A taste of Rome in France

Sep 25, 2011, 11:11 IST | Arjun Razdan

France's third largest city of Lyon, a world heritage Renaissance quarter, is home to the most care-free people in the world, who sip sodas in posh cafes located above a mysterious matrix of underground passageways

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France's third largest city of Lyon, a world heritage Renaissance quarter, is home to the most care-free people in the world, who sip sodas in posh cafes located above a mysterious matrix of underground passageways

A  hill looks over two rivers, and a flat fertile plain right up to the Alps. The snowy tops of the mountains rise against the blue sky at the horizon. To the west, that is. In between, the hot Mediterranean sun beats on the turf, and is reflected in the shimmering greens of the Rhone and the Saone. No wonder the Romans chose this location for the second most important city in their Empire after Rome. It was in 43 B.C. that senator Lucius Munatius Plancus founded Lugdunum -- the site of modern Lyon.

People start visiting the street-side cafes of Vieux Lyon as early as three
in the afternoon

A thriving city with the second largest student population in France after Paris, and a reputation for sophisticated gastronomy, Lyon has retained some of the prestige it commanded as the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis. On the west bank of the Saone, crowd the bright-hued buildings of what is known as Vieux (Old) Lyon.

A day in Lyon as reflected in a shop's glass doors

Under the magnanimous protection of a gilded statue of Mary on the Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvi re -- the same hill that the Romans found so conducive to fortification and leisure -- buildings with tiled roofs and elaborate courtyards pile one on top of the other to mimic the distending patterns of a Van Gogh oil.

An underground passageway opening up into a courtyard

The Renaissance quarter is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage site now, and it is easy to see how history settles as a million invisible layers on the canvas of this ancient landscape.

The front fa ade of the majestic Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourviere

History beneath your feet
Houses share their walls with a Roman aqueduct, one of the longest known in the Empire. The ruins betray little of the grandeur that would have surrounded this plateau once. Lovers kiss nearby. A lorry piled with construction material is parked right below. Pedestrians take their petit chiens (dogs) on a walk.

The French can be as unperturbed about their heritage, as about the other banal considerations of life such as work. The 35-hour work week exists perfectly in accordance with the way they open the interiors of their past to outsiders. Declarations of love are scribbled on the walls of the Basilica, no one mans the fences, the courtyard of the Fourviere monument is deserted at seven in the evening on weekdays leaving you the emperor of your curiosity.

In fact, if you walk along one of the historic streets close to St Jean Cathedral -- the Rue de Boeuf, for instance -- you can just gently push one of the dark, majestic, wooden doors and walk right in. If you are lucky, you might be traversing one of the traboules (underground passageways) that were of vital importance to the resistance fighters in their campaign against the Nazi invaders during the Second World War.

The traboules link different streets or compounds, and the passages may even go underground in a network that so baffled those aggressors from the West. In fact, in case you bump into one of the inhabitants of the building coming down the stairs with a bag of trash, all you should expect is a polite 'bon jour'. So casual, so French.

Leisure is hard work
Yet, pleasure is serious business in France. At three o'clock in the afternoon, as you walk on the cobbled stones of Vieux Lyon, people are affixed on to their seats in cafes in what looks like a characteristic blend of lazy languor and seemly, studied vigour. A bottle of Perrier (a posh version of soda) in tow, some ice and slices of lemon in a glass, and a carafe of water -- you are ready to face the most exacting of summer days. Why not step into a glacerie (ice-cream parlour) after all of this, and tuck into some glace du menthe (mint) or glace du citron (lemon)? While this mellow theatre of nonchalance is enacted, the last rays of the sun strike on the antique walls, and the day dies somewhere in the reverberated echoes of ever-dimming light.

Night reveals the French expertise of illumination. It should come as no surprise that Lyon was the gestating place of the cinema of Lumi re. No one knows how to light up their monuments like the French. On the one hand, careless about their upkeep, on the other so minutely involved with the angles of light and the total effect under the darkness of the night, the skill of the illuminator makes for a double attraction.

The bridges on the two rivers are minimally, yet impeccably lit up to reveal what is sinuous and vital, and to offset what might be a distraction. Consider la passerelle des quatre-vents (a viaduct) for that matter. Constructed at the beginning of the previous century to connect Fourvi re with Loyasse cemetery, the bridge paved way for trams to commute between the two destinations. At present, it serves as a footbridge within the Parc des Hauteurs, and comes into its own towards the evening when lights in the railings lead you magnificently across the gorge in the cliffs. To the north-west, the skyline of Lyon breathes against the fading reds of sunset.

Diametrically opposite in the horizon, is the Fourvi re Basilica at night with its pillars shining in the great fa ade. Not to be outdone, the metallic 'mini Eiffel Tower' of Lyon glows with its veins, orange in lucent blue-grey of the late evening sky. This medley of light comes into its own after dark.

At one with yourself
Not far from Fourvi re are what are known as Gallo-Roman remains. Believed to be the site of the original city of the Romans, there is a giant arc of an amphitheatre looking down upon a stage. The stones still make for an excellent resting place. A few kids play with stones in the ruins. Like ostriches, they raise their heads upon sounds of humans intruding their twilight reverie. Otherwise, you might just be alone with countless folds of history.

Insouciance. Freedom. Call you what you will, France or at least Lyon, leaves you to yourself in a way most tourist destinations across the world have long ceased to. As you come out of the gates of the platform and down the slope from what would once have been thronged by the Roman Gauls, you are once again in a residential quarter inhabited by citizens, who wear the burden of their heritage so lightly.

Cars are parked in no fixed orientation on the cobbled pathways, there is the sound of piano streaming in from one of the windows, lardons frying in a pan from another, a blonde girl looks down from the second-floor to signal to her young lover, a man on a scooter is hurrying to deliver a pizza order, cats amble past -- it is hard to take yourself seriously in Lyon. All that your attentiveness must be devoted to is the pursuit of pleasure.

Where to Stay:
Hotel Cour des Loges on Rue de Boeuf (call +33 472774444) is set in a Renaissance building and is one of the most plush options in the city. A Junior Suite done in maroon above the central courtyard costs 505 (Rs 33,686 approx).

Hotel Tour Rose (call + 334789269 10) bustles with an old world charm, and a Brochier Soieries suite for 290 (Rs 19,345 approx) a night is good value for money.

The Youth Hostel at Montee du Chemin Neuf call +33478150550) is a favourite of budget travellers. At 21 (Rs 1400) per night (including breakfast) it might not be the cheapest compared to other European cities, but the views over the slopes of the Fourvi re and the peninsula between the two rivers make up for the slight extravagance.

What to Eat:
Lyon has an unparalleled reputation for being a mecca of gourmands. Local Lyonnais cuisine is high on offal and pork-based products. You can try any of the multiple bouchons (local restaurants) in the tourist quarter around St Jean or St Paul. Ask the locals for advice.

L'Epiaison Boulangerie on Avenue Adolphe Max (call +33478374636) usually has a long queue of locals queuing up for their superlative bread. You may also want to try their Viennoiserie.

To Do:
Visit Musee Gadagne to get a quick introduction to the long history of Lyon and the various battles fought over this prized land. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 6.30pm. Call +33478420361. Fare: 6 (Rs 400) (discounts possible).

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