Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière: The basillica on the hill

Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière

If it weren’t for historic churches there’d be no reason to visit old-world European cities. It’s the only reason to go. That’s why I visited the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, despite having grown a bit tired of visiting the noted cathedrals of Europe.

OK. Old churches aren’t the only reason to visit European cities. There’s also the charming streets lined with low- and mid-rise architectural classics that ooze character and, depending on the street, often tranquility as well. So, the two reasons to visit old-world European cities are the old churches and charming streets. Of course, if, like me, you’re not European, it’s also refreshing to absorb the different culture and je ne sais quoi. And the food is typically delicious. Which is not to discount in the least the amazing, world-famous museums and galleries. Alright. With apologies to Monty Python, among the great many reasons to visit old-world European cities are their old cathedrals, including Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière.

View from the terrace
View from the terrace

As old European churches go, the Notre-Dame de Fourvière basilica is not all that old. It was built between 1872 and 1884. It occupies a commanding position on the top of a hill, looking down on Vieux Lyon, the old quarter, the rest of Lyon and the landscape beyond.

If you’re in good shape and not lazy, it shouldn’t be all too difficult to walk up there from the lower section of Lyon. Being both lazy and in not great shape, I took the funicular that goes up the hill and lets you off right in front of the basilica. (Note: If you go, be aware that there are two funiculars that start at the same station in Vieux Lyon. Make sure you take the one heading to the basilica.)

The funicular is part of Lyon’s transit system. If you buy a Lyon City Card (I did), along with free entry into a number of paid attractions, all public transit, including the funiculars, is included on the days during which the card is valid.

(Note: The Lyon City Card is activated the first time you use it. At time of writing, you could buy a card that was good for one, two or three days. For 24, 48 or 72 hours respectively from the time of your first use, the card grants you free admission to a number of attractions that otherwise charge fees (entry into the basilica is free to everyone, with or without a card).

The transit validity of the card works differently. It ends at midnight of the number of days you bought the card for, even if you didn’t use it until the evening of that day. For example, if you buy the one-day card, you’ll be able to use it to get into attractions for a full 24 hours from your first entry, but you will get only a few hours of free transit if you first use the card late in the day. So, if you arrive in Lyon late in the afternoon, even if you buy the card immediately, it’s a good idea to do free stuff within walking distance for the rest of that day and then start using the card the first thing the next day.)

Stained glass window
Stained glass window

In addition to saving me walking up the hill, the funicular offered a bonus.  Despite it travelling most of the way in a tunnel, I was rewarded for looking out the window. At what seemed to be regular intervals, there were niches in the tunnel wall containing objets d’art.

Some of you might be thinking, “Wow. There’s a Notre Dame in Lyon! I bet it’s cheaper to visit Lyon than Paris.” You’d be right about Lyon being somewhat cheaper than Paris. But don’t for a minute think this is a way to visit the famous Notre Dame on the cheap. To be clear, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière is not the Notre Dame of Paris. Not close.

For one thing, if there are any gargoyles atop Lyon’s Notre Dame they weren’t prominent enough for me to notice. I love visiting the gargoyles on the roof walk at Notre Dame de Paris. However, that being said, I often miss stuff like that. Maybe there were gargoyles. But even if there were any, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t an opportunity to go up on the roof and get up close and personal with them, as you can at the Notre Dame de Paris.

For another thing it’s smaller, less grand and less historic than its Parisian namesake.

Views Inside and Outside Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière

Marble pulpit
Marble pulpit

At the side of the basilica is a courtyard that provides the amazing views mentioned above. The courtyard also contains a statue of Pope Jean-Paul, which didn’t particularly raise any positive or negative emotional response in me, an ethnically Jewish atheist. But you might be inspired by it if that’s your thing.

Notre-Dame de Fourvière may not be Paris’ cathedral, but it is still beautiful. Inside, the domes and walls are adorned with exquisite murals. Actually, the murals on the walls are mosaics, but I had to get up close to them to see they were mosaics, not paintings. Then again, it may have been my less-than-perfect eyesight that didn’t allow me to tell they were mosaics from more than a few feet away

In addition to the murals on the domes, the rest of ceiling was also gorgeously decorated.

Niches in the walls contained dramatically lit sculptures in niches in walls. About halfway down the church, on the left-hand side, sat a impressive carved marble pulpit. And there were splendid stained glass windows that filtered the light entering the church.

The Chapels Below and Beside

Interior of the main sanctuary
Interior of the main sanctuary

Beneath the main sanctuary was another, more dimly lit chapel. I got there by first going out of the main sanctuary, walking to the back of the basilica, and going down some stairs back there. However, as I found out when I took a different route out of the subterranean chapel, I could have got there from inside the main cathedral through a small, discreetly marked door midway down on right side of the sanctuary. (If you go, look for a vertically arrayed trio of three signs pointing to “Chapelle de la Vierge,” “Ecoute & Dialogue,” and  “Chapelle St Thomas.” Head through the door that the signs point to and walk down the stairs.) I also found another outside entrance to the lower chapel off to the right side of the church at the street level.

The lower chapel is less impressive than the main sanctuary, but, if you visit Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, since you’re there anyway and it’s free, you might as well take a look. The chapel contained a well-lit statue of a woman with crown on her head. On the upper part of the wall behind the statue was a mosaic with a row of Stars of David. What’s that all about? Like I said, I’m an atheist Jew, so there’s a lot I don’t know about these sorts of things, but I thought Christianity dropped the Mogen David in favour of the cross long ago. Was I wrong about that?

There was yet another small chapel, this one at street level, off to the right of the main sanctuary. I entered from a separate door located outside. A sign told me not to take pictures in there, so, the heck with them. I’m not going to write anything more about that chapel.

The Museum Next Door

Beside and not attached to the basilica was a small museum containing religious artifacts—paintings, sculptures, chalices, etc. Some of them were quite stunning. There was a fee to enter the museum. It’s probably not worth it unless you’re into that sort of thing because there weren’t very many objects in the museum. However, the fee is included with Lyon City Card, so it was free for me. It’s definitely worth a visit for free.

Warning: All of the signage in the museum was in French (which was not surprising considering I was in France), with no English translation (that part was somewhat surprising because, unlike speakers of other languages, we Anglophones are spoiled rotten by the provision of English translations in many prominent museums in the major tourist areas of France). The person at front desk also didn’t speak English, again surprisingly rare at most tourist attractions I visited in France. Thus, if you visit the museum and, shamefully (particularly if, like me, you were born, raised and lived your whole life in a country where one of the two official languages is French), you, like me, are an Anglophone with an abysmally minimal amount of French, don’t expect to learn all that much about the artifacts you see there.

Been there? Done that? Do tell.