Lyon is supposed to be dreary and grey. So what is it about this surprisingly stylish and lively French city that will have visitors singing?
It is evening-tide in Lyon and I am in a bouchon neighbourhood restaurant. I am the right side of herring salad, black pudding and too much Beaujolais wine. And I am singing. I have a voice like a helicopter flying into a flock of geese. I never sing.
So this is a first. And, with that part of my brain still capable, I’m thinking: “If this is dour, I’m not sure I could stand happy.”
Lyon is supposed to be dourness incarnate. The city has spent 2000 years grafting at commerce, banking and industry. The image – even (especially) in France – is of hard work and low cloud. “Going to Lyon for fun is like going to Baghdad for beer,” says a French friend.
He knows nothing. On my first visit, I find myself wandering the tight streets, towers and courtyards of a Renaissance old town to rival anything in Italy. I stroll two world-class rivers. I pass by a Parisian abundance of shops. I watch France’s most consistent soccer team.
And I favour fellow diners with a rousing version of The Wild Rover. Lyon is indeed a substantial city – but as stylish and lively as you like. If you've not been, now's the time. Here's how.
Start in Vieux Lyon, the Renaissance warren which bagged Lyon its World Heritage status. Here, from the 16th century, silk workers wove and Italian bankers handled the cash. Lots of it. Enough to put up grand edifices and ochre town-houses, towers, loggias and churches. They’re still jammed in tight as the 21st century scurries into bars, bistros and shops arund their feet. And you may still scurry through the bowels of it along the traboules public passages once used by silk men for faster communication. Push the door at 54 Rue St Jean and scuttle in.
Then scuttle out again and amble, pausing on Quai Bondy at the René Nardony ice-cream shop. It offers a rare opportunity to try poppy-flavoured ices.
Now hop on the funicular up Fourvière Hill to the Notre-Dame basilica - a Byzantine monster which, like Sacré Coeur in Paris, could be improved only by demolition. It must be seen, though, as evidence that late 19th-century church architects in France worked under the influence of opium. Nearby, the Roman amphitheatre is a far more reasonable piece of work – and the views from up here are terrific.
Back down, cross the Saône river to the Presqu’ile – which separates the Saône from the Rhône. This remains the bona fide city centre, full of dignified frontages and more shopping than reasonable legs can manage. While you’re in the district, guide leaflets will try to entice you to the Musée des Tissus & des Arts Décoratifs, a Lyon pride and joy on Rue de la Charité. Tragically, museums of textiles and décor leave me in a light coma. But you may be different so, by all means, go.
I’d prefer the Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance at 14 Rue Berthelot. Within the former Gestapo HQ where Klaus Barbie presided, this is a brilliant, multi-media evocation of the war times which remain the city’s sombre sub-text. Resistance leader Jean Moulin was betrayed and tortured to death here.
Duty done, take a short walk to clear the head and end up by the town hall, opera house and more 19th-century grandeur in the Place des Terreaux. The tiny thoroughfares all around throb with bars and eateries which will feed you up and wind you down.
Out early to the open-air Quai de Saône food market and then head along the river to Rue de la Martinière for the best of Lyon’s very many outdoor frescoes. On a trompe-l’oeil façade, this one features every famous person ever associated with Lyon – including chef Paul Bocuse, pope of the city’s food-based religion. He doesn’t half look smug.
Now trek up the Croix-Rousse hill to the working class district where silk-workers moved when cleared out of the Vieux Lyon in the 1800s. The story is told well at the Maison des Canuts at 10, Rue d’Ivry. You will learn that a “canut” is a silk-worker, that silk-worms multiply their weight by 10,000 times in a month (quite easy for humans to do in Lyon, incidentally) and that silk-workers were an insurrectionary bunch. They staged Europe’s first worker rebellion in 1831.
There’s an atmosphere up here quite distinct from that down in the centre – where you should now return, perhaps to the Institut Lumière at 25 Rue du Premier Film. The clue is in the street name. This was where brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière effectively invented the cinema in the 1890s. You may see the planet’s first movie – of workers leaving the Lumière factory – plus lots of others, and as much Lumière memorabilia as anyone could need.
And then your time’s your own. You might stroll to the main covered market, Les Halles de Lyon on Rue Garibaldi, gambol along the banks of the Rhône or attend to your silk requirements at silk centres on Rue Romarin. Last time I was there, a young woman was modelling a silk frock which lit up. “She keeps the batteries in her knickers,” said the lady boss. Lyon is, in short, a world-class and surprising city.
Top of the pile is the Renaissance Cour des Loges (2-8 Rue de Boeuf, 0033 472 274444, www.courdesloges.com). Fine restaurant, too. A full silken purse will help you appreciate it. Of similar class, with a swish of 19th-century style – and right on the huge, central Place Bellecour – is the Hotel Grand Lyon (20 Place Bellecour, 0033 478 375731, www.lyonhotel-leroyal.com). More modest, but equally central, the Hotel des Célestins (4 Rue des Archers, 0033 472 560898, www.hotelcelestins.com) is fabled for its welcome.
Lyon reckons to be capital of French gastronomy, though I’m not sure why. You can eat very well there – but you can in any big French city (or, indeed, small French town). It’s perhaps to do with the long-time presence of 83-year-old Paul Bocuse, France’s first and most self-satisfied superstar chef whom everyone treats as a deity when he’s really only a cook. No matter. If you want to taste his top stuff, you must travel just out of town to the Auberge du Pont de Collonges (0033 472 429040, www.bocuse.fr).
Take at least 150€ per person. Two hundred would be better. If that sounds absurd, Bocuse has a string of cheaper brasseries in Lyon itself. Details on the website (above).
Bocuse is not the only big name in town. Neither Pierre Orsi (3 Place Kléber, 0033 478 895768, www.pierreorsi.com) nor Nicolas le Bec (14 Rue Grôlée, 0033 478 421500, www.nicolaslebec.com) is embarrassed to have christened his restaurant after himself.
But the best fun is in the bouchons – Lyon’s distinctive contribution to everyday eating. These are generally small, noisy, replete with wood, homely service, a tie-loosening atmosphere and in-your-face fare like quenelles, hot saucisson or, indeed, black pudding. Try Chez Hugon at 12 Rue Pizay (0033 478 281094) or Café Comptoir Abel, 25 Rue Guynemer (0033 478 374618). You’ll be singing by the end.