Going to the hill of Fourvière in Lyon is an experience you will not forget. Discovering this hill is like travelling through time, going back to the Roman era.
The emblematic hill of Fourvière: a historic site!
Fourvière Hill used to be the city’s centre when the Romans founded Lugdunum (the city we know today as Lyon), in 43 BC. It is thus a very interesting place to discover and understand Lyon’s history. Furthermore, several churches were built on the hill, some of them being quite unique. The most emblematic one is the Basilique de Fourvière (Fourvière Basilica), which dominates the whole city of Lyon. Most of Fourvière Hill is part of the historical site of Lyon, which was ranked as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1998.
Fourvière’s “Montées” (slopes)
If you want to go for a walk to Fourvière Hill from Lyon Presqu’île, you must first reach Lyon Old Town (le Vieux-Lyon), on the right bank of the Saône river. From here, you must be ready to face one of the Fourvière Hill’s famous “Montées” (slopes). There are several rises which link different parts of the “Vieux-Lyon” to Fourvière Hill and some of them are stairs. The longest one is the Montée des Carmes-Déchaussées, combined with the Montée Nicolas de Lange. You must use them if you want to join Fourvière Basilica from the Saint-Paul area in the northern part of the old town. But you had better be ready to climb their 798 steps! You can also go through the Montée des Chazeaux which links the central part of Fourvière Hill to the Saint-Jean district in Lyon Old Town. Even if quite short (228 steps!), it remains a difficult climb. However, the view from the top is worth the effort. You can have an overview of the Vieux-Lyon area, especially of Lyon Cathedral, up to the Saône banks.
Nowadays the slopes are secure and easily accessible. However, that was not always the case, especially when Lyon Old Town was abandoned by Lyon’s municipality in the first half of the 20th century. On 13th November 1930, some buildings collapsed and 40 people died because of a mudslide on the Montée du Chemin-Neuf. Thanks to the restoration of the Vieux-Lyon area, everything is now secure and you can enjoy the lookouts over the whole city of Lyon from the slopes.
If you do not feel like climbing, you can access Fourvière Hill by a quicker way. To get to the top, you can use the funicular railway which scales Fourvière slopes. You can take the funicular after reaching the “Vieux-Lyon” underground station, on Lyon’s metro D line. The funicular goes to two locations on Fourvière Hill. The “Fourvière” line has taken people to the main part of the hill, close to the basilica, since 1900. The “Saint-Just” line has linked the Old Town to the Southern part of the hill since 1878, with a first stop close to the ancient Roman theatres.
Site Archéologique de Fourvière (Fourvière archaeological park)
Fourvière Hill was the first part of Lyon (back then called Lugdunum) to be settled and developed. Many remains of the town from the Roman era can be seen and visited there.
The most famous sites are the ancient theatre and the Odeon of Lyon. Both of these buildings form a pair that is almost unique in ancient Gaul. The same configuration can only be seen in the French city of Vienne, located 30 kilometres to the South of Lyon.
The theatre and the Odeon are part of Fourvière’s archaeological park. You can enter the park from the North on Rue Cléberg or from the South on Rue de l’Antiquaille. The ancient theatres are part of a Roman district you can visit. The first official excavations took place in 1933. They aimed to find the ancient amphitheatre, where Christian martyrs were killed in 177. Since then, the excavations have revealed a huge amount of information to historians, who have found streets, shops and several buildings from the Roman era. For example, they discovered that the amphitheatre did not stand on Fourvière Hill, but on another hill in Lyon, today named Croix-Rousse.
For years, it was widely thought that a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Cybele stood on Fourvière Hill. However, thanks to recent excavations, historians have discovered this was wrong. Archaeologists now think the monumental building that used to stand above the theatre was the palace of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. This Roman statesman was important in Lyon’s history. He created the “Via Agrippa”, a Roman road network, of which Lyon was the centre. Next to it, archaeologists found the remains of an ancient reservoir that was part of the Lugdunum aqueducts network. In the 2nd century, it was a 26-metre long and 9-metre wide tank, which was used to stock and clean the water brought to Fourvière Hill from the cities to the West of Lugdunum.
