Winged lion at the entrance of Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere

Notre-Dame de Fourviere, Icon Of Lyon

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This month, Trav and I finally took a bona fide vacation – our first real break since moving to Switzerland. He took a week off over Easter weekend, which left us with a solid 10-day chunk of time to travel. We decided it was high time for what we do best – an action-packed, spontaneous road trip to Spain. This 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 houses don’t all look alike, and where the woods grow wild and unchecked.

Sometimes Switzerland just feels so perfect. Too perfect.

Trust me, I know this sounds crazy.

But we definitely needed adventure, to travel somewhere different and 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. And with that, we were out the door and headed for parts largely unknown.

Map of our 10-Day Road Trip – Switzerland to Spain

Feel free to use this custom map of our 10-day road trip from Switzerland through France, Spain, Andorra, Monaco, and Italy for your own trip planning.

The red dots mark our travel for day one, orange for day two, and so on. The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.

Road Trip from Fribourg, Switzerland to Lyon, France

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 (Lake Geneva) 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 knew Europe has toll roads, but we’d never had to pay them – not even in Switzerland.

We had no idea road tolls in France would be so expensive!

The first toll 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. Some tolls were as low as €1.70. All told, we paid just shy of €60 to drive all the way through France, including the roads we drove on the way back to Switzerland.

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?

Arriving in Lyon, France

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 nice view of the city, despite the gloomy clouds looming. From this vantage of Lyon, you can see another huge church, the Cathédrale Saint Jean Baptiste, and two rivers behind it – La Saône and Le Rhône.

City of Lyon, France from Basilique overlook
The overlook at Notre-Dame de Fourviere Basilica offers a great view of Lyon.

Notre-Dame de Fourviere Basilica

After admiring the view, we made our way to the massive church on the hill right next to our viewpoint. We’d unwittingly discovered the imposing Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere, an icon of Lyon.

Exterior of the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere in Lyon
The front of the Notre-Dame de Fourviere Basilica is currently undergoing renovations and is covered in scaffolding.

I was surprised to find out that the church was built in 1884, much more recently than expected.

Still, the imposing basilica stands on what’s commonly referred to as the “praying hill” because for centuries, this site has served as a place for worship. It has been a site of holy pilgrimage since 1170, when folks came to pray to the Virgin Mary. The present day church is dedicated to her for sparing the city from the Black Death that decimated Europe in the mid-1600s.

Exterior embellishments on the Notre-Dame de Fourviere Basilica in Lyon, France
The facade of the basilica is ornately decorated with floral motifs and statues.
Entrance of Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere in Lyon, France
Though the lion is at least as tall as a person, he’s dwarfed by the triple arches of the entryway.
Lion statue on the Notre-Dame de Fourviere in Lyon, France
An elegantly carved winged lion guards the entrance.
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Interior of Notre-Dame de Fourviere

The basilica’s design is a rather unusual mixture of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture.

Despite its lack of ornate grandeur that’s so common in Gothic churches (and that I prefer), I appreciated how different it is from other European churches we’ve visited, particularly on the interior.

That’s where it really shines – quite literally. The entire inside glitters and gleams from gold paintings, mosaics, and embellishments.

Travel Tip: If you visit the Notre-Dame de Fourviere, make sure to go inside. It’s much more spectacular than the outside!

Shiny gold interior of Notre-Dame de Fourviere in Lyon
Every surface glitters in the low light. The ceilings, the arches, even the walls glitter.
Gold mosaics in the Notre-Dame de Fourviere Basilica in Lyon, France
Huge mosaics in the walls show scenes with soldiers kneeling on shore as sailors madly battle the seas with golden oars.
Ceiling of the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere
It’s impossible not to just sit for awhile and stare up at the beautiful ceiling.

Roman Theater of Fourviere

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 Roman Theater of Fourviere.

Since it offers free entry and had few visitors, we eagerly wandered around the ruins of the ancient Roman complex, which was built in 15 BC.

15 BC!

Of the two amphitheaters at the complex, we first visited the smaller of the two. From there, we had a nice view of the basilica above us on the hill.

Ancient Roman Theater of Fourviere in Lyon, France
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 is 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.

Ancient Odeon Theater in Lyon, France
The seating at the amphitheater is connected by sunken walkways that are invisible from the stage below.
Seating area at the Ancient Theater of Fourviere in Lyon
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.

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

Amphitheater at the Theatres Romains de Fourviere in Lyon
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 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.
  • The Roman ruins and basilica are FREE to visit.
  • Official website for Notre-Dame de Fourvière
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