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The first time I saw this most famous of Lyon murals (part of it is reproduced at the top of this page) I blinked — it took a second or two to realize it was a painting, not a live scene.
Please keep staring, because it might take you a minute to distinguish what's real from what is art.
For the next hour, I observed the Mur des Canuts (the Wall of Silk Workers, or Canut wall painting), exploring its details and, more to the point, watching tourists walk by, often retracing their steps in surprise. (I say tourists because to residents of Lyon, the mural may be a point of pride, but they're used to it.)
I'm willing to bet that the first time you see this mural, the same thing will happen to you.
The photograph above only shows a small section of the Mur des Canuts, but there's so much more to it: highrises on either side, a perfectly reproduced banking scene, a silk workshop, a marionette show... from tiny little slices of Lyonnaise life to celebrations of victories, all captured on this building's walls. (You'll find a fuller view here.)
Doesn't it look incredibly realistic? And what a delightful way to cover up some of the city's less palatable architecture and rebuild a community's pride in its neighbourhood!
Some of the 200 or so giant murals should be at the top of your list of places to visit in Lyon, a city that is full of surprises. They will invite you to come closer and explore, larger, smaller, vintage or futuristic, more abstract or photographic, all of them stunning. What follows are highlights of a few of the most spectacular (including my own personal favourites because no, there's nothing impartial about this list).
Lyon is one of the prettiest cities in France, and these murals provide an unusual and offbeat look at this splendid city.
To locate the most famous art murals, see the top murals of Lyon on the map below. Just click the map (the numbers on the map correspond to the descriptions further down).
This map of Lyon murals locations is a guideline. While the addresses are correct, the location on the map isn't always exact so use it to pinpoint relative placements and neighbourhoods of each fresco.
8 rue Pauline Jaricot, Lyon 5
It's hard to believe this was once a pale, non-descript wall of the Cité La Sarra, government housing that is part of the middle-class neighbourhood in Lyon's 5th arrondissement, not far from the city's Roman ruins.
Today, this example of Lyon street art is the world's largest architectural trompe l'oeil, an art form that tricks you into thinking that what you're seeing is real — like those colourful awnings and balconies.
The formerly pale, cookie-cutter building facade is now jumping with colour, covered in faux stone work and marble swirls and balustrades, awnings and fake roofs pulling from Roman, Medieval and Renaissance eras. They give the impression of a series of small, coquettish residences rather than the residential behemoth it actually is.
Place Ennemond Fousseret, Lyon 5
This large wall depicts an intriguing scaffolding, which is being used to change sets in a theater during a play — except it's not. But it is so well done you'd be forgiven for thinking it was real. The wall now belongs to a hotel of the same name.
Corner of rue de la Platière and quai de la Pêcherie, Lyon 1
This spectacular mural, the Wall of Writers, represents the works of some 300 local writers, many of them familiar to me — I just didn't know they were from Lyon.
Many of them are national cultural icons, like Frédéric Dard, author of the gumshoe San Antonio series. Others are internationally famous, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote The Little Prince.
1 and 2 Rue de la Martinière, Lyon 1
This giant fresco is definitely one of those you must see if you're tracking Lyon's painted walls. It covers the entire front of a large building and there's every chance that if you're ambling around central Lyon and the Saône River, you'll come upon it.
I photographed it from the front, looking up, with predictable results. To get a better vantage point, pull back to capture the entire building, and catch 30 or so local celebrities, luminaries like Chef Paul Bocuse or the Lumière brothers, who invented the first motion picture camera.
Across the street, at 7 rue Pareille, you'll find a homage to 19th-century painter Tony Tollet.
36 Boulevard des Canuts, Lyon 4
This photograph amplifies the one at the top of the page: it shows you the entire Mur des Canuts, as opposed to the close-up I provided at the beginning of this story.
A canut is a silk worker and the neighbourhood, Croix-Rousse, is where all the silk weavers' workshops were once located.
Not only is it huge, but it is spectacular and spellbinding, the kind of art that makes you stop and explore. No wonder it is the most famous in Lyon, not to mention the city's first.
It portrays a day in the life of Croix-Rousse, with its buildings, ubiquitous stairways and small businesses. It is overwhelming by its very ordinaryness, by the routine it portrays.
What you might not know about this mural is that it is repainted every decade or so to reflect local changes.
And if you really want to give your imagination a workout, try to imaging this gigantic wall when it was plain and blank, until, eventually, a few windows began appearing, evolving over time into what it is today. If there is a single mural you should see when you visit Lyon, this is it.
103 Cours Lafayette, Lyon 2
The late Paul Bocuse, the most hallowed name in French gastronomy, has left his mark all over Lyon, including in the covered market, Les Halles Paul Bocuse, that bear his name.
To honour Bocuse, a fresco was painted just across from Les Halles and fills the entire side of a building. At night, the lights come on and shine on the words "Thank You Monsieur Paul", which turn into a nine-minute video!