Finally, the excavations led to discovering the ancient theatres. The Fourvière ancient theatre was built in two stages. The construction was initiated around 15 BC, while the Roman emperor was Augustus. In the beginning, the theatre was quite small, with a diameter of 89 metres. It was made with stones from the quarries of Glanum, a fortified town on the outskirts of the Alpilles, in Provence. In the 2nd century AD, the theatre was extended thanks to Emperor Hadrian. The diameter was increased to 109 metres. Its capacity was doubled, from 5,000 to 10,000 spectators. The background wall of the stage was erected. The orchestra floor was rebuilt. It was 46 metres long and 3.8 metres wide. It was used to fix the curtain which was used to signal the beginning or the end of a performance. At the entrance, thirty columns create a gate. Nowadays, only the foundations of the background wall remain. However, the mechanism of the under stage area was intact when discovered by the archaeologists. It is now exhibited in the nearby Roman Civilisation Museum.
Next to the theatre, the Odeon was built in the 2nd century. Even though it is still not clear, archaeologists think it was constructed while the near-by theatre was refurbished and extended. The Odeon is quite similar in shape to the theatre. However, it is far smaller with a diameter of 73 metres. So far, only twenty Odeons have been discovered throughout the Roman empire. Unlike the theatre, the Odeon building was only used for musical performances and conferences. The Odeon was dedicated to the elite of Lugdunum. It might have been covered, according to the archaeologists’ interpretation of the thickness of the Odeon’s bailey.
Like other ancient theatres in Orange or Vienne, Lyon’s theatre and Odeon are the setting for performances. Every summer since 1946, a festival has taken place in these buildings. The festival is named “Les Nuits de Fourvière” (Fourvière Night Festival). In June and July, there are around 60 performances, which brought together more than 130,000 spectators in 2012. Various types of arts are involved, including theatre, opera and dance. Pop-music concerts also take place during the festival, which every year welcomes many French and internationally famous singers. Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Sting, Charles Aznavour, Juliette Gréco and Vanessa Paradis have performed in the ancient theatre during the festival.
Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière (Lyon Fourvière Museum of Gallo-Roman civilization)
The Lyon Fourvière Museum of Gallo-Roman civilisation was opened in 1975. It is located next to the ancient theatres, to the North. The aim of the museum is to preserve and exhibit the remains from the Roman era found by archaeologists in and around Lyon. In order to preserve the archaeological site, the architect Bernard Zehrfuss was asked to create a museum that would fit in with its environment. The architect imagined a buried construction. The result is surprising: when walking around in the archaeological site, you almost cannot notice the museum. Only two bay windows, called “canons à lumière” (light cannons) allow the museum’s visitors to enjoy the view of the theatres while visiting the exhibition spaces. Those seventeen spaces are devoted to daily life in Lyon during the Roman era.
Among the objects, you can see craftsmen working tools, but there are also more institutional items such as a transcription of Lugdunum-born Emperor Claude’s speech on equal rights. The speech was carved into bronze and discovered in 1528 by a draper. This speech gave Gaul’s citizens the same rights (and duties) as the other people living in the Roman Empire. Temporary exhibitions also take place in the museum, which has become a landmark in Lyon.
Remains of Lyon’s ancient aqueducts
As the city centre during the Roman era of Lugdunum, water had to be provided to the area we know today as Lyon Fourvière. The hill itself only had a few springs. Those were not sufficient to supply water to all the population of Lugdunum. Consequently, the administrators of the city decided to bring water to the city from near-by springs. To do so, they commissioned aqueducts to be built.
Aqueducts were already used throughout the Roman Empire. It was not something new to build new ones in Lugdunum. However, it was quite difficult considering the fact that the area is hilly. Contrary to some other flat places, the water had to go down and then climb up to reach Fourvière Hill’s living areas. For instance, water in one of the aqueducts (the Gier aqueduct) had to climb 176 metres to reach the top of Fourvière Hill from the Yzeron Valley. Bringing water from the valley to the hill was a challenge for Roman architects. Siphons were created. The water left from an upright-located reservoir. Then, it went down as a result of atmospheric pressure, so water could pick up speed and climb up to its final stop in another reservoir.
According to archaeologists and historians, four aqueducts were built to bring water to Lugdunum.
