As I step onto the footpath, I'm almost bowled over by a quartet of men trying to recreate one of Lyon's painted walls, a fresco of people strolling along the busy Rue de la Martiniere. Like the Beatles' Abbey Road cover, the mural draws bystanders in, begging them to become a part of the art work and in turn, the city's history.
Unlike other street art, Lyon's walls depict residents going about their daily activities – everything from a young pregnant woman heading to violin practice, to a scarf-clad grandmother pulling a shopping cart. Painted in tromp-l'oeil style, a whimsical technique that creates an optical illusion of depth, the city is full of these "tricks of the eye".
"Each portrait represents a real person," our local guide Annabelle says. "Their painted presence brings truth and tenderness to our city."
Painted in collaboration with CiteCreation, a movement launched by a Lyonnaise artists' co-operative in 1978, Lyon now boasts 150 murals. "As well as ordinary locals, the walls also depict our famous chefs, soccer players, scientists and filmmakers," says Annabelle, pointing to a mural of the Lumiere brothers, local lads who pioneered film screening in 1895.
Lyon marks the geographical midway point of our 11-day Burgundy and Provence cruise aboard the 128-passenger Avalon Poetry II, a luxury river cruise ship launched in 2014, part of Avalon Waterways' fleet. Finding the open-air gallery is as delightful as it is unexpected.
We had started with a coach tour for an orientation lap of the city; taking in Lyon's mini-me version of an Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, and the historic silk-weaving district before striking out on foot with Annabelle.
Without Annabelle's insights I might not have picked up on Lyon's dual personality, said to be a product of its position at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers. "Where the Rhone is strong and masculine, the Saone is feminine and pretty," Annabelle says. "This gives our city two separate identities."
Known for its commanding Renaissance and Roman architecture, Lyon has long had a softer, more creative side – from its heady silk weaving days, the birth of cinema in the late 19th century, its rise as France's gastronomic capital, and finally, in 2008, its listing as a UNESCO City of Media Arts.
Today Lyon is taking its characteristic art de vivre or "art of living" to a new, contemporary level with the revitalisation of waterside districts such as La Confluence (heralded by the spaceship-like Musee des Confluences) and edgy architectural statements replacing industrial wastelands. A year-long calendar of cultural events includes musical concerts at the Roman Theatre, a winter Festival of Lights and the Lyon Film Festival.
The painting of the Lumiere brothers is part of a seven-storey mural – Fresque des Lyonnais – showing 31 famous people from Lyon. While superchef Paul Bocuse appears to stand at the doorway of a restaurant, the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, leans against a balcony alongside his golden-haired child. At street level literary columnist Bernard Pivot steps out from a Gibert Joseph bookshop.
"The movement began as a way of bringing pride and beauty to poorer parts of the city," Annabelle says. "Today CiteCreation raises money through private partners, grants and subsidies."
We cross a bridge over the Saone, finding ourselves in the tangle of the old town, where Annabelle points out her favourite sweet shop, Saint Jean Delices, and the nearby Museum of Miniatures and Cinema. There's a breeze coming from the river and the aroma of fresh waffles wafts from every corner, while on all sides hunchbacked buildings lean towards each other like gossiping friends.
Annabelle pushes on a door, all arched sandstone and peeling paintwork. At first I assume it's another tromp-l'oeil painting, until the door creaks open and we step inside a dark corridor. Known as traboules, hundreds of secret covered passages still worm through the old town, remnants of the days when silk workers needed to make their way to the riverside markets. While some are down-to-earth and homely, others are grand, boasting ornate staircases and chandeliers. "There is more to these passageways than meets the eye," says Isabelle, a statement that could represent Lyon as a whole.
Cathay Pacific flies frequently from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to key European gateways, including arrival and departure points for Avalon Waterways' cruises. See cathaypacific.com.au.
Avalon Waterways' 11-day itinerary between Cote d'Azur and Paris starts at $5509 a person twin share in a deluxe stateroom (lower deck), including one night on the Cote d'Azur, a seven-night cruise on the Rhone and Saone rivers and two nights in Paris. A three-hour sightseeing tour of Lyon is included. Phone 1 300 230 234. See avalonwaterways.com.au
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Avalon Waterways.