A Strange Source-ery of Information: the Witch of Old-Lyon (La Sorcière de Vieux-Lyon)

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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Rex and the Resistance: Lyon During the Second World War

You can still feel like a member of the French Resistance in Lyon.  Treading in the footsteps of its leader Jean Moulin (codename Rex or Max) through the secret passageways (les Traboules).  Or sitting in the back corner of a bustling café and eavesdropping on conversations in the ornate public squares.  Romantic as notions of the French resilience in the face of Nazi occupation sound, the history of the struggle is an emotional and dramatic one.

The Nazi war machine reached Paris on the 14th June 1940 and was in Lyon just five days later on the 19th.  President Charles de Gaulle retreated to London and a puppet French government was then set up at Vichy (150km from Lyon), with Hitler pulling the strings.  Via British radio broadcasts, de Gaulle was able to rally support and eight resistance movements were already in action by 1940.  It was Jean Moulin who, under de Gaulle’s orders, set up the National Council for the Resistance (Conseil National de la Résistance) in 1943 to unify these separate groups.  De Gaulle himself regarded the city as the heart of the combined French Resistance.

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The exit of one such traboule

Jean Moulin, instantly recognisable in his iconic fedora hat and scarf combination has become the figurehead of the Resistance.  And along with his secretary, Daniel Cordier, he coordinated the actions and funding of the Resistance between the varied groups in Lyon and de Gaulle in London.

Secrecy was paramount (Cordier didn’t even know Rex’s real name until after his death) and Lyon provided the perfect location to hide, being over-populated with refugees during the war.  Meetings were arranged via message-drops in specific letter boxes throughout the Traboules, and would take place in a busy places so as not to draw attention.  In the squares: Place Carnot and Place des Terreaux.  As well as in the discrete yet well-renowned restaurant, Le Garet.  Or Brasserie George, just over the river from the Gestapo Headquarters.  Which, as the Head Waiter will delightfully explain, was the unofficial head office of both the Resistance and the Gestapo.  That sweet taste of beer whilst plotting the downfall your enemy right under his nose.

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mmm, dissent

One for the fans of spy novels: the BBC in London broadcast daily encoded radio messages that could be heard by anyone, but only understood by the Resistance.  Short phrases such as ‘l’abbé est nerveux’ (the abbot is nervous) and ‘le chien du jardinier pleure’ (the gardeners dog is crying) in fact indicated parachute drops of weapons and ammunition.  As well as an astounding twenty clandestine printing presses that were hard at work throughout the occupation in Lyon, distributing leaflets and newspapers.  Written under the name of collaborationist papers like ‘La Nouvelliste” the resistance would turn up at news-stands with their fake copies, changing them with the real ones under the pretext that they had to be censored.

Jean Moulin was arrested on 21st June 1943 whilst attending a Resistance meeting, along with fellow members Lucie and Raymond Aubrac.  Today you can walk around the cells of Montluc prison where Moulin and the other members were held.  Whilst the Gestapo attempted for days to force the prisoners to unveil Jean Moulin, the Aubracs managed to daringly escape and successfully reach England.

It is saddening to see the original wooden prison-cell doors, engraved with numbers and names, counting off the lonely days.  And envisaging the resolute faces of the young men and women, fully aware of their impending interrogation, torture and deportation.  For just down the road lay the passive walls of the Gestapo Headquarters, behind which sat Klaus Barbie, ‘the butcher of Lyon’.  Now the Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation (Centre for the History of the Resistance and Deportation – CHRD) it is not difficult to imagine the screams emanating from the cellars beneath the blood-red courtyard.

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Artwork on the prison wall

Moulin died at the hands of his Gestapo torturers, to whom he divulged no information despite enduring hot needles being placed under his fingernails.  With the end of the war in 1945 it took a further forty two years for the hands of justice to catch up with Barbie.  Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 at the Cour d’Assises in Lyon, bringing a much delayed full-stop to this tale.

David Cordiers shamelessly admitted crying throughout the film-adaption of his Resistance memoir ‘Alias Caracalla’.  Knowing even a little of the Resistance history brings the streets of Lyon to life with a startling clarity, giving a soul to places that haven’t much changed since the War.  It will challenge you not to be moved to tears yourself as you emerge into the peaceful Lyon daylight, with a line from the CHRD museum still in your mind: “you can hold a bee in your hand until it suffocates, but it won’t suffocate without stinging you”.