- The “Aqueduc des Monts d’Or” (Golden Mounts Aqueduct) was built around 20 BC, on the orders of Marcus Vipsianius Agrippa. The aqueduct was 26 kilometres long, including 22 kilometres that were buried. It started from a stream called the Thou and arrived in Southern Fourvière Hill, in the Minimes area.
- The “Aqueduc de l’Yzeron” was constructed around 9 BC. It went from today’s Lyon western suburb of Yzeron to the Point-du-Jour area, in the South-West of Fourvière Hill. The Yzeron aqueduct was unique, because it had various sources. The pipes met in Craponne, about eight kilometres to the west of Lugdunum.
- The “Aqueduc de la Brévenne” dates from the beginning of the 1st century AD. Its water output might have been up to 324 litres per second, making the Brévenne aqueduct the most powerful one in Lugdunum.
- Finally, the “Aqueduc du Gier” was built around 130 AD. It is the longest of Lugdunum’s aqueducts, being 86 kilometres from Saint-Chamond, to Lyon’s south-west. There are quite a lot of remains left from this aqueduct, especially in Chaponost, in Lyon’s western suburbs.
In the Fourvière area, you can see a few remains of the Aqueduc du Gier, at the end of Rue Roger Radisson. This street used to be the Via Aquitania which left Lugdunum to reach western Gaul. Those remains, which are just next to houses, were ranked as historical monuments in 1964.
Parc des Hauteurs
From the archaeological park of Lyon Fourvière, you can easily reach the other main area of the hill, around the basilica and the Parc des Hauteurs, a promenade on Fourvière Heights.
The Parc des Hauteurs project is actually quite recent: it was created in 1989. Back then, Lyon’s municipality was looking for a way of preserving and enriching Fourvière Heights. They believed that Lyon was lucky to have developed around Fourvière Hill, which was (and still is) a historical site that did not suffer damage from intense human activity during the industrialisation era. To promote this area, it was decided to build a promenade that would allow people to stroll from the eastern part of Fourvière Hill (Loyasse cemetery) to the right bank of the Saône, in Lyon Old Town. While walking along this promenade, people would come across places such as the Basilica, the Metallic Tower, Fourvière slopes and the Old Town.
Let’s start from the Jardin du Rosaire, which is the western part of the Parc des Hauteurs. You can enter the Garden from Lyon Old Town’s Montée Saint-Barthélémy (St. Bartholomew slope). The Garden is made up of lovely pathways that climb up to Fourvière Basilica, surrounded by bushes and trees. There are lookouts over the city of Lyon and Croix-Rousse Hill, as well as on the Chevet of the Basilica. Along the walk, there are several small gardens devoted to different flowers or architectures: Garden of the roses, Chinese garden, Coloured garden… Walking in the Jardin du Rosaire is an enjoyable stroll, especially during summer: the trees all around the pathways bring shade and make the walk quite cool when it’s too warm in town! The walk through Jardin du Rosaire will bring you to Fourvière Esplanade, from where you can visit the archaeological park going to the South.
Then, you can continue your journey through the Parc des Hauteurs visiting the Jardin de la Visitation (Visitation Garden). The garden takes its name from the Order of the Visitation of the Holy Mary, which is a Roman Catholic religious order intended for women. The “Visitandines” acquired a part of the area in the 1850s, to build a new convent after having fled from Croix-Rousse Hill because of the Canuts’ riots. The cloister was built following plans by architect Pierre Bossan, whose sister was part of the Order of the Visitation. This is one of Bossan’s first works in Lyon, eighteen years before he started working on Notre-Dame de Fourvière Basilica. The convent kept being transformed for decades, until the beginning of the twentieth century. Then, the nuns faced financial problems, which were also the consequence of the introduction of French secularism in 1905. In 1965, the convent was eventually sold to the Lyon Municipality. After having considered turning the convent into a school of architecture, the building was finally rented to the civil hospices of Lyon, to become their record office. Originally laid out by the nuns, the park of the cloister is now public. It is a nice place to visit as it is really quiet and peaceful. There, you can enjoy a beautiful view over the Odeon of Lyon and Southern Presqu’île.
