Whether you are high a top Fourvière, meandering in ‘Vieux-Lyon’, the city’s most historic district, or climbing the slopes of the Croix-Rousse, you are in an area of nearly 500 hectares where Lyon has played out its history over the last 2,000 years. This site has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1998. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, ‘Lyon, an eminent example of human habitation, bears exceptional testimony to the continuity of urban settlement over more than two millennia.’ In most European cities, neighbourhoods developed by rebuilding on a single site. In Lyon, however, the topography allowed them gradually to extend eastwards over the course of the centuries, leaving a remarkable physical continuity in the locations favoured by each historical period.
The Fourvière hill was first used by the inhabitants of Gaul as a meeting place, and this is where they held their legendary banquets. In the year 43 BC, Munatius Plancus, one of Caesar’s former lieutenants, founded the colony of Lugdunum, which became the ‘capital of the Three Gauls’. ‘Lug’ was probably the name of a Gaulish god, whilst ‘dunum’ wasa Gaulish word meaning fortress.
The park contains a large Roman theatre,built around 15 BC, which seated more than 10,000 spectators. Nearby is the second-century Odéon, dedicated at that time to music and public readings. Today, these amphitheatres are the setting for the annual performances of ‘Les Nuits de Fourvière’. Well-preserved Roman roads lined with the vestiges of shops and imposing public and private buildings leadup to them. The Gallo-Roman museum, designed by the architect Bernard Zehrfuss, was completed in 1975.
‘Fourvière’ derives from the Latin foro vetere, which means ‘old forum’, and it was on the ruins thereof that a sanctuary was built starting in the 12th century. The sanctuary had two chapels, one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the other to St. Thomas of Canterbury. Three dates stand out in the history of this site, which in the 19th century became known as the ‘hill of prayer’. In 1643, following a plague epidemic, the city was placed under the protection of the Virgin. The city fathers vowed to pay homage to her, and representatives of the City Council still do so every year on 8 September. On 8 December 1852, a gold-plated bronze statue of the Virgin was placed in the steeple of the little chapel. Its inauguration was a big event and was the origin of the city’s ‘Festival of Lights’ (see below). On 8 October 1870, the citizens of Lyon promised to build a new sanctuary if the Prussians were turned away. Designed by the architect Pierre Bossan, the new basilica was begun in 1872 and consecrated in 1896. Citadel on the outside and palace on the inside, its unusual architecture does not fit into any category, but the result is more than a mere mixture of styles. Inspired by the churches of Sicily, Bossan created a veritable symbol, an ode to the Virgin.
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