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Learning to love Lyon
William Yeoman Cityscape on the river bank

I'm sitting in a sports bar in France's gastronomic capital, Lyon, munching on chips, stale bread and limp salad. At least the small bird I'm throwing crumbs to is excited.

The problem is it's been pouring with rain since I arrived last night. And it's very, very cold. So much for spring. Anyway, I wasn't going to engage in the possibly pointless exercise of looking for a vegetarian restaurant and so ducked in here. A mistake, but there it is.

Pity about the weather, though. I was looking forward to roaming the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon, inspecting the Renaissance architecture, or wandering about the picturesque Roman ruins near the imposing Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere which watches over the city.

OK, I've had enough of these pommes frites. Leaving my intrepid feathered friend a pile of crumbs, I pay the bill and hail a taxi to take me to the Fourviere basilica.

Built between 1872 and 1884 on the site of an old Roman forum, Fourviere is another one of those ex-voto basilicas so common throughout Europe. In this case the basilica was dedicated to the Virgin Mary as a small thank you for sparing the city's inhabitants from a Europe-wide cholera epidemic. Not only that, Mary was also credited with halting the advance of the Prussian forces during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

The rain likewise halting the advance of tourists, I am able to wander unimpeded throughout the basilica's outrageously ornate and cavernous interior, almost blinded by the profusion of gilding, coloured mosaics and stained-glass windows.

To recover I visit the attached Museum of Sacred Art, the current exhibition of which illustrates the passion, death and resurrection of Christ - with those religious paintings and sculptures of dark, austere beauty proving conducive to meditation on the frailty and sanctity of life.

There's no point even contemplating a visit to the nearby Roman ruins. I decide to drop into the famous Museum of Textiles and Decorative Arts in Rue de la Charite, not far from Saint Francois de Sales.

As I walk down the Rue de la Charite, I notice a purveyor of artists' supplies. Entertaining a notion that I might find a quiet hour and enough sunshine to make some watercolour sketches, I buy a Winsor and Newton half-pan paintbox and a sketch block. It's an insane idea, with the unrelenting rain and the little time I have remaining already having prevented me even taking a decent photograph. Let's just call it retail therapy.

Lyon is associated not just with food but with textiles in general and the silk industry in particular. The Musee des Tissus et des Arts Decoratif was opened in 1864 and is now housed in the former Governor's residence. As I slowly walk through room after room, I am astonished by the richness and beauty of the textiles and tapestries (the museum owns more than two million examples), which come from around the world and date from 2500BC to today. Especially noticeable is the difference in the quality of craftsmanship between the Persian textiles and Western European examples, which sometimes seem primitive by comparison. The Decorative Arts Museum is something else entirely, and given its size and complexity, I find myself walking rather more briskly through room after room - I am not only astonished but quite overwhelmed by the richness and beauty of this authentic 18th-century residence's paintings, tapestries, carpets, silverware, clocks, furniture and Italian majolica.

In need of more retail therapy, I buy a silk tie designed by Raoul Dufy for Bianchini Ferier of Paris.

And that last evening in Lyon, I finally find the best vegetarian meal I've eaten since I breakfasted at the Sofitel's brilliant Les Trois Dome restaurant, at the Brasserie Le Sud. It might still be raining.

But not in my heart.

  • fact file *

·Singapore Airlines operates four flights daily between Perth and Singapore with a daily connection available to Paris. Return economy fares from Perth to Paris start from $2215. For details of special offers phone 13 10 11 or visit singaporeair.com.

·Railbookers offer tailor-made holidays to more than 176 European destinations and beyond. One of their popular suggested itineraries combines the German cities of Cologne, Munich and Berlin. Prices start from $765 per person including six nights accommodation in central hotels with breakfast daily, all train connections and seat reservations. Phone 1300 971 578 or go to railbookers.com.au for more details.

·Saint-Francois de Sales is at 11, Rue Auguste Comte, Lyon and is open from 9am-noon and 3-6pm Monday to Saturday. Services are held at 8.30am Monday-Friday, 6pm Saturday and 9.30 and 11am Sunday.

·The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere is open 7am-7pm daily at 8 Place de Fourviere, 69005

Lyon.

·The Museum of Textiles and Decorative Arts is open at 34 rue de la Charite F-69002 from 10am-5.30pm daily except Mondays and public holidays. musee-des-tissus.com.

·For full details on the five-star Sofitel Lyon Bellecour hotel, visit sofitel.com/lyon.

William Yeoman travelled to France as a guest of Singapore Airlines and Railbookers.