After strolling through the Visitation Gardens, you can continue your journey through the Parc des Hauteurs on Rue Pauline-Marie Jacot to the Loyasse Cemetery. From there, turn right on Chemin du Viaduc (Viaduct lane), which leads to the Passerelle des Quatre-Vents (Belvedere Footbridge). The 72-metre long footbridge used to be a viaduct part of the tramway line that linked Loyasse Cemetery to Fourvière Esplanade. Only 800 metres long, it was the shortest tramway line in France before it was destroyed in 1952. The footbridge was built in 1993, where the former viaduct used to stand. It was designed by architect Manuelle Gontrand and engineer Marc Malinowski, before being landscaped by Michel Desvigne and Christine Dalnoky. The footbridge has quickly become one of the most famous lookouts in Lyon. From there, you can see Fourvière Metallic Tower and Basilica on the one side and Croix-Rousse Hill on the other side. The footbridge ends on an impressive Metallic structure: the Fourvière Metallic Tower.
Tour métallique de Fourvière (Fourvière Metallic Tower)
When you see the Metallic Tower of Fourvière, you can’t help thinking about another famous steel-made French building… the Eiffel Tower! However, the two buildings do not really have anything in common. If the Fourvière Metallic Tower was not made by Gustave Eiffel, its shape is very close to the Paris building’s third and final floor. However, the tower in Lyon is far smaller, since it is only 86 metres high, compared to the Eiffel Tower at 324 metres.
Fourvière Metallic Tower was built a few years after the Eiffel Tower (1887-1889), in 1893 and 1894. It was built for the 1914 World Fair which took place in Lyon. Back then, there was a restaurant on the ground floor of the tower, as well as an elevator which could take up to 22 people to the top of the building to enjoy the view over Lyon. In 1953, the Tower was bought by the RTF (the French national agency which brought radio and television to the public) from the previous owners, a family from Lyon. The tower, which is the high point of Lyon, ceased being an observation point and has been used as a television transmitter since 1963. Consequently, the restaurant closed and the whole tower has been closed to the public since then.
Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière (Our Lady of Fourvière Basilica)
From the Passerelle des Quatre-Vents and Fourvière Metallic Tower, you can easily join the Fourvière Basilica esplanade, a few metres away to the south. The esplanade used to be the ancient Roman forum, called Forum Vetus. This name evolved into “Fourvière”. In the forecourt of the Basilica stands a statue of Pope John Paul II, which was erected in 2011, twenty-five years after the Pope’s visit to Lyon. The statue by Elisabeth Cibot is made of bronze, is 4.5 metres high and weighs more than seven tons. It is looking at the whole city of Lyon with the Pope’s arms open, reproducing John Paul II’s stance while blessing Lyon in 1986.
On 8 December 1852 (during the feast of the Immaculate Conception), a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary was erected at the top of the 12th-century Fourvière Chapel, which had just received a new bell tower. The new statue was then meant to overlook the whole city, in order to symbolise the Virgin’s protection over Lyon. On that day, a ceremony took place to bless the statue and the new bell tower. The people of Lyon quite spontaneously placed some candles in their windows, to honour the Virgin Mary. This is the origin of the Lyon Festival of Lights, which has been taking place every year on 8 December.
Next to that chapel, the Basilica is a massive building from the 19th century. When you go to Lyon, you simply cannot miss the Basilica, which can be seen from many places in the city, such as the Rhône banks or Place Bellecour. Its situation on the top of Fourvière Hill enables the Basilica to overlook the whole city of Lyon. People from Lyon are used to this silhouette, which many of them consider as protective and benevolent.
Fourvière Basilica has been dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who has been the protectress of Lyon for centuries. Before the Basilica was actually built, a few dates endeared the people of Lyon to the Holy Mary. The first one is 1643, when the spread of the plague was threatening the region of Lyon. To stop the plague epidemic, the city council’s aldermen decided to dedicate the city to the Virgin Mary. They made a solemn promise: every year, they would go on a pilgrimage to the top of Fourvière Hill if the city was freed from the plague. There, they would offer the Virgin a gold écu coin and a 7 kilo candle. The epidemic eventually ended and left the town: the “Vœu des échevins” (the aldermen’s vow) was answered. Since then, the vow has been repeated every year on 8 September (the day of the Virgin Mary’s Nativity feast) during a Mass at Fourvière Basilica by Lyon’s archbishop, in the presence of Lyon’s mayor and city councillors.
