Too good to pass through: As Lyon recalls its history, musicians, chefs and DJs are boldly turning the city on the Rhône into one of the most vibrant places in France
“Careful, it’s dark in here!” calls Serge Dorny, the Artistic Director of Lyon National Opera House, vanishing into an entranceway, his camel coat flowing behind him as he takes me on a nocturnal tour. He hurries past long rows of letterboxes, through a pitch-black courtyard, then down another corridor. “I love the traboules,” says Dorny, 54, unruly hair, big glasses, mischievous face, “they have a theatrical feel to them.” The traboules are the 500 or so hidden passageways and corridors that form an informal network of pathways heading in all directions, right through residential blocks and rear courtyards of Lyon’s old town. A red-plush door leading to a nightclub flashes into view and other courtyards follow before we suddenly find ourselves standing on the brightly lit main street of Presqu’île, the peninsula between the Rhône and Saône Rivers, the center of the city.
Lyon, the great unknown among French cities, lies en route from Paris to the Mediterranean. Between the 16th and the 19th century, Lyon was a center of the European silk industry. Sunseekers often pass straight through the city of half a million on their way south – and yet Lyon is well worth a visit in its own right. In Vieux Lyon, one of the largest Renaissance old towns in Europe, there’s no space for proper streets to intersect those that run mainly parallel to the river, so people take the traboules, or passageways, to pass beneath pointed archways and cross inner courtyards and private buildings that connect one street to the next. Dorny points to the closely built district on the hill that rises steeply from the peninsula: La Croix-Russe, once a working-class area. “The traboules enabled the silk weavers to transport their delicate fabrics safely from one side of the district to the other, even in the rain,” explains Dorny, a Belgian by birth who has been living in Lyon for 13 years and is fascinated by the silk weavers’ history.
For a time, half the Lyon population made their living with silk, but often only scraped by. In 1831, when the merchants refused to pay the agreed minimum wage, the Lyonese silk weavers went on strike. Their black banner read: “Life, working – or death, fighting!” Many hundreds of silk weavers were massacred in that first great social rebellion in the early days of industrialized France. Revolts followed in other cities. The traboules testify to the inventiveness of Lyon’s inhabitants, who always remained true to their convictions and passions, even in adverse circumstances. Walking along these passageways today, it’s easy to imagine them being used as escape routes – and as hiding places for French resistance fighters during World War II.
These days, the Croix-Rousse is the hippest neighborhood in town. Strolling through the narrow streets or climbing one of the many crooked flights of steps, you come upon new studios, design stores, cafés and bars. Some people just place a couch and a writing desk against a stone wall and hang up a sign saying: “Office for local currency,” or “I am a creator.” Outside one café, which has board games stacked ceiling-high along its walls, children, elderly people and young men with the beginnings of a paunch all wait to be admitted. It’s not as smart as in central Paris, and there’s plaster flaking off many of the buildings, but people here can still afford to live downtown. Many claim that it’s even better than in Paris: more open, a more manageable size, more down to earth.
“When I was 20, all my friends moved to Paris. At 30, they returned, and these days, we even have Parisians coming in who were neither raised in Lyon nor have family here,” says Vincent Carry, 44. He’s the organizer of the annual music festival Nuits Sonores: five days of electro pop and indie, during which techno stars like Laurent Garnier man the turntable in ancient monasteries, in industrial ruins and in the middle of the street, accompanied by lesser-known musicians from the area.
The festival has long belonged to the repertoire of cultural life in Lyon, and the city is famous for its great electro clubs – to Carry’s great amusement. Back in the nineties, in the days of the great raves, Lyon was the “worst French city for techno,” he explains. The authorities tried to drive the ravers out of town, refusing licenses and closing down clubs. “It was a witch hunt,” says Carry, who ran his own label when he was just 18. But the Lyonese don’t give up easily, as the city fathers should have known. Today, the techno scene is more vibrant than ever.
