100 Years in Lyon

Evelyn Doyle composes an ode to the true ‘ville en rose’ city in France

Lyon is a city with two rivers and two hills – a recipe for natural disaster but also natural beauty. 

The two often go hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that Lyon has been a dwelling place since pre-Christian times, albeit unstable and prone to flooding. Man-with-a-plan, preceded by his name, Lucius Munatius Plancus, is credited for the foundation of the Roman city in 43 BC, then called ‘Lugdunum’. ‘Dunum’ translates from the Gaulish to ‘hill’, as the first city walls enclosed the steep incline by the river Saône.

The former part of the name likely honours the Celtic God Lugus, incarnated by the hero Cú Chulainn in Irish mythology. Lugus is the God of light, among many other things, which tends to be the case with Celtic gods, but it’s here that we can trace the beginning of a recurrent association between Lyon and Lumière.

“Lyon’s rivers reflect the sunlight and send it bouncing off every window and wall”

Lyon is particularly radiant on a sunny day, as the rivers reflect the sunlight and send it bouncing off every window and wall. Sunglasses are not seasonal here. While this may be the main reason for the historical motif, there are also strange coincidences – such as the famous Lumière brothers. Gifted with a surname which acted as a prophecy, they changed the course of film history overnight when they invented the ‘cinématographe’ in Lyon, which allowed for the projection of film as we know it today.

The remnants of Lugdunum are ubiquitous: aqueducts, amphitheatres, and the city walls too, cascading dramatically downhill. To this day, they are still finding golden coins bearing the stern side profiles of emperors each time they decide to build a new car park. These remnants are tangible and almost frighteningly accessible; you can trail your hands along the bricks of the amphitheatre at Fourvière, the ruins of which are more ruined than others. 

I say this as each time I’ve visited, I have borne witness to doomed attempts at performance by tourists who come to discover that the expected acoustic projection of the amphitheatre is entirely non-existent, yet they go on! The scene reminds me of when the microphone doesn’t really work in a karaoke bar, so one has no choice but to shout instead of sing.

After the descent of Caesar and the ascent of Christ, the people of Lugdunum began to move towards the foot of the hill, down by the river, to pray. It was through Lyon that Christianity arrived in France. However, the transition was far from seamless, with the persecution of Christians under the reign of Marcus Aurelius. 

The most famous among these martyrs is St. Blandine. As the legend has it, she was thrown to the lions in the second amphitheatre at Croix-Rousse, which is closed to the public, perhaps because of these more sinister associations. However, the lions suffered a sudden loss of appetite and refused to eat her. Unmoved by divine intervention, the persecutors resorted to a more reliable technique: good old-fashioned fire. Ironically, the Lyonnaise people would later upcycle the bricks of this very amphitheatre – no longer of any apparent use, to construct a new Cathedral. 

“The interior of the Basilica is mesmerising and well worth the pilgrimage – there are said to be 8,000 shades of different colours used in the ceiling mosaics”

In this historical stretch of town, Vieux Lyon, church-lovers are well and truly spoiled for choice. In addition to Cathédrale Saint-Jean, there are two further churches – St.Paul and St.George, as well as the Fourvière Basilica, which juts out from the summit of the hill- the cherry atop the cake. The interior of the Basilica is mesmerising and well worth the pilgrimage – there are said to be 8,000 shades of different colours used in the ceiling mosaics. So numerous and compact are the churches along this hill that they practically appear stacked one upon another as in a mediaeval depiction of heaven – boundless, majestic, and somewhat imposing. It’s called the praying hill, “la colline qui prie”, while its historically working-class counterpart is la colline qui travail.

However, the working hill is not without magic of its own: running through it are hundreds of narrow passageways hidden between houses, known as “traboules”. They were initially built for the secure transportation of valuable silk to the quayside in all weathers. Silk production and selling prospered in Lyon during the Renaissance period, so much so that one in two people worked in the industry at the time. The ringing of church bells on “la colline qui prie” was drowned out by the incessant ringing of the enormous textile-weaving machines. Home and workplace were one, with the machines occupying the larger portion of the house and families working dawn to dusk, which prompted many revolts. While the silk industry fizzled out over time, the importance of the traboules was renewed during the Nazi occupation of France. The Lyonnaise people used them to tactfully dart to and fro, transporting messages and evading the Gestapo forces. To this day, possessing a mental map of the traboules is considered imperative in earning the title of a “true Lyonnais”; one should be able to traverse the city in heavy rain and arrive home bone-dry.

