffic lights are just a suggestion – I learnt quickly that in Lyon, jaywalking distinguishes the tourists from locals. Locals NEVER wait for pedestrian lights and cross street wherever they please, whether at the traffic light or in the middle of the street. I once saw a mother cut in front of a car, pushing her baby stroller in front of her, and angrily raise her hand toward the car to demand that the driver halt…even though she was the one crossing on a green light!!!
Ben…c’est comme ça quoi! – In Lyon, I was constantly entertained by the local mannerism of beginning sentences with “Ben…” (akin to “Uh…”) and ending each statement with “quoi!” Every time. Having lived in Provence in the past, I know that the French do popularly begin sentences with “Ben” (pronounced, “bah”) and sometimes ending certain statements with “quoi,” but not all the time. In Lyon, this tendency was quite dominantly exceptional.
Hospitality over dinner – I was pleasantly surprised to witness how multicultural the city of Lyon was and to discover a wonderful organization whose mission is to connect locals and visitors over a home-cooked evening meal to foster cultural sharing and international friendships. The organization is called Lyon International and anyone can sign up on their website to share a meal with a local family!
Favorite Activities in Lyon
Hiking up Fourvière hill to visit the Basilique Nôtre-Dame de Fourvière – a good workout worth the amazing panoramas at the top, and a very informative free guided tour of the basilica.
Strolling around Place Bellecour – a public square located on the Presqu’île, between the Rhône and Saône rivers, and surrounded by historic residential buildings. The Festival des Consulats also took place there during my visit.
Walking through Vieux Lyon – the old city is very charming and features traboules, secret passageways thought to have been built in the 4th century that pass through houses to link together the streets on either end.
Visiting Parc de la Tête d’Or – located northeast of the Rhône from the Presqu’île, in the sixth arrondissement. This is one of Europe’s largest urban parks, and is absolutely huge and absolutely free. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the zoo, which is home to giraffes, flamingos, turtles, Darwin’s rhea, bears, and so much more! I also enjoyed walking by the lake, strolling through the rose garden, visiting the Botanical Garden, and examining the various sculptures and exhibitions sprinkled throughout the park. I visited the Parc de la Tête d’Or in half a day, but I felt a bit rushed and would recommend that you spend a full day and bring your whole family.
Visiting the Roman ruins on Fourvière hill – it was very impressive visiting this site and seeing the ancient Theatre of Fourvière (dating back to 15 BC), as well as the smaller Odeon of Lyon theatre, from the top of the hill. There is also a Gallo-Roman Museum nearby, that I did not visit.
Thirsty for more?
If you enjoy history, click here to learn more about monuments in Lyon.
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