I’m just going to pause here. Right here, in the courtyard of this 19th century convent, now home to La Fourvière Hotel.
It is beautifully quiet. There’s just my partner and I, and the warm evening air. Beneath the soft, comforting glow of the cloister’s arches dance the hypnotic shadows of diners and the calm to-ing and fro-ing of attentive waiters. I can’t quite make out their faces, but I can tell from the joyful flinging-back of heads, a casual arm-over-her shoulder embrace, that this is a room of smiling people. Guests relishing their evening, happy to be here, and nowhere else.
La Fourvière has hosted almost two hundred years of history. A convent, a boarding school for young ladies, a home for the wounded during World War I. Decade after decade of laughter shared and tears shed, of love, of learning, of unimaginable loss and pain. A place now transformed into a hotel that I feel privileged to be experiencing.
Because you don’t just stay at Fourvière Hotel - you really do experience it.
The experience begins, not in my current courtyard spot, nor in the fabulously elaborate chapel reception, but as you approach the hotel. It stands, grandly, at the foot of the Basilica, on Fourvière Hill, a hill home to so many religious institutions that it’s known by locals as ‘Praying Hill’. It is an intriguing building – one that defies categorisation. A former convent, yes, but its presence oozes an antithesis of modernity - a building that raises as many questions as it answers.
I defy you to step inside La Fourvière and not utter a “wow” - your echo ping-pong-ing its way around the intricate domed ceiling of the faithfully-restored chapel. This chapel is now the most ornate reception, with the most delightful of staff, there to greet you with your key, a map of Lyon, and of the convent (if your sense of direction is anything like mine this will be much-needed).
Until I was handed the key to our room, I had no idea who Pierre Marie Bossan was. Indeed, covering the entire expanse of the doors to each of the seventy-five rooms is a name, a date, and a monochrome face. Each one a face, and mind, that’s influenced the history of Lyon, shaping the city and its people, and in some cases, the world.
Monsieur Bossan (1814 – 1888), it turns out, became one of the most famous ecclesiastical architects of his time, this very hotel a product of his vision. I know this because a summary of his life and achievements is printed on the back of the door. Each room a little piece of Lyon’s history. What a superb idea.
Cells, classics or suites are your rooms of choice. Our first-floor suite could have merrily accommodated an entire family. Two bedrooms, one with a huge television, and an equally impressive sofa, with window after window of fabulous view, the other small and cosy. Two bathrooms (one spilling with sunshine, overlooking the pool and patio below), a separate toilet, and ample storage space. I could easily have been persuaded to move in here.
As you climb the floors, the windows shrink in size, yet, far from feeling claustrophobic, you’re instead thrust even further into La Fourvière’s past. Who strolled through these corridors? How many people ducked down to see out of this very window into this very courtyard? The attic floor with its petite windows is decorated top-to-toe with a map of Lyon from 1847. Here you’ll also find the Grenier, an atmospheric den, home to Le Théâtre Guignol, a traditional puppet theatre. It’s a past you’re not allowed to escape from. And I love it.
Outside you can indulge in sun-kissed petanque, a spot of reading in the courtyard, or a refreshing dip in the alluringly-shaped pool. Inside there’s a whirlpool bath, ice fountain, hammam, and shower with so many exotic settings that for a minute or two (with a bit of imagination) you’re drenched by a rare Caribbean downpour or a rainforest deluge.
On the subject of imagination, this is something found here in abundance. Take the hotel’s restaurant, Les Téléphones, for example. Next to each table in the long, elongated, stretch of a room, there’s a vintage phone to place your order. Although, I must admit, I embraced the more traditional face-to-face approach – largely because the staff here are so exceedingly polite and helpful that I wanted to make the most of any excuse to chat. A bottle of 2015 Bourgogne was recommended by the sommelier, and our absolute delight of a waiter indulged us with his top Téléphones dining tips.
To begin, we tucked into a local dish of ‘cervelle de canut’ – cottage cheese mixed with chives, garlic and white wine, served with squid ink bread and smoked salmon, et lobster with basil, tomato and ginger gazpacho with kaffir lime whipped cream. For our mains we savoured each mouthful of the monkfish and artichoke broth with fennel, potatoes, saffron cockles, sweet potatoes and ginger aioli. The roasted rack of lamb with aubergine and cumin caviar and shiitake mushrooms was equally delicious. Light vanilla pancakes with orange salad and a so-called ‘trapezian éclair’ with cacao sorbet rounded off a scrumptiously satisfying meal that I didn’t want to end.
Each dish was beautifully presented by the chef, who emerged from that ever-the-enigma hotel kitchen for a personal ‘bienvenue’. Here was a man proud of his cooking, and proud of the hotel. And rightly so.
Breakfast at La Fourvière is a delectable buffet, urging you to eat an entire week’s worth of calories in one sitting. Jars of dried apricots, nuts, raisins, cereals, crispy baguettes, fruit salads bursting with colour, yogurts, meats, pancakes, hot chocolate… All enjoyed at your sunshine table overlooking the courtyard. Yes, Lyon, this will do very nicely indeed.
La Fourvière may have 4 stars, but, for me, the staff’s service make it a 5. Here is a team dedicated to bringing not only the building’s past to life, but the history of Lyon to life. A city that the hotel overlooks, not in pompous grandeur, but instead bathed in a protective pride.
So, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to get back to my moment. Right here, in the courtyard of this 19th century convent, now home to La Fourvière Hotel.
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