Want to take a tour of the unusual spots of Vieux-Lyon? Then step this way. It is said that at 3pm every sunday, a Witch emerges from Vieux-Lyon metro station, to recount her tales to anyone brave enough to follow. Yes she has the hat. And an ornate staff to boot. A must-do for French speakers, the tour is not available in English. But if you don’t think your French is up to it you can still take yourself for a mystical wander. A word of warning: you read the following at your own risk, loss of limb, eczema or eternal warts await those who spread the Witches’ secret stories.
Did you know? Lyon is part of a triangle of white magic that includes Turin and Prague. Like these other European capitals of esotericism, Lyon is rife with myth and legend lurking in the shadows behind the walls of Vieux-Lyon. Specifically the district of St. George, historically the poorest of the three in Vieux-Lyon (the others being St.Paul and St.Jean).
Start in Place de la Trinité at the bottom of La Montée du Gourguillon. Above la Maison de Guignol (the House of Puppets), ignoring the puppets, you will see Lyon’s only stone imp (‘Lutin’ in French) staring impishly out at you. The Roman name for Old Lyon, Lugdunum, is said to come from the combination of the Celtic words for ‘hill’ (dunum) and ‘god’ (lug).
But the Celtic word for raven was lugus, from which comes the more embellished legend: Fourvière hill was the ancient home of imps, those tiny tree-dwelling goblins. When the Romans arrived and set about clearing the dense forest, they neglected to ask the trees their permission beforehand (as any good imp would have done). And so the shape-shifting imps transformed into ravens to defend their beloved woodland. Alas, you may marvel at the preserved Roman amphitheatre now in pride of place on the hill. But keep a beady eye out for the mischievous ravens.
Moving along from the imp is an ordinary-looking 16th century wall. If you happen to be walking by at dusk you would see people placing small treats at the base of it. An offering of some kind to appease the God of steep hills? Not so, for in the courtyard behind resides a colony of cats, protected by their own local association. Where else but in a city named after the King of the felines.
Half-way up la Montée dip in to Impasse Turquet where you will come across the hidden and preserved 16th century wooden-panelled facade. The last of its kind in UNESCO protected Vieux-Lyon, you can almost smell the mediaeval streets covered in all manner of grot that was thrown from the windows. How did they preserve the woods’ condition you ask? With bucketfuls of pigs blood of course.
As you fork left down rue Amand Caillat, take a moment to catch your breath and mourn for those lost imps. Maybe even caw like a raven lest there be any Romans about. After a steep descent turn left up rue Saint-Georges and you will soon come across the intriguing entrance to the restaurant ‘Pierre Many – Le 110 Vins’. It is said to be the site of a medieval poultry butchers. ‘Negative’ cackles la Sorcière, and as you look up at what appears to be a headless chicken in a nest of sticks, it transforms before your very eyes into a mythical phoenix being reborn in flames. The lack of a head being the architects way of implying the process of re-birth. By no means is it the obvious solution: ‘wear and tear, or vandalism’ as you will otherwise be told by a muggle (non-magic) Lyonnais.
For this restaurant is said to have been an alchemists workshop. Alchemy, that mythical profession found in any reputable city claiming an occult past. They may not have found the elixir of life, but they will live on forever in the hearts of Harry Potter fans.
A few steps on, and situated behind a sturdy door next to ‘La Becquée’ tavern (meaning ‘the beaked,’ again watch out for ravens), you will enter the Maison du Soleil. An oval shaped central court, layered with a series of four elliptical galleries creates a powerful trap for the sunlight and the fabled vortex of positive energy. You will certainly have a sunny smile on your face as you emerge like a phoenix back into Place de la Trinité.
‘The inhabitants of Saint-George aren’t like those in La Croix-Rousse, they keep their doors closed,’ says the Witch with a wink. Referring to there being only one publicly open traboule (passageway) in the district. Therefore in an area literally steeped in history, you must make up your own mind about what to believe. Just keep in mind, as you sit down at La Becquée for a refreshing beer, that factually correct holiday anecdotes are never the interesting ones. Sometimes a town needs its legends.