While I haven’t mastered the traboules, getting lost in Lyon is hard. There isn’t a reliance on Google Maps, as I’ve experienced in Paris, where panic would ensue if I were wandering with a dead phone. And it’s not just the fact that Lyon is a smaller city; it’s because there are recognisable pointers towards home in all directions, whether they be the rivers, churches, or the bizarre trio of skyscrapers on the left bank of the Rhône, which hover over the city like the last-standing pieces in an abandoned game of chess. The Rhône and the Saône may run parallel until they meet at the confluence, but they are easily distinguished as they differ in atmosphere, colour, and even gender in French. In the turbulent marriage between the two, it’s Monsieur le Rhône and Madame la Saône, with the statues of Lyon consistently depicting the rivers as masculine and feminine.

 I do not use “turbulent” because the currents are particularly violent, but because the couple’s roles have reversed throughout history. The Rhône may be the current breadwinner, but Lyon once orbited around the Saône. In mediaeval times, people lived by the river’s edge, fishing, praying, and washing clothes. Women rowed taxi boats to and fro to make some extra money, and there was even a small café within the first archway of what was then the only bridge across. 

“People go to the Rhône to drink and smoke, but people go to the Saône to find inspiration, which is abundant”

Nowadays, the river seems somewhat estranged in comparison. That said, I’ve noticed that this river attracts the more creative souls – painters, photographers, and writers. People go to the Rhône to drink and smoke, but people go to the Saône to find inspiration, which is abundant. If you look closely, the rivers reveal themselves as teeming with life; shoals of fish inhabit the shadows of docked boats, and cormorants dive to chase their glimmering fins. One day, I even saw the knightly kingfisher perched proudly underneath a bridge, rusty orange breast billowing, gone in a brilliant turquoise flash as soon as he felt my gaze.

The confluence is marked by a gigantic silver UFO of a museum – La Musée des Confluences. Sometimes its exhibitions are worthwhile, but I personally struggle a bit with the sheer abundance of it all, sharing the opinion of Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier, who wrote that “the smaller the museum, the more eloquent the articles on display”. The current temporary exhibition – “À nos amours”, warrants a warning as its advertisements are sprawled across all public transport and every shop window. However, the exhibition can only be described as the plucking of unlucky antiques and taxidermy from various floors of the museum in a desperate last-minute assembling of what is nothing more than a gimmick-y, Valentine ‘s oriented tourist-trap. 

That said, there is a magnificent view of the confluence itself from the highest floor of the museum, where you can see the murkier Saône be engulfed by the blue of the Rhône, which charges ahead towards Marseille. The city slogan, “Only Lyon”, is brandished in front of the museum in pompous red capitals. The anagram is used as a tool for sarcasm by the Lyonnaise people. But despite this, one evening, a girl sketching by the Saône told me that the people born here generally do not leave, that their loyalties lie here and only here. I couldn’t say the same for Dublin, and so, in a way, maybe the anagram is fitting.

“Lyon, in all its peachy hues, gleaming rivers, and hidden passageways, is the true ville en rose”

Two weeks into my Erasmus, a friend who has been here since September teased my exclamations of wonder and awe as we walked through Vieux Lyon under a swirling pink sky: “Clearly Evelyn is still in the rose-tinted glasses phase!” she joked. But it’s been a couple of months now, and it’s still la vie en rose, and with crocuses budding up on the university lawns and the birds singing a little louder and a little later into each evening, I don’t think things will change. Paris may be considered the city of romance; it’s where Edith Piaf lived and died after all, but to me, Lyon, in all its peachy hues, gleaming rivers, and hidden passageways, is the true ville en rose.