However, the origin of the Basilica’s construction dates from a few years later, in 1870, when France was facing the Franco-Prussian war. Lyon citizens prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect the city, so that the war did not reach Lyon. Lyon’s archbishop, Jacques-Marie-Achille Ginoulhiac, made the promise to build a new sanctuary dedicated to the worship of the Virgin Mary if the Prussians did not invade the city. Once again, the prayer was answered and the Basilica was built. To finance the building, many people of Lyon gave sums of money or even jewels, which led to the foundation stone being laid in 1872. The architect was Pierre Bossan, who had already designed the “Visitandines” Cloister on Fourvière Hill. He was inspired by both Romanesque and Byzantine architecture. After his death, the work was carried on by architect Sainte-Marie Perrin.
From the outside, the Basilica can be easily recognised with its four octagonal towers, which rise to 49 metres and symbolise the cardinal virtues. The north-east tower represents prudence, the north-west tower depicts strength, the south-west tower personifies justice and the south-east one temperance. That tower is said to be subjected to a curse: from 1889 to 1919, four different bells were installed at her top. The first one was too big and did not fit! The second one could not be tied down and the third one split. Finally the fourth bell was installed in 1895. It worked until 1919, when its sound suddenly changed! Since then, there is no bell on the south-east tower of the Basilica. The two eastern towers can be climbed. On the north-east tower, there is an observation platform made of lava stone. Being one of Lyon’s highest points, it offers one of the most beautiful views over Lyon.
The northern wall represents allegories of faith, hope and charity. On the 35 metre long facade, the main portico is composed of three arches, above which is a gallery which represents twelve figures from Lyon’s 19th century. The actual doors of the church are made of bronze. From left to right: Jules-Emile Planchon (a botanist), Lucien Brun, Antoine Frapet (two aldermen), Prosper Dugas (a banker), Alphonse de Boissieu (a writer), Laurent-Paul Brac de la Perrière (a lawyer who helped fund the construction of the Basilica), Pierre-Hector Couillé, Louis-Marie Caverot, Jacques-Marie-Achille Ginoulhiac, Louis-Jacques-Maurice de Bonald (five archbishops of Lyon) and Pierre Bossan, the architect of the Basilica who died a few years before the actual inauguration of the church. Above the gallery, the Virgin Mary is represented with Archangels Gabriel (on her left) and Michel (on her right). The triangle at the top symbolises the aldermen’s vow to free the city from the plague, in 1643. At the bottom of the façade, the Lion of Judah, which was sculpted by Charles Dufraine, guards the entrance of the Basilica’s crypt.
The crypt is the darkest part of the Basilica and is quite understated. It is dedicated to St Joseph, which was a wish of Pierre Bossan. It is less than ten metres high, which gives an impression of simplicity. The architect wanted visitors to enter the church going first to the crypt: they would be in a quite simple place before reaching the impressiveness of the upper church. The high altar’s ornamental tiling represents the Seven Deadly Vices: pride is depicted as a peacock, sloth as a tortoise, lust as a ram, envy as a snake, evil as a seven-headed dragon, wrath as a cat, and greed as ants dragging a fly. The high altar statue depicts St Joseph with Child. The sculpture was made by Joseph-Hugues Fabisch, who represented St Joseph’s face using Pierre Bossan’s.
The interior of the upper church is stunning: the rich decoration jumps out. The main colour is blue, which is the colour of the Virgin Mary and gold is also dominant in the church’s interior, especially in the mosaics by Charles Lameire and Georges Décote. The glass windows are also impressive, being exceptionally luminous. The church is divided into three naves, above which there are three cupolas depicting the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity. Meanwhile, Mary’s earthly life is represented in the chapels, the Virgin in France and in the World being depicted on the mosaics and her Queenship on the glass windows. Six ceiling lights made of brass were installed during the last restoration of the Basilica, which was completed in 2013. Each of them weighs more than 500 kilos, allowing some details of the mosaics to be noticed by the visitors. In the apse stands a stunning statue of the Virgin, by Paul-Emile Millefaut. The sculpture is made of Carrara marble.
