When Ruth suggested that we visit Basilica de Fourvière – Lyon, I had a sense of foreboding. There are thousands of churches in France (over one thousand in Paris alone), and on the whole, they don’t much impress me.
While they may have historical, cultural, religious and architectural significance, many of them are dark, drab and lifeless structures, full of the bodies of kings, queens, bishops and other notables of bygone eras. There is little that is uplifting or inspiring about them.
However, Basilica de Fourvière is a notable exception. The first word I uttered after opening the door to the Basilica was, literally, WOW! Yes, this church has a WOW factor. Gilt, marble, stained glass and coloured mosaics cover virtually every surface. Vivid colours and complex patterns bombard the senses.
A mixture of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture, the Basilica is visible from almost anywhere in Lyon. The gleaming white exterior rises like a fortress on Fourvière Hill, with slender turrets on its four corners. The relatively austere exterior contrasts with the richly decorated interior.
Beneath the main level is the Crypt, dedicated to Saint Joseph. Entrance to the Basilica was originally meant to be through a crypt door on the east side. Designed by Pierre Bossan, the symbolism is obvious. One moves from the darkness of the outside world, depicted by the crypt, into the light of the richly decorated interior of the Basilica.
Adjoining the Basilica is the ancient Chapel of the Virgin Mary and a terrace that provides a panoramic view of the city of Lyon. An even better view can be had by climbing 287 steps to the Basilica observatory.
Also, nearby are the gardens of Rosaire, also designed by Bossan, and the pleasant Hauteurs Park.
Fourvière Hill was originally the location of the Roman Forum and a temple. As early as 1168, a Christian chapel was built on the hill, which by that time had already become a Marian shrine. The chapel was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the medieval English Saint Thomas Becket (1118-70).
Its popularity as a place of pilgrimage increased significantly after Lyon’s preservation from the plague in 1643 was interpreted as an answer to the prayers of the city leaders.
The chapel and parts of the building have been rebuilt at different times over the centuries, the most recent major works being in 1852 when the ancient steeple was replaced by a tower surmounted by a golden statue of the Virgin Mary sculpted by Joseph-Hugues Fabisch.
When the city of Lyon was spared in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the community again acknowledged the special blessings of Our Lady and committed to building the present Basilica alongside the ancient chapel.
The Basilica, which offers guided tours and contains a Museum of Sacred Art, receives 2 million visitors annually. At certain times, members of the public may access the Basilica’s north tower for a spectacular 180-degree view of Lyon and its suburbs. On a clear day, Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, can be seen in the distance.
Many paths lead to the Basilica. You can drive, but parking is hard to find. The hop-on-hop-off tourist bus stops outside and begins from Place Bellecour. By far the most popular route is to take the Metro D line to Vieux Lyon, where you can begin your pilgrimage on foot. Or, take the Funicular Fourvière, which leaves from the metro station.
The Basilica de Fourvière is a place where faith can be reborn. It is alive. It is uplifting and awe-inspiring.
Basilica de Fourvière
8 Place de Fourvière, 69005 Lyon, France
+33 04 78 25 13 01
Every day 7.00 am-7.00 pm
Metro D to Vieux Lyon station and the funicular F2 to Fourvière