Reached by one of the three passerelles (footbridges) crossing the Saône from Terreaux and the Presqu’île, Vieux Lyon is made up of the three villages of St-Jean, St-Georges and St-Paul at the base of the hill overlooking the Presqu’île. South of place St-Paul, the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon, pressed close together beneath the hill of Fourvière, form a backdrop of Renaissance and medieval facades, bright night-time illumination and a swelling chorus of well-dressed Lyonnais in search of supper or a midday splurge.
Well worth the short trek up to Fourvière, the underground Musée Gallo-Romain showcases exhibits from prehistoric times to 7 AD, the sheer number and splendour of which serve to underline Roman Lyon’s importance. Among the many highlights is a fragment of the so-called “Claudian Table”, a fine bronze engraving of a speech by the Lyon-born Emperor Claudius, discovered in 1528 by a Lyonnais cloth-maker. Elsewhere look out for a superb Bronze Age processional chariot, and some remarkably well-preserved mosaics – “In The Circus”, for example, recalls the city’s standing as one of Roman Gaul’s most popular centres of entertainment. These antiquities consist of two ruined theatres dug into the hillside – the larger of which was built by Augustus in 15 BC and extended in the second century by Hadrian to seat 10,000 spectators. Nowadays, they are the focal point for the Nuits de Fourvière music and film festival each summer.
A hulking, incredibly ornate wedding cake of a church, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière was built, like the Sacré-Coeur in Paris, in the aftermath of the 1871 Commune to emphasize the defeat of the godless socialists. And like the Sacré-Coeur, its hilltop position has become a defining element in the city’s skyline. The interior is currently enveloped in scaffolding, and will be for some time, but down in the crypt there’s some beautifully executed stonework, plus an ornate turquoise mosaic ceiling in the apse. The observation tower is presently closed but a rooftop tour is a vertigo-worthy replacement – if you can’t stomach that, you can take in the magnificent citywide views from the esplanade. From here, the montée St-Barthélémy footpath winds back downhill to Vieux Lyon through the hanging gardens.