The Chapelle Saint-Thomas (St. Thomas Chapel) is located next to the Basilica, to the north. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to St Thomas of Canterbury and is Fourvière Hill’s original chapel, as it was first built in the 12th century. It was destroyed by the Huguenots in 1552, during the Wars of Religion, before being rebuilt at the end of the 17th century. Pilgrims visit the chapel to see its 16th century Black Virgin. Its bell tower was enlarged in 1852, in order to welcome the famous gilded statue of the Virgin Mary by Joseph-Hugues Fabisch.
Quartiers Minimes et Saint-Just (Minims and St. Just areas)
The Southern part of Fourvière Hill, with Minimes and St Just areas, is quite interesting to visit. You can go back to the eastern entrance of the Archaeological Park, on Rue de l’Antiquaille, which marks the entrance of the Minimes area. The name of the district refers to the Minims, a Catholic religious order founded in the 15th century of which the members wanted to live very simple lives. If you go down Rue de l’Antiquaille, you will have Place des Minimes (Minims Square) on your left and the Collège Jean Moulin (Jean Moulin secondary school) on your right, which was built on ancient Roman remains.
Next to it, archaeologists discovered remains of the ancient Lugdunum Roman thermae (public baths) which are accessible to the public by going under the arches of the block of flats next to the school (6, rue des Farges). In fact, as the school was built on parts of the public baths, only the southern remains could be found by archaeologists. Still, we now know quite a lot about this Roman construction that certainly dates from 50 AD and was extended a hundred years later. The area was made of three patios. The upper ones were bordered with stores and large houses which belonged to the wealthiest men in Lugdunum. The lower patio was only bordered with stores and became the Palaestra (an esplanade where events such as boxing and wrestling occurred) of Lyon Fourvière after the construction of the Thermae. The public baths themselves were 75 metres long and 55 metres wide and were composed of eight underground rooms. They were originally accessible to anybody, without distinction of any kind such as legal status, social class or sex, but Emperor Hadrian forbade mixed baths around 130.
Parts of the remains have been restored and are now accessible to the public, namely the southern sections of the public baths and a part of the Palaestra. If you want to know what the place looked like two thousand years ago, you should visit the Gallo-Roman museum of Fourvière: a reconstructed model of the area has been created thanks to the information taken from the archaeologists’ excavations.
In front of the block of flats where the remains of the public baths are “hidden”, you can see a massive building from the 19th century, which overlooks the city of Lyon. Now a public high school called Lycée Saint-Just, it was built between 1855 and 1861 and was originally a seminary. The building is composed of a one hundred metre long main section, with two wings on its sides. Being quite monumental, the construction cost a lot of money and French emperor Napoleon III once said about it: “I said to build a seminary, not to build a palace!”. In 1912, seven years after the establishment of French secularism, the building became an office of the French Consignment and Loans Fund (“Caisse des Dépôts et des Consignations”) and was a hospital during World War I. At the end of the 1920s, it was redeveloped into a boarding school, which became totally independent after World War II with its current name: “Lycée Saint-Just”. Nowadays, it is one of the most renowned high schools in Lyon, since the students are very successful at national examinations such as “le baccalauréat”.
The place is also surprising because it was built on an ancient Gallo-Roman grotto, which used to be a reservoir during the Roman era of Lugdunum and is called “Grotte Berelle”. It could hoard up to 440,000 litres of water coming from the Yzeron Aqueduct, but has not been used since the end of the Roman era. It even “disappeared” when the Lycée Saint-Just was built on it, before being rediscovered in the 1920s thanks to excavations. Now closed to the public, the grotto can still be visited by archaeologists and historians, helping them learning much about how the Romans could store the water coming from the aqueducts.
To the north of Place des Minimes, there are massive buildings which used to be a convent and became a hospital in the early 19th century, called “Hôpital de l’Antiquaille”. Being just next to the Roman theatres (just on the other side of the street, next to the Rue de l’Antiquaille Archaeological Park’s entrance), rich Roman property owners used to live there. More than a thousand years after the end of the Roman era, a bourgeois from Lyon constructed a beautiful manor he called “l’Antiquaille”, referring to the numerous remains from Antiquity that were found there. In the 17th century, the building was bought by the “Visitandines” from the Catholic religious Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary and was extended. A cloister, a chapel and new wings were constructed, but the nuns had to leave in 1792, during the French Revolution.
