Lyon old and new

It’s hard not to compare the past and the present here. We are staying in a part of Lyon called la Cité Internationale, which is a huge multi-use Renzo Piano-designed mixed-use complex which seems to have been begun in the 1980’s and finished in 2006.

There is a convention center, theater, hotels, a museum, shops and restaurants. Everyone seems to be very proud of it, and it seems to win lots of awards. But I am not the person to consult on modern architecture, so take everyone else’s word that it’s a real showcase for the city of Lyon.

And then there are Roman ruins. Lyon was the starting point of the principal Roman roads throughout Gaul. It then became the capital of Gaul, partly due to its convenient location at the convergence of two navigable rivers. Two emperors were born in this city: Claudius and Caracalla. Today, the city is still often referred to as the “capitale des Gaules.” We saw the Roman amphitheater in use today as sound checks were going on for a rock concert tonight. Now that’s architecture that endures!

And then there is a more modern architectural feature peculiar to Lyon and only a few other cities – the traboules.

Traboules  are a type of passageway originally used by silk manufacturers and other merchants to transport their products. Silk was big in Lyon for centuries, and you didn’t want to get the merchandise wet.

The first examples are thought to have been in the 4th century. The traboules allowed the inhabitants to get from their homes to the river quickly and from their workshops to the textile merchants. They are often credited with helping prevent the occupying Germans from taking complete control of these areas during WWII, as they provided a complex and confusing network of passageways for the resistance fighters to navigate the city in secret.

For many inhabitants, being a true Lyonnais requires being knowledgeable about the city’s traboules. Nowadays, traboules are tourist attractions, and over forty are free and open to the public. Most traboules are on private property, serving as entrances to local apartments, which you are advised not to approach. Don’t know how the occupants stand the constant crowds. I had to work hard to not show the steady stream of tourists.

We took a funicular up the hill of Fourvière to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Also on the hill is the Tour métallique, a highly visible TV tower replicating the last stage of the Eiffel Tower, in case it looks familiar. Quite a view from the base of the church. That may or may not be Mont Blanc off in the distance.

Fourvière is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is credited with saving the city of Lyon from the Black Death in 1643. Each year on December 8, Lyon thanks the Virgin for saving the city by lighting candles throughout the city, in the Festival of Lights. The Virgin is also credited with saving the city a number of other times, such as from a cholera epidemic in 1832, and a Prussian invasion in 1870. At that point – safely past the anti-religious fervor of the Revolution – the city built this basilica in her honor.

And then there is the food. This culinary center has a special category of restaurants – bouchons.

A bouchon serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine such as sausages, duck pâté or roast pork. There are approximately twenty officially certified traditional bouchons, but a larger number of establishments describe themselves using the term. Typically, the emphasis in a bouchon is not on haute cuisine but, rather a convivial atmosphere and a personal relationship with the owner. The tradition came from small inns visited by silk workers passing through Lyon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Today we ate at one of the best, Daniel and Denise. Heaven. Don had a quenelle in nantua sauce, I had dorade, and dessert was strawberry soup for me and tarte tatin for Don. Potato slices and what might be called highly elevated mac and cheese are served on the side of all their dishes. An amazing meal.

The rest of our day was a stroll through the old city to walk off our lovely lunch.

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