Located in the Rhône-Alpes region of Southeastern France, the city of Lyon is famous for its tradition of fine silk weaving, the invention of the cinematographe, and probably most of all, for its superb cuisine. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the birthplace of writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and a very lovely city for a sojourn.
I had visited Lyon three times before, most notably on September 11, 2001, but this was the first chance I had to explore the city and see a few of its many sights. Lyon is divided into three main sections created by the confluence of two rivers, the Rhône and Saône that forms a peninsula known as "Presque'île" and it is here that we will begin our tour.
The Hôtel de Ville de Lyon (City Hall) is a magnificent 17th century building that stands on the Place des Terreaux and its beautiful Fontaine Bartholdi. New Yorkers especially know the work of this sculptor as it was Frédéric Bartholdi who designed the Statue of Liberty. This huge fountain depicts France as a woman seated on a chariot and controlling the four great rivers of France which are represented by four wildly rearing horses.
From here we can cross the Saône over to Vieux Lyon, the medieval part of the city and the first site in France to be protected as a cultural treasure. Here one can wander along narrow cobblestone streets and admire the Gothic architecture. In the 16th century this area was home to the silk weavers who brought fame and prosperity to Lyon. It is also because of the silk industry that the distinctive traboules, (corridors) were built to allow the fine fabrics to be safely carried from house to house and street to street without going outside in the rain or dust. Many of these connecting passageways and covered stairways still exist to the delight of visitors who stumble upon them while exploring the old town.
Fortified with a nice lunch of sautéed foie gras and a salad, it was time to visit the most famous sight in Lyon, the Basilica of Notre Dame of Fourvière. This magnificent cathedral on top of Fourvière Hill was constructed between 1872 and 1884 to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for saving the citizens of Lyon from a cholera epidemic that swept Europe in 1823. The Basilica is accessible on foot but also via a funicular line that whisks visitors up the rather steep hill in just a few minutes.
The Basilica is sometimes referred to as "the elephant with its legs in the air" a rather unkind reference to the four chunky towers that reach up from each corner. But no one can make a derogatory remark about the amazing interior. Covered in mosaic tile the inside seems to glitter in gold and turquoise. Lining the nave is a series of large scale murals, executed in mosaic and depicting various biblical stories and religious events.
After leaving the Basilica I walked around to the side that faces the city for a spectacular vista over all of Lyon. Local people claim that one can see as far as Chamonix on a clear day!
A short distance from the Basilica are the remains of two ancient Roman amphitheaters, a large one and a small one. The larger one was a theater built around 15 BC and could hold 10,000 people. Right next to it is the smaller Odeon used at the time for musical performances and public readings. Today both sites are open to the public and also used as venues for summer festivals.
Close by the Roman ruins is a second funicular line that takes passengers back down the hill to he Cathédrale Saint Jean in Old Lyon. Now it is a short walk back across Pont Bonaparte, over the Soâne River, to the massive Place Bellecour in the Presque'île section. The Place Bellecour is the largest clear square (meaning no gardens or obstacles) in Europe and the third largest public square in France. Anchored at one end by an imposing bronze sculpture of Louis XIV on horseback, the western corner of the square features a much smaller but very touching statue honoring native son Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his most famous character, Le Petit Prince.
Now it is time to have a quick snack and get ready for the evening's main event - the opening of "Joseph Cornell et les surréalistes à New York" at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon. Six years in the planning, this exhibition is dedicated to the American surrealist Joseph Cornell and how he himself influenced and was influenced by European surrealists. While Cornell is the star of the show there are also some major pieces by important artists including Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Max Ernst and René Magritte.
Joseph Cornell was a very wonderful artist who created marvelous worlds with an almost childlike, dreamy quality. He is particularly known for his boxes, assemblages and collages but he also worked in film and made artist's books. Although he spent his life living on the Utopia Parkway on Long Island, New York, and never traveled farther than Philadelphia, he was global in his reach. He was fluent in French and worked very closely with Marcel Duchamp and it was this international exchange of ideas that forged the connection between America and the European surrealists.
The Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon occupies a former Benedictine convent founded in the 17th century. It now houses an impressive collection of works from Egyptian antiquities to Modern paintings. This special exhibition plays to Lyon's heritage of invention and artistic originality and should be a big hit both critically and with the general population.
It's getting late and it's been a big day. What better way to wrap things up then with a nice dinner and a glass (or two) of a good Bordeaux with friends! And tomorrow it's on to the last leg of this journey - Paris - and whatever new adventures await. Good night, and bon appetit!