Carry has another appointment, but he doesn’t leave without recommending, or rather insisting, that we visit the Café Sillon and its chef, Mathieu Rostaing-Tayard who, it seems, is working on a minor culinary revolution. We cross the Rhône, leaving the techno rebel for a culinary one. In the La Guillotière area of town, Moroccan greengrocers and betting shops line the streets, and amid them we spot a juice bar plying kale smoothies. It’s Saturday morning and all is still quiet as the shutters of Café Sillon suddenly begin to rise with a loud screeching sound.
The first thing to appear is a pair of colorful sneakers, then the friendly, slightly crumpled face of Rostaing-Tayard, 34. “Bonjour!” His restaurant – simple wooden tables, worn floor tiles, ultramarine walls – was a bouchon for over a century, he tells me, one of those traditional Lyonese taverns with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and bulbous wine glasses, where they served pike dumplings, tripe, and calf’s head. He sets a tray of croissants and piping-hot coffee down in front of me. Rostaing-Tayard lives right above the restaurant, as was usual in such taverns. But he has departed from the other old, established traditions: “I love bouchon food,” he says, “but no one eats anything so heavy and substantial anymore.” Nor is his style like that of Paul Bocuse, the famous chef who is probably Lyon’s most famous son and personifies like no other French haute cuisine.
Rostaing-Tayard is interested in new and different things. He prefers to use the exotic new ingredients he brings back from his travels. His latest discovery in Brazil: the mild, sweet peppercorns he is serving today in an appetizer consisting of rabbit kidneys with different kinds of cabbage and lemon zest. He also likes to experiment with different styles of preparation. Vegetables he will sometimes serve braised, sometimes dried, sometimes in the form of ice cream. “Some mornings, I have no idea what will be on the evening menu,” he says, laughing.
Lunchtime is here, bringing with it the first diners. Students in dreads and migrants who live locally take their seat alongside office workers at the wooden tables. A man in his late twenties dressed in cords sits down at the bar with a book in his hand and asks to see the wine list. He then calmly works his way through a four-course meal. “It’s the mix that brought me to La Guillotière,” the young chef admits. “Rents are so cheap here that I can keep the prices on my menu low.”
These days we even have Parisians coming here who were neither raised in Lyon nor have family here
Serge Dorny is all for stirring things up and brushing off the dust. After our walk through countless traboules, we find ourselves outside the opera house, a neoclassical building with a barrel-vault roof made of steel and glass and bathed in red light. The architect Jean Nouvel crowned the building thus in the early nineties, as well as adding escalators for universal accessibility, and doing out the large auditorium entirely in black, without any embellishments.
It’s not a question of making an impression anymore, Dorny explains. “Opera houses can often be intimidating, and many of them remain closed all day, only to open in the evening to admit a select few.” Dorny began opening the opera house duing the daytime, too, regularly inviting school groups and organizing jazz concerts there.
Right after taking the job as opera director in 2003, he decided to open a café outside the main entrance as a window on the world. But others were already using that space: groups of break dancers who twirled and spun across the smooth, mirror-like marble floor. Dorny could have called the authorities and had the space cleared, but he bought the kids a beer instead and learned that they were practicing for a competition. Without a second thought, he handed them the key to a rehearsal room and lent them a choreographer. “That was something totally new for me, really fascinating. Plus, I wanted to have the café,” says Dorny. Since then, the Pockemon Crew breakdancers have snagged one prize after another, and some of the dancers have even worked with famous acts such as the Chemical Brothers and Madonna.
Dorny, on the other hand, has used political productions and affordable tickets to win himself an audience so young and socially diverse that the bosses of other European opera houses pale with envy. He welcomes new operas, even those written by politicians or former revolutionaries. Many people consider opera to be a doomed genre, but in Lyon, it is more alive than ever. And that is just as it should be in this defiant city.
le lavoir public
Dance between the tubs: This one-time bathhouse hosts concerts and parties.
L’œil de boeuf
One of many galleries on Rue René Leynaud, this one showcases new local talent.
café des négociants
Fancy stucco and the best hot chocolate in town: This place is always packed.
Guests can look forward to designer rooms, great food and a fantastic river view.
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