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In 43 BC the Roman military colony of Lugdunum (Lyon) was founded. It served as the capital of the Roman territories known as the Three Gauls under Augustus, but had to wait until the 15th century for fame and fortune to strike: with the arrival of moveable type in 1473, Lyon became one of Europe’s foremost publishing centres, with several hundred resident printers contributing to the city’s extraordinary prosperity. By the mid-18th century, the city’s influential silk weavers – 40% of Lyon’s total workforce – transformed what had already been a textiles centre since the 15th century into the silk-weaving capital of Europe.

A century on, Lyon had tripled in size, boasting a population of 340,000 people and 100,000 weaving looms (40,000 of which were in the hilltop neighbourhood of Croix Rousse). But life at the loom was hard. A weaver spent 14 to 20 hours a day hunched over his loom breathing in silk dust; two-thirds were illiterate; and everyone was paid a pittance. Strikes in 1830–31 and again in 1834 only resulted in the death of several hundred weavers.

In 1870 the Lumière family moved to Lyon, and sons Louis and Auguste shot the first moving picture – of workers exiting their father’s photographic factory – in 1895. Cinema’s birth was an instant winner.

During WWII some 4000 people (including Resistance leader Jean Moulin) were killed and 7500 others deported to Nazi death camps under Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (1913–91), the ‘butcher of Lyon’. Nazi rule ended in September 1944, when the retreating Germans blew up all but two of Lyon’s 28 bridges. A Lyon court sentenced Barbie to death in absentia in 1952 and again in 1954, but it was not until 1987, following his extradition from Bolivia (where he had settled after WWII), that he was tried in person in Lyon for crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. The 72-year-old died in prison three years later.

The international police agency Interpol has been headquartered in Lyon since 1989. Urban violence on central place Bellecour in late 2005 served as a poignant reminder that Lyon is not as picture-postcard perfect as its trim city centre suggests. Impoverished suburbs with substantial immigrant populations are as much a fact of life in Lyon as in other large French cities.