Just over a decade ago, Lyon was considered anything but cutting-edge.
At one time, the city was renowned for its Roman ruins, medieval churches and renaissance architecture. It was also considered the gastronomic capital of France. Home to countless rustic bistros, known as bouchons, serving hearty traditional Lyonnais fare such as charcuterie, sausages, and offal -- even the cuisine dated back to the 16th-century.
By the 1990s, however, the city had developed a reputation as a dirty industrial town that had been forgotten by tourists who flocked to the sun and sand of southern France.
That's when a mayor, Michel Noir, tired of Lyon's faded reputation, transformed the city into a hothouse of modern development. He hired internationally renowned architects, investing in major city works. In doing so, he tapped not only into Lyon's storied past, but also into the dormant spirit of the city's residents.
"Even though Lyon is filled with historical architecture," says local artist Hadan Figen as she gives me an insider's tour of the renovated Opera House, "the Lyonnais are very open to embracing au courant design, making it a dynamic city attractive to many young people."
Today, Renaissance landmarks on narrow cobblestone streets sit next to chic boutiques and sleek office buildings creating a meld of 15th-century architecture and 21st-century design. And a new crop of chefs, such as the two Michelin-starred Mathieu Viannay of La M®re Brazier, are dishing up the latest interpretation of typical Lyonnais fare.
Lyon remains a walking town and one that's easy to navigate. Sandrine Clauzier, a guide with the Lyon Tourist office, likens the city to a book where each district represents a chapter in the city's 2,000 years of development.
"Alors, chapter one begins around 15 BC, with the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre atop hill Fourvi®re, continues down the hill to chapter two, the medieval and renaissance ages of Vieux Lyon, cross the Sa¥ne and you're in chapter three, Presque'ile, with 17th-and- 18th-century architecture and west of the Rhone you have the latest instalment, the business district Part Dieu, built in the 1970s."
The latest chapter, the sprawling Confluence complex and its museum are slated to be finished in 2014.
As per Clauzier's instructions, we started our visit to Lyon with chapter one and the Roman ruins, followed by a visit to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, whose soaring spires dominate the Lyon skyline. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, its rich interiors include glittering mosaics, awe-inspiring stained glass, and majestic statues.
While descending the steep hill into Vieux Lyon, originally the home to over 30,000 silk weavers in the mid 1500s, Clauzier points out traces of Roman ruins beneath my feet. It's easy to be charmed by Vieux Lyon with its maze of twisting cobblestone streets (Ladies be warned: flats are a must), rose-coloured renaissance towers, shops and countless caf©s, but when Clauzier opens one of a few heavy wooden doors lining the street, I am taken aback by the unexpected as we enter a secret passageway, or traboule.
Unique to Vieux Lyon and built in the Middle Ages to optimize space, they were originally used by the silk weavers, or canuts, to transport goods. Now these passages merely serve as a shortcut between streets. Today, only one weaver remains in the old town, Ludovic De La Calle, who still works on a Jacquard loom. When I ask him what will happen when he dies, he merely shrugs. "I taught my sons."
Heading across the river and past the shops with their avant-garde window displays, we stop at Place Bellecour, the third-largest square in France, to admire the imposing statue of Louis XIV, the Sun King. From there it's up the rue du President âdouard Herriot with its mix of fashionable stores, ancient and modern architecture and inspired restaurants, to what is considered to be the centre of the city, Presque'ile. Landmarks here include: the Hotel de Ville (City Hall); Saint-Pierre Palace, formerly a Benedictine Abbey; the Mus©e de Beaux-Arts, often called the Petit Louvre; and the Lyon Opera House, the ultimate example of a stunning blend of past and present with its 19th-century facade and gleaming glass and steel-domed roof.
Originally built in 1756, torn down and rebuilt in 1831, French architect Jean Nouvel is responsible for its latest redevelopment. Commissioned in 1986, it took Nouvel seven years to turn the opera house from a crumbling wreck into an architectural tour de force.
"It was a source of great discussion when it was finished," says artist Hagen Figen, "because the architect took down the gilt and ornamentation, except in the grand foyer -- the only room conserved from the 19th century -- and introduced a very modern black interior with low ceilings, granite floors and pot lighting reminiscent of an ocean liner, as he liked to travel. Not everyone was pleased with the transformation. However, the Lyonnais have grown to accept it."
After a quick trip to T�te d'Or park and the adjoining Cit© International -- a modern city within a city including several convention centres, cinemas, restaurants, hotels, apartments and the Modern Art Museum -- it's off by vaporetta to check out the sprawling contemporary complex, La Confluence.
Teeming with construction vehicles and cranes, this ambitious project, begun in 2003, is still underway with phase two expected to be completed in the next 10 to 15 years. Located at the junction of the city's two rivers, this formerly abandoned industrial land has now been transformed into exhibition spaces, galleries, media offices and restaurants, all linked by parks and pedestrian parkways. Worthy of attention is Le Cube Orange, an oversized, bright orange office building with a perforated mesh exterior.
One thing that has not changed about Lyon is the fact it has firmly held on to its title as the gastronomic capital of France. March© St Antoine in the Quai Saint Antoine is ripe with an abundance of local produce, including oversized wheels of St. Marcellin cheese, regional charcuterie, such as Rosette and Boudin sausages and the must-try local specialty, praline tarts from C¥t© Desserts.
And if you are looking for the makings for an elaborate picnic, cross the river to Les Halles de Bocuse, the gleaming covered market named after France's most celebrated chef, Paul Bocuse.
And to visit Lyon is to be told to eat at one of the award-winning bouchons. Last November, the chamber of commerce created Le Label Bouchon Lyonnais to designate establishments serving authentic Lyonnais fare. Heading the top of the list is Daniel and Denise. Featuring a traditional decor of red-and-white checkered tablecloths and lace curtains, and serving the Lyonnais classic of sausages, braised meats terrines and the highly addictive Gratons Lyonnais (crispy fried pork rinds), it's obvious why this restaurant tops the list.
"With over 2,000 bouchons in the city," explains my dining partner Olivia Poncy, the manager of the Rhone Alps Tourism office, "if they are no good, they quickly close."
And after my whirlwind tour of the city, while sitting with a glass of wine and a dish of Gratons (I couldn't get enough of them) in Le Grand Caf©© Negociants overlooking the bustling city centre, I had to agree with my guide, Sandrine, that Lyon was indeed very much like a book. A very good one, that I didn't want to put down.
-- Postmedia News