27 September 2013

Lyonnais mystery no. 1

An odd collection of buildings on the corner of Avenue Rockefeller and Boulevard Pinel in the 8th arrondissement presented me with my first Lyonnais mystery. Squat, rectangular and almost windowless, these three strange, flat-roofed buildings seemed so out of place, so different from the surrounding architecture, that they immediately drew my attention. 

 I'd first noticed them when I looked out of my hotel window. There, at the far end of a fenced-off sort of no-man's-land of tall grass next to the Grand Mosque in the Quartier Mermoz, stood three tall buildings, each about the length and breadth of a football pitch and two floors high, with what looked like watchtowers and aerial walkways running between them. Each was very different in its own way, though they clearly belonged together. But what the Guignol could they be?

As soon as I could, I went to explore. Sure enough, there was just one access point to these buildings; a short, nondescript driveway leading to a plain metal gate, though the latter was too high to scale. No sign - either by the gate or on the buildings - gave any hint of what lay beyond.

On closer inspection, I found out that the walls of these hefty structures were not featureless at all. The first had what looked like tombstones with carved lion's heads embedded high up its sheer wall. But, as if someone had decided this was too serious and needed lightening up, the side walls were - for want of a better word - decorated with red, orange and green tiled squares arranged in a loose pattern.

The second building was clearly newer, and its walls had a sort of wavy pattern on them. Both it and the last building nearest to the mosque were slightly raised off the ground, leading me to believe that they might contained a semi-submerged car park, though there were no cars to be seen.

Strangest of all, it appeared as if the roofs had plants growing on them

Careful to choose people who really looked like they lived in the area, I asked passers-by if they knew what the strange buildings were. They all shrugged their shoulders. One thought it might be a former prison, which would explain the watch towers. Several others suggested it was a old fortress. Another thought they were bunkers left over from World War II. The structures certainly looked long-abandoned. But nobody really knew. It might have been a training camp for secret agents, for all anyone could say.
Close-up of one of the embedded "tombstones"
Not wanting to look foolish by going to the town hall and asking to see the cadastral plans, I was left with my mystery. For months. Until I stumbled on the solution quite by chance while reading Régis Neyret and Jean-Luc Chavent's informative - if somewhat dated - 'Lyon Méconnu 3: L'Est de Lyon et Villeurbanne'.

The truth, it turns out, is less DGSE than CGE. And far from being abandoned, the three "buildings" - erected in 1896, 1914 and 1964 respectively - form the Reservoir du Vinatier, which serves much of Lyon with drinking water. Each consists of two cisterns, and together they hold a total of 74 million litres of water.

The only surprising element is the thickness of the walls (at least in the oldest of them): to hold that amount of water, they are almost 6 metres thick at the base, tapering to a comparatively slender 2.5 metres at the top.

The inside of one of the cisterns during its annual clean-out

Locate the Reservoir du Vinatier on Google Maps

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