Notre-Dame de Fourvière, Icon Of Lyon

This month, Trav and I finally took a bona fide vacation.  He took a week off over Easter weekend, which left us with a solid 10-day chunk of time to go somewhere.  We decided it was our chance to get outta Dodge! 

It isn’t that we don’t like Switzerland.  We do, more and more!  But one can only watch the flowers blooming and the birds singing for so long.  We needed to head out for parts unknown, to visit places where people still commit the occasional petty crime, where trash is still occasionally tossed on the ground, and where the woods grow wild and unchecked.  Somewhere different, somewhere new.

So we packed a bag of sandwiches and snacks for road tripping, gratefully left Touille with Carlos and Nicole downstairs knowing they’d take good care of her, and put out huge bowls of food and water for the kitties.  During one last check of the house, we found Brisco contentedly hanging out in a kitchen cupboard where we’d accidentally locked him while packing.  It really was an accident this time.  With that, we were out the door and headed for parts largely unknown.

Brisco Fatty Pants would love to go with us on our road trip.

We didn’t have much of an itinerary except that we were planning to be in Madrid late the following night.  A friend, AG, had invited us to stay with her and her parents’ at their place in the city for a few days. The same friend had sent us a list of things we could do while in Madrid if we were interested, as well as a few suggestions for sites she recommended in Spain along the way – notably Burgos Cathedral and Basque Country in the north.

With her suggestions in mind, we set a course for Spain by way of the west coast of France.  This meant driving around Lac Léman to enter France near Geneva.  Our first stop was not the border crossing, but rather the first of what would become many, many toll booths.

We appreciate the free, clean restrooms near Geneva at the first toll booth on our trip to Madrid.

We knew Europe has toll roads, but we’d never had to pay them – not even in Switzerland – and I had no idea they’d be so expensive! Our first booth allowed us to drive from Geneva, Switzerland to Lyon, France, a distance of only about 150 km, for the hefty sum of €15.80. With sinking hearts, we started calculating the cost of our anticipated 3000+ km round trip.  Luckily, the first toll ended up being the most expensive, and some tolls were as low as €1.70.  All told, we paid just shy of €60 to drive all the way through France.  I’d like to think that in the future, we’ll carefully map out a route by using the French Motorway site to calculate tolls, but I doubt we’ll ever plan anything with that much detail.  It’s just not how Two Small Potatoes roll, ya know?

After a couple of hours on the road, we had a hankerin’ to get out of the car and see something cool in France.  Since we were passing the city of Lyon, we took an exit and headed into town, winding our way up a steep hill riddled with narrow one-way streets and hairpin curves.  At the top, we were rewarded with a superb view of the city, despite the gloomy clouds looming.

City of Lyon France from Basilique overlook
Another huge church, Cathédrale Saint Jean Baptiste, is toward the right in the photo this side of the river. Two rivers are visible behind the church: La Saône and Le Rhône.

After admiring the view, we made our way to the massive church perched on the precipice of the hill next to our viewpoint.  We’d found the imposing Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, an icon of Lyon.

Though the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière dates from the 19th century, it stands on what’s commonly referred to as the “praying hill.” For centuries, it has served as a site for worship.

I was surprised to find out that the church was built in 1884, much more recently than I expected.   The site itself has been one of holy pilgrimage since 1170, when folks came to pray to the Virgin Mary, to whom the present day church is dedicated for sparing the city from the Black Death that decimated Europe in the mid -1600s.

The facade of the basilica is ornately decorated with floral motifs and statues.
An elegantly carved winged lion guards the entrance.
Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Though the lion is at least as tall as a person, he’s dwarfed by the triple arches of the entryway.

I marveled at the basilica’s design, at its rather unusual mixture of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture.  Despite its lack of ornate grandeur that I love in Gothic churches, I appreciated how different it was from other European churches we’ve visited, particularly the interior.

Every surface glitters in the low light. The ceilings, the arches, even the walls glitter.
Massive mosaics embedded in the walls depict scenes with soldiers kneeling on shore as sailors madly battle the seas with golden oars.
It’s impossible not to just sit for awhile and stare up at the beautiful ceiling.

Heading back out into the cool air, we followed signs on foot down the hill a ways to visit another site that looked interesting: the Théâtres Romains de Fourvière, or Ancient Theater of Fourvière. Since it offered free entry and had few visitors, we eagerly wandered around the ruins of the ancient Roman complex, which was built in 15 BC!

The ruins of the Théâtres Romains de Fourvière are over 2000 years old.

Of the two amphitheaters, we first visited the smaller of the two, where we had an excellent view of the basilica above us on the hill.

The Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière is visible on the hill above the amphitheater ruins.

As we walked the short distance uphill from the small to the large amphitheater, Trav and I were surprised to pass a défibrillateur along the trail.  Though we didn’t think we’d climbed that much while investigating the area, clearly someone felt we’d really exerted ourselves.  We laughed and agreed that Trav’s younger sister, who’s a nurse, would likely approve of city officials making the life-saving gadget so readily available.  Then I gave myself a mental pat on the back for a hard day of walking.

The large amphitheater was even more impressive, not as much for its hypnotic repetition of stone seating, but for the interesting grassy spaces, sunken walkways, and arched doorways throughout the theater.

The seating at the amphitheater is connected by sunken walkways that are invisible from the stage below.
When they were still in use, the amphitheaters and seating were surrounded by a massive 30-foot wall to create an atmosphere of privacy and intimacy.
Remains of an ancient aqueduct still run through the theater.

Sitting in the stadium, I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like to experience a Shakespeare play on this stage.

The theater was built with enough seating to accommodate 10,000 visitors.

With darkness approaching, we took our leave of the ruins and slowly made our way back to the car where it was parked near the basilica.

Seating stretches around both sides of the theater, with views overlooking the city of Lyon.

After mowering down a couple of fantastic ham and cheese sandwiches we’d stowed away in our “road trip bag”, we found our way back to the freeway.  Driving late into the night, we wanted to put as many miles behind us as we could on our way to Madrid.  Well after dark and with both of us exhausted, we finally took an exit to an oddly deserted gas/service station in the middle of nowhere, pulled out our sleeping bags, and called it a night.  Sometimes the best accommodations are those that are straight-up free!

Know Before You Go:

  • If it’s not too busy, you can likely find free street parking near the basilica.
  • The amphitheater ruins are within walking distance of the basilica.  It’s perhaps a 10-15 minute walk.
  • Official website for Notre-Dame de Fourvière

What’s up next on our agenda?

Exploring Pamplona, Spain  – its churches, quaint city streets, and ancient fortress walls…

The red dots mark our travel for day one; the blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.

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