Thursday, May 22, 2014

France 2014: Lyon - Districts, Traboules, Murals

Traveling from Bourges to Lyon, I have redeveloped my love-hate relationship with our Garmin GPS.  It is indisputable that the Garmin has saved us and will continue to save us from getting lost numerous times, but it also has its challenges.  For instance, who would have thought that the voice on this device would have a significantly worse pronunciation of the French language than our own feeble attempts?  And what's with continually telling us to turn right or left, but about 3 seconds after we passed the turn?  After a stress-filled drive that involved multiple missed turns and the necessity for the GPS to continually recalculate a new route, we finally reached our hotel in the inner city of Lyon.

Lyon is a pretty city that has a peninsula at its centre, which is separated from the Old Town by the Soane River to the west, and from the Part-Dieu business district by the Rhône River to the east.  This results in long stretches of scenic pedestrian paths that hug the banks of each river, and picturesque bridges connecting the various parts of the city.

The history of Vieux Lyon dates back to the Middle Ages when it was the focal point of religious and political power.  Though the centuries, it became home for banker-merchants, and then the silk weavers before they moved north to the Croix-Rousse district.  Today, Vieux Lyon's cobblestone streets and narrow laneways are filled with touristy shops and restaurants.  Some of them still bear the markings of their past owners.

At the lower end of the peninsula, the Presqu'île district is a hub for cafés, restaurants, higher-end shops and department stores, government buildings including the City Hall or Hôtel de Ville, cultural instituations such as the Musée des Beaux Arts, squares with fountains and churches like the Church of St. Nizier.

North of Presqu'île, the hill-top district of Croix-Rousse is the trendy district of Lyon that is dominated by the silk industry.  It is a long, steep climb up many flights of stairs to get to the top, but the spectacular views make it worth the effort.

 Both Vieux Lyon and Croix-Rousse are unique for their traboules, which are covered passageways that connect different streets in the area.  They were originally used by the silk manufacturers and other merchants to transport their wares under shelter.  Today, many of the traboules lead to private apartments but a few of them are open to the public for access.  It is a very weird and unique experience to start off in a bustling street of the old town, enter into a dark narrow tunnel, follow the path and exit onto another busy street.  Once in a while, the traboules lead through buildings with spiral staircases, turrets, and open courtyards.

Our original plan was to take a guided walking tour of the Old town on one day, and then wander around Croix-Rousse on the next.  When we got to the Tourist Office, we found that the guided tour was full.  Instead we opted to rent audio guides that would take us on a self guided tour–but the audio guide covered both the Old Town and Croix-Rousse!  So we ended up visiting both areas in one day and had to hurry to finish before 6pm so we could return the guides.  As it turned out, the audio guides probably worked out better than a guided tour, since we could go at our own pace and take little detours to bakeries and quaint shops along the way.  But that turned out to be a massive walking day including a big climb up the Croix-Rousse hill!  We slept well that night.

Lyon is also known for its large scale murals that are painted on the entire height and width of building walls, often using trompe d'oeil effects.  The most famous ones are in the Presqu'île and Croix-Rousse areas.  La Bibliothèque de la Cité  depicts the scene of a giant bookstore with a storefront so realistic that you think you can walk through it.  La Fresque des Lyonnais shows an elegant apartment with famous historic figures of Lyon such as the Lumiere brothers who are credited with inventing the cinema film. La Mur des Canuts illustrates a set of buildings separated by the steep stairs that are prevalent in the Croix Rousse district.  In the windows of the apartments, the daily lives of the silk weavers are depicted.  Driving towards it from afar, you would think it was a real street.

Tony Garnier was a noted architect and city planner for Lyon at the turn of the 20th Century.   He developed elaborate plans for low-cost housing and other community facilities in the 8th arrondissement, in an area that was named the Quartier des Etats-Unis, in honour of the United States who had just joined as allies in the first World War.  His plans called for low-rise structures with shops on the ground floor, three extra floors of tenant units that included balconies, gas, electricity and indoor toilets, all revolutionary for low-income housing in those days.  The structures were to be built along multiple streets, separated by parks and green space.

Garnier's plans involved an entire community and industrial city that included schools, nurseries, libraries, factories, transportation hubs, and much more.  In an effort to cram more people into the space, city council mandated changes to his housing designs, raising the height from three to five storeys and eliminating the balconies.  Today, only three prototype houses reflect his original design.  Council also nixed most of his other initiatives.  In the 1980s, a tenants committee worked on renovating Garnier's buildings and created a museum dedicated to him.  As part of this, artists painted large murals on the walls of his buildings, illustrating Garnier's original vision.  For 5 Euros, we received a pamphlet that provided a self-guided walking tour of the painted walls.

Also painted on the walls of Tony Garnier's buildings are artist renderings of their image of the ideal city for places like Russia, India, and Egypt.  Tony Garnier was obviously a visionary ahead of his time, who strived for humane living and working conditions for the lower-class.  It's too bad that only a small portion of his Cité Industrielle utopian project was realized.

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