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.
Housed in a splendid fifteenth-century Renaissance mansion on place du Petit Collège, the Musée Gadagne comprises two very fine museums. Two floors are given over to the Musée d’Histoire de Lyon, which offers a comprehensive chronological overview of the city’s development, from antiquity to the modern day. Better still is the Musée des Marionnettes du Monde, showcasing the many different forms of puppetry from both France and around the world, including Venetian glove puppets, Javanese rod puppets, and Chinese shadow puppets.
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. Alongside the museum, dug into the hillside, stand the substantial remains of two ruined theatres – 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. Overblown it may be, but the interior is utterly dazzling, from the marble statues and stained glass to the gold and turquoise mosaic wall panels, depicting events such as Joan of Arc in Orleans and The Battle of Lepanto. Take a look, too, down in the crypt, where there’s some beautifully executed stonework, plus an ornate turquoise mosaic ceiling in the apse.