Bocuse is so popular he also appears in the delightful "Fresque des Lyonnais" I mentioned above.
18 Cours Gambetta, Lyon 7
This fun fresco looks like the entrance to a cinema — except it is a trompe l'oeil. The mural shows a film being shot on a movie set, as well scenes from the first film ever made. Additional nostalgia is provided by portraying one of the Lumière brothers and movie posters from past films. A slice of cinematic history in Lyon...
The following four famous mural paintings are part of the walls of Gerland, part of Lyon's 7th arrondissement, or district.
106 avenue Jean Jaurès, Lyon 7
Not to be confused with the plant-based fresco also called Lumière (clearly a popular name in Lyon), this particular fresco is a dazzling creation that predicts Lyon in 2046. Beautiful during the day, it is at night that it comes into its own with futuristic lights.
19-25 rue Georges Gouy, Lyon 7
An illuminated triptych represents Mexico's history as seen by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, considered the father of large-scale murals.
The story starts with Aztec and Mayan civilizations, then traces the Spanish military conquest, the enslavement of indigenous people and modern social change in Mexico. Here's a 360° view of it!
16-18 rue Pierre de Coubertin, Lyon 7
This mural covers the entire side of a building and highlights the neighbourhood's activities — including France's 1998 World Cup victory.
This group of frescoes is interesting not only because of their quality but because they highlight the typical approach to these urban murals — consultation with local communities. These are produced on low-rent housing estates, known as HLM, or Habitations à Loyer Modéré.
A most unusual outdoor complex, this urban museum has 30 frescoes by CitéCréation (the cooperative which designed and painted some of Lyon's most famous murals) that highlight the futuristic vision of Tony Garnier, a renowned architect and urban planner.
The frescoes illustrate five continents and include paintings by artists from Cote d'Ivoire, Egypt, India, Russia and the United States. These too are painted on the walls of low-rent housing and were designed by Garnier as part of his utopic vision for a modern industrial society.
But that was in the early 20th century and by the 1980s the area had deteriorated. Residents called in CitéCréation, with a plea for help and a desire to rehabilitate the neighbourhood. It worked and the mural is now the pride of locals.
Lyon may be known around the world as the capital of gastronomy, but it now wears a second capital city hat: the capital of murals.
Frescoes as an art form have been around as long as we humans — think prehistoric cave paintings, in which our ancestors decorated the walls of their rock dwellings or shelters. In a way, today's mural artists see themselves as their descendants.
It seems we all like to paint our walls: Egyptians painted the walls of their tombs, Romans decorated their temple walls, clerics in the Middle Ages adorned their churches (many people were illiterate and the drawings were like stories that helped pass on knowledge).
The particular technique known as trompe l'oeil — or deceiving the eye — became hugely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Like most things that fall in and out of fashion, they disappeared for a while but resurfaced with a vengeance in the late 20th century.
It all seems to have started in 1978, when a group of nine students rebelled against the School of Fine Arts' elitism and minimalism — they wanted to get their hands dirty and do art for the people. They left school and created a popular association, Populart, to bring art to poorer neighbourhoods.
They could not have chosen a better time: Lyon back then was dark and dingy, a bit like Bordeaux before its facelift. Pretty much the city's only claim to fame was Paul Bocuse.
On a study trip to Mexico, inspired by the work of Diego Rivera, the students learned to paint monumental murals based on people's stories and experiences.
Later, back in France, they began to decorate buildings both in poorer parts of town but also right in the center and in wealthier neighbourhoods. And that's how, in 1986, the CitéCréation mural painting cooperative was born.
Their first creation, the Mur des Canuts, was quickly followed by the Fresque des Lyonnais. Eventually, they mapped a path through the frescoes, creating the first ever "wall mural tour", which has become one of Lyon's top visitor draws (you can use the map above to help guide you).
Their work was so successful the cooperative began receiving commercial contracts and was hired to paint murals all over town for businesses.
But when it came to residential frescoes, ideology trumped commerce: local residents would always be involved in the planning of a mural; they had to live with the designs, after all.
This is, peculiarly, art that doesn't come from an artist's inner vision and inspiration. Instead, the inspiration is from the outside, from community needs and collective memory. Artists work with outside materials that don't belong to them — people's homes — and what counts for them is to be at the service of a community. They also meet extensively with local people to understand their wants and needs.
An important factor: the coop employs as many women as men. It's in their statutes... And 80% of the artists are women.
The coop has now become international and creates murals all over the world. It even opened the world's first mural art school in Lyon, which teaches not only art techniques but insists on integrating them into the social fabric of the community. This work has paved the way for other mural creators, who have also opened their business in Lyon, turning former drab corners of the city into works of art.
While you're visiting the sights of Lyon, please don't miss Fourvière Hill – this is where you'll find a stunning basilica, fabulous Roman ruins, and the best view of Lyon from above.