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Lyon, France's Proud Second City

Lyon, France

Lyon, which in many ways rivals Paris, has Roman ruins, a dazzling cathedral, and — as a thriving center of the silk industry — an industrial revolution heritage.

Complete Video Script

We're starting in Lyon, the gateway to the French Alps. Straddling two mighty rivers and on the border between the regions of Provence and Burgundy, Lyon has been one of the leading cities in France since ancient Roman times. After Paris, it's arguably the most historic and culturally important city in the country.

Despite being one of France's largest cities, Lyon has an old center that feels peaceful and manageable. Traffic noise is replaced by pedestrian friendliness and lots of green transport. Along with its characteristic Old World lanes, Lyon has grand quarters with 19th-century architecture that feels much like Paris. And it also has a modern cultural center.

To sort it out, it's always nice to have a local connection, and I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide Virginie Moré.

Rick: So what's special about Lyon?
Virginie: Well, Lyon might not be the capital of France — however, in Lyon we are very proud, and we tend to say that we have more capital titles than Paris has.
Rick: Such as?
Virginie: We were the first Roman ancient city of Gaul.
Rick: So, the capital of Gaul?
Virginie: The capital of Gaul. Then we were the city from where Christianity spread all over France. In the 16th century, we were the capital of the Renaissance. During World War II, we were the capital of the Résistance against the Nazi oppressor.
Rick: So, that's four capitals?
Virginie: But let's not forget the last one, which might be the most important: We are the capital of food — way before Paris.
Rick: Food!
Virginie: Yes!
Rick: Bon appétit.
Virginie: Bon appétit!

A park showcases the city's archeological treasures. Its impressive ancient Roman theaters make the importance of Lyon as a Gallo-Roman capital clear.

You hear the term "Gallo-Roman" a lot here in France. The Gauls were the original French tribe. Two thousand years ago, the Romans conquered them, and they were assimilated into the vast Roman Empire. In many ways, the France we know today grew from this Gallo-Roman civilization.

Virginie: In the first century, the Roman city of Lyon had a population of 50,000 people — which is four times as big as Roman Paris. So the city was a critical hub for transportation, and it became the economic, religious, and administrative capital of Roman Gaul.

And Lyon's grand churches attest to the city's importance as a leading Christian center. In about the year 1870, the Prussians (from Germany) were threatening the city. The local bishop vowed to build a tribute to the Virgin Mary if the city was spared. It was, and construction commenced. This church, the Basilica of Notre-Dame, was ready for worship just in time for the outbreak of the next war, World War I.

Inside, everything is covered with dazzling neo-Byzantine art celebrating Mary. It's all about Notre Dame — "Our Lady." Amble slowly down the center aisle. Scenes glittering on the walls illustrate a Virgin Mary–centric sweep through history — church history on one side, French history on the other.

These scenes, like about everything else in the church, lead to the high altar, where Mary reigns as Queen of Heaven.

An unforgettable way to experience the church is to climb to its rooftop. With a guided tour, we enjoy a close-up look at the architecture, a grand view of the city, and more reminders of how, here in Lyon, the Virgin Mary is golden.

The streets of Old Lyon are lined with well-preserved Renaissance buildings. The city grew rich from its silk industry, trade fairs, and banking.

Virginie: Lyon is famous for its traboules, which are hidden covered passageways — that enables you to cross from one street to another, being protected. So, 500 years ago, the noble families of Lyon used to live here. See, look at this fine Renaissance staircase.
Rick: That's beautiful!
Virginie: There are more than a hundred of those passageways in the Old Lyon.
Rick: So, Lyon is honeycombed with these?
Virginie: Exactly. And when silk was the main industry in this city, they used to transport the silk from one street to another — being covered from the weather.
Rick: OK.
Virginie: And more recently during World War II, the Resistance fighters used them to escape the Nazis.
Rick: That's right, because Lyon was the leading Resistance city.

This part of the old town is Lyon's historic silk district. Lyon's silk industry was huge during the Industrial Revolution. At its peak, in the mid-1800s, it was churning with 30,000 looms. The characteristic tall windows ensured that weavers working the looms had enough light for the longest workdays possible.

And it was the Jacquard loom, invented here in Lyon in the early 1800s, that revolutionized this industry. This loom — amazing technology for the time — automated much of the process, allowing one person, rather than an entire family, to weave the precious cloth. With the shuttle loaded with colorful silk thread, the loom worker patiently wove the prized fabric.

This silk workshop welcomes the public to drop in to see silk printing and screen painting done in the traditional way. Buckets of paint are artfully mixed by hand. A vast collection of hundred-year-old print blocks still provides the patterns to decorate the cloth. Lyon helped establish the industry of such printing on silk and cotton. This technique made beautiful silk less costly and therefore more accessible to the masses.

Upstairs a boutique sells handprinted silk — with a delightful array of colorful ties and scarves.