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The Heart of Lyon

(excerpt from article Renaissance Preserved, published The Age 7 May 05)

Forget Paris. I had already been there. I had tramped through the Louvre to the Mona Lisa, which I viewed from a distance, at the back of a throng with massed digital cameras held aloft. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has turned the Mona Lisa from a popular icon into a pop idol. Paris is full of tourists on a mission. I lacked the missionary zeal. I preferred to pay five euros for a cup of tea, just to sit in a deserted café in the Latin Quarter and not be on a pilgrimage.
Lyon is a different story. On a rainy day in Lyon in December, I seemed to be the only tourist. In the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon I found myself alone in front of the whimsical early Picasso, Nu aux bas rouges (Nude with red stockings). For the entry fee of 6 euros I viewed a selection of lesser-known Picassos and a collection of paintings by Chagall, Manet, Monet, Degas and Renoir. Rodin donated some of his bronzes, not only Le Baiser (The Kiss), but also the delightful Eve, sculpted in the same year 1881, and L’Age d’airain (The Bronze Age), diminutive masterpieces that took me by surprise as I crossed the almost empty room to view yet another Impressionist painting. And that was only a fraction of the collections on view.

Lyon may not be one of France’s famous tourist attractions, but it deserves to be. There is a wealth of history, art, fashion and cuisine to explore at leisure. Twenty-four hectares of Vieux Lyon, the old city, are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is the largest preserved Renaissance area in Europe, one that has been protected and restored by the “Renaissance of Old Lyon” scheme, introduced in 1964. Visitors, many of them French, can discover the city without the pressure of inflated prices or marketing hype. A waiter standing outside to smoke grinned as I raised my camera to capture yet one more fabulous Renaissance cityscape. Tourists are still welcome here.
The old city, le Vieux-Lyon, like the Ile de la cite in Paris, is reached by crossing a river, the Seone, by one of several bridges. Go across by foot and you will be drawn on by the turrets of the 19th-century basilica Notre Dame de Fourviere, perched high above the old town that straggles up the hillside from the water’s edge. But it took two visits to the city before I made it up to the top. The first time, I spent a day wandering the old streets in the pouring rain, constantly seduced by another turn in the road, another façade, another stepped lane leading somewhere new.

The preservation of old Lyon is not as a museum piece or tourist precinct. People live and work here as in any modern city. Exploring the narrow streets with their towering old buildings or climbing the stepped lanes that lead to the basilica, I was constantly amazed at the number of people that disappeared through fifteenth-century doors, hewn from ancient trees, to their apartments. As I paused to gaze at an embossed grotesque on a window at No. 2 Montee du Gourgillon a man opened the door from inside and set off up the steep winding steps of the street, his dog bounding ahead for its morning walk and stopping to defecate on the route that dates back to Roman times.

Hot on the dog’s heels, a Peugeot revved its way up the street, bouncing up the shallow steps, to park near the Impasse Turquet, a tiny dead-end stepped laneway. I ducked down the impasse, and was confronted by a mediaeval wooden balcony, the only original one to have survived the frequent city fires. I reached out to touch the ancient wood as I remounted the steps, connecting momentarily with the ghosts and plagues of the city before sewers were invented.