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Destination: France

Tasting the good life in Lyon

Often bypassed by tourists, Lyon beckons with a rich history, sumptuous silks and gastronomic geniuses.

March 02, 2003|Susan James | Special to The Times

Lyon, France — Curiosity brought me to Lyon.

My mother's maiden name is Lyon, and, although my family immigrated to America from Scotland, tradition fixes the beginnings of our wanderings in Lyon, in east-central France.

I'd been to France before, but Lyon always seemed too far out of the way to visit. My mother was working on her family's genealogy, so, last October, I promised to check out the city of her ancestors while on a business trip.

Many travelers bypass Lyon. France gets 76.2 million visitors a year, and Paris gets 20 million, but only 3 million tourists come to the nation's second-largest city. Lyon seems to be one of France's best-kept secrets; I was astonished that it wasn't flooded with tourists. As I discovered on my three-day visit, the city is worth a stay.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Lyon loom -- A Travel article Sunday on Lyon, France, incorrectly described a Jacquard loom as being 3 centuries old. The loom was invented in 1801. The article also implied that silks worn by Marie Antoinette were woven on a Jacquard loom, but she died in 1793.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 09, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Lyon loom -- A story on Lyon, France ("Tasting the Good Life in Lyon," March 2), incorrectly described a Jacquard loom as being 3 centuries old. The loom was invented in 1801. The same sentence implies that silks worn by Marie Antoinette were woven on a Jacquard loom, but the French queen died in 1793.

It is one of France's premier culinary centers, with a range of restaurants from the very expensive to tiny, inexpensive boulangeries, or bakeries. It is headquarters of the Beaujolais wine country and home of the legendary French silk industry. Eighty percent of Hermes scarves are made in Lyonnais factories.

I set out to explore it on foot and by Metro and funicular, carrying a few euros and a two-day, $27 Lyon city card. It gave me free transportation and admission to city boat tours, lunchtime concerts and museums, from the Resistance Museum -- Lyon was the center of the French Resistance in World War II -- to the Musee des Beaux Arts, one of the country's best art museums after the Louvre in Paris.

The carefully preserved medieval Vieux Lyon, or Old Town, is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets, twisting staircases and courtyards lined by towers with carved limestone lintels and nail-studded doors. I stayed at one of two historic hotels in the area, the Cour des Loges, built into four protected historic buildings and their common courtyard. The other hotel, the slightly smaller La Tour Rose, is just up the street.

My room was in a 13th century tower, reached by three quick turns on narrow, spiraling stone stairs. Men in armor and servants carrying water and other necessities must have clomped up and down these steps. I, at least, had electricity and running water.

Vieux Lyon is one of the city's four World Heritage Sites. The others are the Presqu'ile, the peninsula formed at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers; the Croix-Rousse, the 19th century silk weavers' quarter; and Fourviere, the Roman town on the hill and Lyon's birthplace.

Roman resonances

To get to Fourviere from Vieux Lyon, I took the funicular to the top of the hill. A wealthy Roman, Munatius Plancus, founded the city of Lugdunum, or "Raven Hill," here in 43 BC.

The stones of the original, small amphitheater, reserved for aristocrats when it was built in the 1st century, still exist. Hadrian extended it early in the 2nd century, installing seating for all the city's citizens; and in 176, Marcus Aurelius authorized the execution of Christians for entertainment instead of bringing in costly gladiators.

I wandered up and down the stone rows and stopped to take a photo of the stage. Four pretty girls were in the foreground, and I asked them, in my imperfect French, if I could include them.

"Sure, go ahead," they replied in American-accented English. They were from Glendale and, like me, were exploring Lyon.

Above the uncluttered lines of the amphitheater stands the ornate Basilica of Our Lady of Fourviere, a 19th century wedding cake in stone. But I was more interested in the tantalizing possibility that beneath all the layers of building was the original shrine to the mother goddesses of the Gauls, the tre matrae, or three mothers, symbols of earthly fertility. Early Christianity converted them to the "three Marys," and they are remembered now in Vieux Lyon in place names such as the Rue aux Trois Maries, just three blocks from the cathedral.

If the mothers rule the hill, St. John is the patron of Lyon's Gothic cathedral, which has splendid 12th and 13th century stained-glass windows. In the early morning, the sun shines through four rose windows and seven long lancets in the apse, making brilliant rainbows across the gray limestone. But the real show is at noon, when a 20-foot-tall astronomical clock, built before 1383 and restored in 1661, sounds the hour.

A silver rooster crows from its summit. A wooden watchman in a red coat marches around the tower, the Angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, another angel drops out of the clouds, a cherub conducts an orchestral accompaniment, and a long-bearded deity waves to the audience from a cloud. In a crowd of mostly mothers and children, I watched spellbound.

"Isn't it splendid?" asked a woman sitting next to me. A clock collector, she had come from Wales just to see it.

After such a busy morning, I was ready for lunch at Cafe 203, which my Welsh acquaintance had recommended. The cafe is in the Presqu'ile on a quiet street near the Musee des Beaux Arts. Its decor, with colorful wall posters, is homage to the Peugeot automobile.

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