The hospital replaced the convent, and its original mission was to help the homeless people of Lyon. However, by the end of the 19th century, it became more universal and started being an important place for medical research in France, making the Antiquaille Hospital one of the most important in Lyon. Being quite far away from the other hospitals in town (most of them are located on the left bank of the Rhône, in eastern Lyon), it was closed in 2003 after having been bought by a private construction company. For almost ten years, the building has been refurbished: it has been turned into apartments and hotel rooms. The refurbishment project also includes the opening of a museum telling the history of Christianity in Lyon, opening during summer 2013.
Next to the former Antiquaille Hospital, on Rue Pierre Marion and Montée du Chemin Neuf, there is a restaurant whose Chef is Christian Tetedoie. He has been ranked as “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” since 1998, a distinction bestowed upon the best craftsmen in France. The restaurant has been ranked with one star in the “Guide Michelin” since 2000, making it one of the best places to eat in Lyon. It is quite unique thanks to the amazing view you have from the dining room over the whole city of Lyon. You can even see the Alps and the Mont-Blanc on a fine clear day. In fact, the whole Minimes area is one of the best places on Fourvière Hill to enjoy the views over the whole town. On Rue Pierre Marion, there are several spots where you can enjoy amazing views over the city.
Eglise Saint-Just (St. Just church)
At the south of the main part of Fourvière Hill (around the Basilica and the Archaeological Park), there are still interesting places to see and visit, especially two churches called Saint-Just and Saint-Irénée (St. Irenaeus). Those churches reflect the powerful influence of Christianity on Fourvière Hill’s architecture.
The Église Saint-Just was originally constructed in the 5th century, at the end of Antiquity. The original St. Just Basilica was first dedicated to the Maccabées (Holy Maccabean Martyrs), referring to a Jewish Family who lived in the 2nd century BC. Also known as the Women with Seven Sons, they were executed in Palestine by the King of Syria, for having refused to eat pork. The Basilica was then also dedicated to St Just, a Lyon bishop in the 4th century AD. One day, a madman who had killed several people in Lyon took refuge in the Bishop’s cathedral after having been chased by citizens. However, the man’s hiding place was soon discovered and the crowd went crazy as they wanted to avenge their fellow citizens’ deaths. To calm them down, St Just accepted the task of asking the madman to leave the cathedral and to hand him over to a magistrate, if and only if the crowd did not hurt him. However, when the man got out of the building, he was lynched by the crowd. These events deeply affected the bishop, who resigned and flew from Lyon to Egypt, where he died in 390. When the people of Lyon learnt of his death, they went to Egypt to fetch his body back to the city and buried St Just’s body in a mausoleum in the Holy Maccabean Martyrs Basilica, which became St Just Basilica.
The old Basilica was then extended and refurbished several times until the 16th century, especially during the 5th and 12th centuries. It had even become the second biggest church in Lyon, right after Lyon’s St Jean Cathedral. However, the building was destroyed in 1562, during the Wars of Religion. Archaeologists discovered remains from the old Basilica in the 1970s and the place was bought by Lyon’s municipality. Red and yellow blocks were placed where the old churches used to stand before being destroyed. After having been destroyed, St Just Church was actually rebuilt about 200 metres away from the original where a Roman necropolis used to stand.
The construction of the current building started in 1565 and lasted for almost a century, until 1663. The neoclassical Jesuit façade was added in the early 18th century and was designed by Ferdinand-Sigismond Delamonce. A consecration in Latin was sculpted on the façade: “Machabaris primo deinde sancto ivsto” (First to the Maccabeans, then to St Just) and two statues, depicting St Just and St Irenaeus, stand on each side of the church front. The building was damaged during the French Revolution and forty years passed before St Just Church was refurbished by Joseph-Jean-Pascal Gay. Inside, we can see many paintings from the 18th century, mosaics and glass windows that especially depict the Virgin Mary and St Just. Nowadays, the Church, which was ranked as a historical monument in 1980, is not used much for Christian ceremonies. However, it frequently welcomes sacred music concerts, thanks to the building’s large choir gallery and extraordinary acoustics.
