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.
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.
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.
I got a seat by the window and watched as skateboarders zipped by on the street. I was lucky to arrive early. The place, which seats about 50, quickly filled, and dozens of people were turned away at the door. It seemed everyone from trendy women out shopping to young artists wanted to have lunch there.
The menu was typically Lyonnais, a hearty country cuisine. For about $12 I had corned beef and roast potatoes, salad, a glass of wine and peach cobbler. The wine cellar was above the ceiling, and every so often one of the waitresses would disappear up a ladder for a bottle.
In France, a Tuscan touch
I walked my lunch off around the Presqu'ile, which is laid out in a series of courtyard-like squares joined by long streets crammed with trendy boutiques. Lyon is proud of its artistic heritage, and no square is without a memorial statue or modern sculpture and a fountain.
A few blocks from Cafe 203 is the Place des Terreaux, a checkerboard of suddenly exploding water jets that lead to an Italianate marble baroque fountain. Lyon was heavily influenced by the Franco-Italian culture of the former Duchy of Savoy, which ran from the French provinces of Savoie and Haute-Savoie across the Alps into Italy.
This long transalpine union gave Lyon a startling un-French look that's evident in the splendid panorama of the city from the top of the funicular. With its red tile roofs and ochre stucco walls, Lyon looks more like a Tuscan town than a French one. Even the medieval quarter is crammed with Italian Renaissance facades. It's only in the main shopping streets of the Presqu'ile's Carre d'Or, or Golden Square, and along the riverside quays where the book stalls and flower sellers cluster, that the architecture looks distinctly Parisian.
Italy and France met and melded, too, in the Croix-Rousse, the heart of the Lyon silk industry. In 1466, Louis XI, tired of buying silks from foreign vendors, inaugurated the French silk industry in Lyon.
At first Italian weavers were brought in to teach locals the craft. The industry was slow to get started, but by the mid 1500s, during the reign of Henry II, the city had become the principal supplier to the monarchy, turning out fabric to cover love seats at Versailles and to clothe the king's mistresses in sumptuous brocades. With the invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801, which streamlined the weaving process, the silk industry exploded in France.
At the Maison des Canuts, a silk-weaving museum and workshop on the Croix-Rousse, you can order a length of silk chiffon panne velvet, made only in Lyon, or a roll of the silk brocade Louis XIV favored to cover the chaise in your ballroom. I watched 3-century-old wooden Jacquard looms click and clack while a guide explained in French the process of creating the exquisite silks worn by Marie Antoinette, among others.
The Jacquard looms transformed Lyon's architecture as well as its economy. Because of their 12-foot height, rooms had to be built with high ceilings and long windows. Unique to Lyon are traboules, covered passageways, staircases and tunnels that sheltered silk weavers carrying heavy bolts of material down hillsides from the weather. Several hundred exist, turning the Croix-Rousse and Vieux Lyon into a maze.
At another silk workshop, L'Atelier de Soierie, I watched demonstrations of silk-screening, developed in Lyon. Designer Anne Pollet, who also ran the shop upstairs, explained how she had made the red and black silk scarf I bought for $21. The price was reduced 50% because it was a second, but if there were flaws I could not find them.
If silk is one hallmark of Lyon, food is the other. It's the gastronomic capital of France, with 22 Michelin-starred restaurants within the city limits. Legendary chef Paul Bocuse runs several restaurants here, but I bypassed them to try the cooking of two emerging culinary geniuses.
Nicolas Le Bec, voted the best chef of Lyon last year, runs his signature Restaurant Les Loges and the Cafe-Epicerie, both on Rue du Boeuf in Vieux Lyon. The cafe is small and severely modern, done mainly in black. As I entered, I saw a refrigerated display case of the day's offerings -- everything from pheasant to lamb chops to Madagascar shrimp. I started with a delicious pate de foie gras and proceeded to a pan-fried Breton filet of sole, which was presented to me like a bottle of fine wine before it was cooked.
Even more elegant was my nine-course meal from Michelin one-star chef Stephane Gaborieau at Les Terrasses restaurant at the Villa Florentine on Fourviere hill, a former Renaissance convent converted to a luxury hotel.
Like most of Lyon's new breed of maitres de cuisine, Gaborieau is a master of fusion cooking. One of his signature dishes is moelleux d'anchois marines aux epices, roasted red and green peppers covered with a shell of fileted anchovies. I don't usually like anchovies, but these melted in my mouth. Saddle of lamb with stuffed zucchini blossoms followed. Dessert alone was three separate courses, with chocolate playing a prominent role. They, like my meal, were works of art -- rich, decadent and delicious, the hallmark of life in Lyon.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A Lyon sampler
From LAX, Air France, KLM and British Airways offer connecting service (with change of plane) to Lyon. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $359.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (country code for France), 4 (the city code for Lyon) and the local number.
Cour des Loges, 2-4-6-8 Rue du Boeuf; 7277-4444, fax 7240-9361, www.courdesloges.com. Luxury hotel in old Lyon, has two restaurants, innovative decor and an air of antiquity. Doubles $216-$454.
La Tour Rose, 22 Rue du Boeuf; 7892-6910, fax 7842-2602, www.slh.com. Also a luxury hotel. Has 12 rooms, each individually decorated by a Lyonnais silk designer. Doubles $232-$362.
Sofitel Lyon Royal, 20 Place Bellecour; 7241-2020 7837-5731, fax 7837-0136, www.sofitel.com. On the Presqu'ile and close to the city's main shopping area. Doubles $116-$366.
Holiday Inn Garden Court, 114 Boulevard des Belges; 7824-4468, fax 7824-8236, www.basshotels.com. Inexpensive comfort that's three Metro stops from the old town. Doubles $89-$111.
WHERE TO EAT:
Les Terrasses de Lyon, 25-27 Montee Saint-Barthelemy; 7256-5656, fax 7240-9056, www.villaflorentine.com. Superb cutting-edge French cuisine overseen by rising one-star chef Stephane Gaborieau. Entrees $41-$74.
Cafe 203, 9 Rue du Garet; 7828-6665. Where the locals lunch. Dishes up Lyonnais specialties such as corned beef, andouillette (pork sausage) and fish dishes. Entrees less than $16.
Le Passage, 8 Rue du Platre; 7828-1116, fax 7200-8434. Serves seafood in an interior courtyard. Although I didn't have a chance to eat here, I will next time because it was highly recommended by locals. Entrees $32-$65.
Cafe-Epicerie, 2 Rue du Boeuf; 7277-4440, fax 7240-9361, www.courdesloges.com. In the Cour des Loges hotel, this trendy place is presided over by Nicolas Le Bec, voted Lyon's top chef of 2002. The imaginative dessert list is headed by a renowned charlotte au chocolat noir. Entrees $32-$65.
Paul Bocuse's Restaurant Bocuse, L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges, 40 Quai de la Plage; 7242-9090, fax 7227-8587, www.bocuse.com. Has three Michelin stars. Entrees $42-$69.
TO LEARN MORE:
Lyon Convention and Visitors Bureau, Place Bellecour; 7277-6969, fax 7842-0432, www.lyon-france.com/pages/en.
French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 210, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; France-on-Call hotline (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, fax (310) 276-2835, www.france guide.com.