La Rue Paul Bert: The Arabian Lights of Lyon

You come to Lyon for the French language, its culture and cuisine, why then should you go to the lesser frequented Middle-Eastern and Arab quarters?  Like many European countries, France has a rich and multi-cultural population largely thanks to the popular 18th/19th century past time of colonialism.  So it follows that Lyon as the capital of French gastronomy, should reflect the diverse nature of 21st Century France.

Situated in the Part Dieu district of Lyon, opposite la Guillotière metro station, you smell the entrance to Paul Bert before you get there.  And this has nothing to do with it not being the norm to pick up dog excrement in France.  Sweet mint tea, mixed with the complicated spices of a moroccan tagine, barbecued chicken, and rose perfumed baclava.  This (and much more) is what awaits whoever strays down la rue Paul Bert.

If your visit happens to coincide with the Islamic month of Ramadan then you are in for a real treat.  During this period, pious muslims fast during the hours of daylight before filling themselves at sundown.  Some restaurants are transformed into dessert factories, churning out piles and piles of sweet goodies.  While the pavement is lined with bread sellers of all kinds and the air filled with odours and the fast language of a Marrakech souq.  Head to ‘La Palme d’Or’ where Bashir, the proud and smiling Tunisian will tell you all about his varied and colourful baclava, or buy some fresh Moroccan flat bread from a street stand opposite.

Outside of Ramadan, rue Paul Bert is just as, or even more lively.  Whether it’s the more common North-African cuisine you are looking for, or other Middle-Eastern flavours you can try the well-reviewed ‘Le Semazen’ Turkish restaurant.  Or go for a Lebanese lemon juice-seasoned mezze from ‘Liban Market’, where you can also stock up on your Middle-Eastern groceries.  The old wise man of the district has to the ‘Bahadourian’ which has been selling its oriental goods since 1929.  Stocking everything from herbs and halva to chilled bottles of London Pride beer.  A welcome site for the bold (or lost) tourist who emerges bleary-eyed onto the street, head spinning in a cloud of spices.

“You discover a city through its people,” says Aissa an Algerian now living and working in Lyon.  And if it is hospitality you are seeking then Arabs have it in abundance.  Whatever the time of year, you are likely to experience great food and a warm welcome in establishments that give the traditional bouchon lyonnais a run for its money.

Getting Stoned in Lyon: A Visit to le Gros Caillou

If you were to spend an afternoon wandering around a city asking passers by the way to ‘the Great Stone’, you would get some very strange looks.  Unless you happen upon a follower of some sort of rock based religion, or more likely, are in Lyon.

Le Gros Caillou, sits at the top of a hill at the end of the Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse in the first Arrondissement, and is notable in fulfilling the two parts to its name.  Not wanting to be out done, the adjacent cafe is called, ‘le Café du Gros Caillou’, where trying to get information about the rock from the waitress is like trying to get blood out of a…stone.

But it proves a worthwhile spot to have a coffee, whilst simultaneously staring in disappointment at the rock you just walked up to see and laughing at the tourists trying and failing to climb it.  Le Caillou is not (as waiters like to say to tourists) the left over remnants of an ice age glacier.  Nor is it likely to be (as dramatically told by tour guides) the heart of a bailiff (called Jean Tormente) that was turned to stone by the people he had wronged.

The most likely solution is on a plaque right beside the cafe, whose staff still appear blissfully unaware of its location/information, that it must have been put up that very morning.

It was discovered in 1890 by tunnel workers constructing the first funicular train in Lyon, and placed on a plinth as a type of new age urban street art.  Today it sits plinth-less, staring forlornly, like an old horse, at a bleak and cloudy Lyon landscape passing the time stoically as it is prodded, poked and mounted.

As rock tourism goes, le Gros Caillou is much cheaper than Stonehenge, druid-free, with better views and climbing availability.  Long live the Great Stone and its myth.

  • Le Gros Caillou, 180 Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse (Opening hours: forever and eternity) – Metro: la Croix-Rousse
  • Le Café du Gros Caillou: open monday to sunday from 09:30 – 01:00