Église Saint-Irénée (St Irenaeus church)
Like the Église Saint-Just, the Église Saint-Irénée was first built in the 5th century, also on a Roman burial ground. Two Christian martyrs of Lyon, Alexandre and Épipode, who had been tortured and executed in 177 in the Three Gauls Amphitheater on Croix-Rousse Hill, had been buried there. A trace of that burial ground can still be seen today in the north wall of the current church. St Irénée (St Irenaeus) was Lyon’s second bishop: he came after St Pothin, who was one of Lyon’s Christian martyrs in 177. He was a theologian and contributed to the founding of the Christian Community of Lyon. Even if there is doubt about these facts, historians often considered he died as a martyr in 202. His mortal remains were buried along with other Christian martyrs of Lyon, where the current Église Saint-Irénée now stands.
In the 5th century, a sanctuary dedicated to St John was built above the Christian martyrs’ crypt. After having faced many tribulations, the church was eventually destroyed and rebuilt in the 9th century, although the crypt itself remained. From the 10th century, the church has been dedicated to St Irénée. Like St Just’s Church, the Église Sainte-Irénée was extensively damaged by the Protestants in 1562 during the Wars of Religion. The upper part of the church was totally destroyed, while the crypt suffered damage, especially the Christian martyrs’ bodies that were buried there. The upper church was identically rebuilt from 1584, whereas the crypt was only restored in the 18th century. After the French Revolution, the church started to collapse: most of the building had to be restored, while some parts were completely rebuilt in a neoclassical style between 1824 and 1830 by Lyon architects Louis-Céline Flacheron and Claude-Anthelme Benoît. As for the crypt, it was restored by Tony Desjardins in the 1860s.
Nowadays, a few Christian funerary writings from the 4th century remain on the walls of the crypt. In the centre of the nave stands the “Puits des Martyrs” (Martyrs’ well), where the remains of the Lyon martyrs would have been resting before the crypt was damaged in 1562. The people of Lyon used to consider the soil from the well as sacred and miraculous for treating incurable diseases. In the centre of the choir, you can see a piece of white marble, which is thought to be the former St Irénée’s gravestone. The upper church is decorated with statues and glass windows from the 19th and 20th centuries, which depict the early years of the Christians in Lyon. The martyrs from the 2nd century, including Holy Blandine and St. Irénée himself, are represented in these works. Both the upper church and the crypt were ranked as historical monuments in 1862.
Finally, outside the church and behind its chevet, there is a calvary monument which dates from the 17th century. An underground chapel is located next to it, but is closed to the public. It was destroyed in 1793, during the French Revolution but was rebuilt in the 19th century and the area became the Stations of the Cross. The calvary monument is located to the west of the church, so that it overlooks the whole city of Lyon. Nowadays, it is one of the few monuments of its kind in a main city of France.
(f) for féminin, (m) for masculin, (adj) for adjectives and (v) for verbs
- altar = autel (m)
- ancient = antique (adj)
- archbishop = archevêque (m)
- bailey = mur d’enceinte (m)
- bell = cloche (f)
- bishop = évêque (m)
- to bury = enterrer (v)
- cavalry monument = calvaire (m)
- choir = choeur (m)
- church = église (f)
- to climb = grimper (v)
- cloister = cloître (m)
- to collapse = s’effondrer (v)
- craftsman = artisan (m) / ouvrier (m)
- daily life = vie quotidienne (f)
- excavations = fouilles (f)
- to extend = étendre / agrandir (v)
- flat = plat (adj)
- footbridge = passerelle (f)
- forecourt = parvis (m)
- garden = jardin (m)
- gilded = doré (adj)
- glass window = vitrail (m)
- ground floor = rez-de-chaussée (m)
- high point = point culminant (m)
- high school = lycée (m)
- hill = colline (f)
- hilly = valloné (adj)
- to open = ouvrir (v)
- to reach = atteindre (v)
- to refurbish = rénover (v)
- remains = vestiges (m)
- Roman road = voie romaine (f)
- singer = chanteur (m) / chanteuse (f)
- slope = montée (f)
- speech = discours (m)
- stairs = escaliers (m)
- stroll = promenade (f)
- suburb = balieue (f)
- tool = outil (m)
- water = eau (f)
To get more information about Lyon Fourvière, you can visit Lyon’s tourism office website.
Get more info on the guided tours in Fourvière Basilica on the official website of the Basilica (in English).